People like me really shouldn't complain about anything, at least not at the personal level. I've been extraordinarily lucky from birth, and most misfortunes I've experienced have been self-inflicted. That's one of the reasons Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday; though I'm not religious, I like the idea of a day set aside to be thankful for one's blessings and grateful for friends, family, and random acts of good fortune. As in past years, today I offer up this year's Top 10 Things I Am Thankful for This Year (Foreign Policy division).
1. The Iranian nuclear deal. Everyone should be thankful for this because the alternative is an unconstrained Iranian program or another unnecessary Middle Eastern war. The P5+1 countries have a long way to go to reach the finish line, but the interim agreement was a victory for sensible people and a defeat for threat-mongering hawks. One must always be grateful for that.
2. Vladimir Putin. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad he's not running my country, and I usually find his behavior and decisions rather thuggish and heavy-handed. (Remember the Pussy Riot affair?) And were I Ukrainian, I'm certain that gratitude wouldn't be the emotion I'd be feeling toward Moscow right now. But let's give credit where it's due: We should be thankful that President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threw Barack Obama's floundering administration a lifeline on Syria.
3. International institutions. You might be surprised to see a realist like me express gratitude for this, but the cold, hard fact is that we wouldn't have been able to start disarming Syria's chemical weapons stockpile if a set of institutions (including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ) wasn't already in existence and ready to go to work. Yes, I still think all the attention focused of chemical weapons was misplaced -- far more people were killed by conventional weapons -- but it's not like I'm sorry that Bashar al-Assad's arsenal is being eliminated. And maybe, just maybe, the chemical deal will ease the way for some diplomacy that can end Syria's brutal civil war.
4. Edward Snowden. My conservative father will be upset with me for this one, but I am still grateful to know what the National Security Agency was doing with my tax dollars. Clandestine organizations of all types tend to spin out of control until they are caught, and with luck the experience of getting caught will induce a certain sobriety, just as the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s taught the CIA that its follies could be exposed. None of this would have happened without Snowden, and I think the revelation is worth the embarrassment it has caused and the tensions with some allies of the United States. (My gratitude here also extends to the people who made this possible: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and the Guardian).
5. AIPAC, CUFI, ZOA, the ADL, WINEP, and the rest of the Israel lobby. Of course I'm not grateful that these groups continue to have disproportionate influence on America's Middle East policy, but it is hard not to be appreciative that 1) their activities are increasingly overt and understood, 2) they failed on Syria and are failing thus far on Iran, and 3) their activities and influence on other issues continue to prove my co-author and me right.
6. Mario Draghi. I still don't know whether the euro will survive -- and neither do you -- and it is hard to be optimistic that Europe will return to robust economic health anytime soon. But absent Draghi's calm but herculean efforts, Europe would almost certainly be in worse shape today. A nod of thanksgiving thanks across the ocean is deserved.
7. Technology. Each year I feel like I am clinging to the technological frontier with my fingernails, and if I'm honest I'll admit that I'm actually just falling further behind. But what technology now makes possible is still remarkable: Our ability to do our work, maintain friendships, learn at a distance, share music and literature, and do a thousand other activities is being transformed on a daily basis. This process is not without its obvious downsides, and the digital divide is just another manifestation of pervasive inequality. But increasing mastery of science and technology is both a source of great human empowerment and pleasure; it is also the best hope we have of surmounting the challenges that are rushing at us in the decades ahead.
8. Dissidents. Foreign-policy makers are a pretty conservative lot, especially in the developed world. It's comfortable staying within the consensus, and that's certainly better for most wonkish careers. But I am grateful for the boat-rockers, muckrakers, edgy provocateurs, and all the other people in the United States and abroad who see things differently and aren't afraid to take on entrenched authority and stale dogmas. Whether it is a Saudi woman behind the wheel, a dissident artist in China, an "activist journalist" in the West, or that rare politician who says what he or she thinks as opposed to what donors or focus groups mandate, the people outside the mainstream are a critical engine of human progress.
9. Humility. A lot of grandiose ambitions have been brought to Earth over the past decade. The United States didn't transform the Middle East at the point of a gun. The euro now looks like one of the great missteps of the past 50 years. Turkey's "zero problems" diplomacy didn't make it the linchpin of a new regional order. India's rise to great-power status has stalled, and China's emergence as a peer competitor is facing strong headwinds too. The dreams of the Arab Spring have withered in the face of an authoritarian backlash. Because ambitious idealism tends to get a lot of people killed, I'm thankful that some of these unrealistic visions have been discredited, and I hope world leaders will focus their attention on what is necessary and possible, instead of on over\ambitious fantasies. Surtout, pas trop de zele.
10. Readers. If a blogger posts on the web and no one logs on, does it make any noise? Of course not. As in previously years, my thanks to all of you who take the time to read this site and to all who tweet, kibitz, or otherwise engage with me and my colleagues at FP and beyond. I hope your past year has given you plenty to be thankful for too and that the next year brings you even more. Happy Thanksgiving!
Photo: Andrew Kelly/Getty Images
The U.S. government shutdown got me thinking: How much of the foreign policy-related activity of the federal government is truly necessary? If you waved a magic wand and cut the number of people working on foreign-policy issues in half, would it really make a difference? The idea makes me a bit uncomfortable because I have a lot of respect for many of the people who work on foreign policy in the executive branch, the armed services, the intel community, and on Capitol Hill. It seems naive to think the United States could run as effective a foreign policy with fewer people, even though the country already has a lot more people doing this work than other countries do and doesn't seem to be getting better results.
More importantly, how much of what they do is strictly necessary? One acquaintance with recent government experience told me that most of what he did was preparing his principal for the next international summit meeting. As soon as one meeting was over, it was time to start drafting talking points for the next one, usually starting with whatever the U.S. representative had said at the last one. He was so busy cranking out routine guidance that he never had time to think about broader issues or to consider whether the approach the United States was taking at all these meetings was the right one. And none of the gatherings for which he was assiduously preparing were truly momentous events like the 1919 Paris Peace Conference or were even a Camp David summit; they were just the typical business-as-usual international confabs that have become de rigueur in this globalized world.
Similarly, think of all the massive government reports that each administration has to spew out these days, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review; its State Department analogue, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; or even the various National Security Strategy documents that presidents are required to produce. Pundits subject these reports to Talmudic readings in the hopes of discerning what the administration is "really thinking" (and I'm as guilty of this practice as anyone), but how important are they really? Thousands of staff hours and intragovernmental wrangling goes into assembling these snooze-fests, but it's hard for an outsider like me (and many insiders as well) to see what positive impact they have on America's global position or the quality of U.S. foreign policy itself.
Instead, as America's foreign-policy apparatus has grown over the years, the main effect is to multiply the number of constituencies that need to be consulted before anything gets done. Hence the endless parade of interagency meetings, memoranda, leaks, back-channel dialogues, etc., which serve to keep public servants busy. The more people doing foreign policy, it seems, the more meetings that have to be held and the more paper or emails that have to be sent. But to what end?
And when you think about it, a lot of the big foreign-policy innovations of the past 40-plus years weren't produced by a churning bureaucracy, but by small groups of people with a creative vision. Think of the Marshall Plan, conceived and designed by a handful of folks in the State Department's policy planning staff. Or Richard Nixon's opening to China, which hardly anyone knew about until it occurred. Not all these innovations were successes, of course: Tom Friedman once told Haaretz that the Iraq war would not have happened if someone had sent about 25 people in Washington to a desert island in 2001. Even today, one gets the impression that Barack Obama's foreign policy isn't being handled by the formal machinery of government, but by a small circle of inner advisors and maybe just Obama and his speechwriter.
In some areas of government, manpower matters because public agencies have to provide direct services to the citizenry. If you cut the number of people working for the IRS, it would take longer to get your tax refund processed. If there were fewer people working on visas and passport applications, it would take longer for us to get them. If we cut the number of park rangers, you'd find visiting a national park (once they reopened) less safe or enjoyable. And other things being equal, reducing the number of people in the armed services reduces a country's ability to fight effectively, especially over the long term.
But many other elements of foreign policy aren't like that; it simply isn't obvious that adding more people to the National Security Council, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Agency, or even the State Department really generates smarter, more coherent, or more well-chosen strategies for dealing with the rest of the world. And getting rid of some of the endless paperwork and unread reports that these agencies produce might actually give public servants more time to think about what they are doing and to ponder whether it makes sense.
To repeat: This post is not intended to disparage the work of public officials. Despite what I've said above, I put more value on what they do than on a lot of the machinations of firms like Goldman Sachs. But I can't help but wonder whether the United States would do just about as well if it had fewer cooks in the kitchen, but representing a wider range of views.
Photo: Melanie Acevedo via Getty Images
Now that the flap over Syria has been settled (not really...), I guess it's safe for me to get back on the road. Translated: I'm off to Brazil this evening to give a series of lectures at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. It is my first visit to Brazil, and I'm looking forward to seeing these two cities and hearing what the Brazilians think about Obama, U.S. foreign policy, the NSA (!), and the future of world politics (among other things). Blogging will be sporadic at best until I return next week.
As for Syria, one should not be churlish and cavil about the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough that gets Obama and Kerry out of the corner they painted themselves into. The path by which we got here wasn't pretty, but as Lefty Gomez said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." Or as Bismarck famously noted, there's a special providence that "looks after drunkards, fools, and the United States of America." We've some ways to go before the chemical weapons issue is resolved, of course, and this is at best a first step toward ending the grinding civil war in Syria, but realists take what we can get in this imperfect world. Right now, this deal looks better than bombing Syria to no good purpose or having Congress in visible revolt against Obama's handling of the whole matter.
Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
If you're anything like me, you find it hard to keep up with the Niagara of events and information with which you're deluged every day. It used to be a challenge just to keep track of a half-dozen or so professional journals in my field/subfield; now there's that plus online pubs, bloggers, twitter feeds, and the various books I'm reading in the course of my research. Not to mention reviewing manuscripts, writing tenure letters, and other professional responsibilities. And then there are the "events, dear boy, events" in the real world that we all try to comprehend.
So today, a few short takes on things I wish I had time to comment on at greater length.
1. Iran. I've blogged about this a lot over the past five years, but isn't it crashingly obvious that we have a golden opportunity to explore a real rapprochement with Iran? Frankly, if we don't pursue that possibility energetically, creatively and sincerely, it will be the most revealing example of foreign policy incompetence that I can imagine.
2. Putin, Snowden and the aborted summit. I can understand why the Obama administration was annoyed with Russia for not turning over Snowden, but did they really expect Moscow to passively fall in line? Would we have turned over someone who had sent similar secrets about the KGB to the Guardian and then somehow gotten themselves to Dulles Airport? I rather doubt it. The best reason to cancel the summit, however, was the fact that nothing was likely to be achieved there.
3. More good news on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks: Netanyahu gets them off on positive note by expanding government subsidies to settlements in the occupied territories. Next step: John Kerry and Martin Indyk will hint -- ever, ever, so gently -- that this decision was "not helpful."
4. The Ride of the Valkyries: I find it interesting that some of the most hawkish voices on Syria have been women (e.g., Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton). This doesn't necessarily contradict Micah Zenko's observation that women are generally less disposed to using force (or at least drones), but it's still curious. My hypothesis: it has nothing to do with gender, but instead reflects their lack of knowledge about military operations and a tendency to downplay the unintended consequences of military action. (And no: John McCain's support for aggressive action doesn't contradict my point, because McCain's own operational knowledge seems pretty paltry and his past military judgments have been questionable).
5. The sequester: There's no doubt in my mind that the sequester is a terrible way to try to trim defense spending. But given the entrenched interests that fight like tigers to preserve every defense nickel, I'm not sure there was any other way to do it. And I console myself with the thought that the U.S. will still be spending vastly more than any other single country on national security. Now if we could just connect that process to a rethinking of our overseas commitments (cue The Impossible Dream).
6. America the Skittish (Round 2). The terror plot alert that shut down 19 US diplomatic facilities was certainly conveniently timed, wasn't it? Just when Congress was starting to show some backbone on the issue of NSA spying, we get a report of some new "chatter" (or maybe an Al Qaeda "conference call") that justified a vaguely scary new alert. But what really bugs me is the message that this sends: that the mighty United States can be spooked into closing its doors with remarkable ease. We want to run the world, it seems, but we want to be able to do it without taking any risks at all. And it makes me question (once again) the effectiveness of the whole "war on terror." If we've been pursuing the right policies for the past twelve years, why are these guys still so dangerous?
7. "The New Newt" (2013 version). Newt Gingrich isn't an important politician anymore, as his lackluster performance in the last GOP primary season proved. But he's still a world-class egomaniac, and like many politicians, he can't stop seeking the spotlight. He grabbed it again this week by suggesting that the neoconservative foreign policy that he used to champion might have been ... well ... stupid, and that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might have some good ideas on that subject. This event is interesting because Gingrich is nothing if not an opportunistic weathervane, and it tells you that he thinks that calls for a more restrained foreign and military policy would find a lot of takers out there in the body politic. As I suggested once before, all it will take to launch a serious debate on this issue is an articulate champion who isn't saddled with a lot of unrelated baggage. Rand Paul may or may not be that person (and I fervently hope Ted Cruz isn't) but he/she is bound to show up eventually.
8. The Death of IR theory: Noah Smith and Paul Krugman had some interesting blog posts up on the "death of theory" in economics. This is as good an excuse as any to remind folks that John Mearsheimer and I have written an article on similar trends in international relations, which will be out in the European Journal of IR next month. Plus, stay tuned for an upcoming symposium on the broader topic of the future of IR theory at Duck of Minerva website.
9. Anarchy, the State, and Dystopia. If nothing else, the events in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remind us all that the only thing worse than a bad state is no effective state at all. For insightful commentary, see Robert Kaplan's reflections on the late Samuel Huntington's best book, Political Order in Changing Societies.
10. I'm off to California tomorrow for a family wedding (congratulations, Lindsay and Bobby!), so blogging will be light-to-nonexistent through the weekend. But you've got the rest of FP (and a zillion other bloggers) to tide you over, and nobody's commentary is indispensable.
We tend to think that scholars embrace particular theoretical orientations simply because they conclude that certain theories fit the empirical evidence better than others do. But if we're honest, we have to admit that almost all social science theories aren't especially powerful and that the available evidence for assessing them is often ambiguous or mixed. If that is the case, other factors are likely to play a role in determining which theories we believe.
In particular, is it possible that theoretical affinities reflect at least in part each individual's basic personality traits or worldview? Consider that the most prominent realist scholars are all intellectual loners, in the sense that the overwhelming majority of their scholarship is sole-authored. I am thinking here of scholars such as E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Krasner (and myself, for that matter). One might add George Kennan or Henry Kissinger to that list, as both are normally thought of as "realists" and virtually all their published work appears with a single byline. Although some of these scholars occasionally wrote with others and were important providers of various collective goods, they generally worked alone. (My joint work with Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby is an exception that does not disprove the rule, as it was not a work of IR theory and working together was essential for withstanding the firestorm of vituperation we knew we would and did receive). In short, realists appear to view the academic enterprise as a "self-help" system, where each scholar toils on his or her own and where scholarly standing is mostly the result of individual achievement. You know: kind of the way realists think about international politics.
By contrast, many of the most prominent liberal scholars have been enthusiastic collaborators. Think of Robert Keohane, who first came to prominence through his joint work with Joseph Nye, but who has subsequently co-authored or co-edited books and articles with a wide array of other scholars. The same is also true of Nye: Although he has written a number of books on his own, he has also collaborated with Keohane and many others over a long, prolific career. Ditto Bruce Russett, Michael Doyle, Martha Finnemore, John Ikenberry, Richard Rosecrance, Thomas Risse, and Kathryn Sikkink. Each has done important solo work, but their CVs are also full of joint publications and collaborative projects.
I can think of a few exceptions to this pattern, but it is striking how few card-carrying realists are prolific collaborators and how few liberal IR scholars are consistent lone wolves.
Let me emphasize that I am not suggesting one way of doing scholarship is superior to the other; rather, my question is whether there is a connection between one's scholarly affinities and one's personality or Weltanschauung. Scholars who emphasize interdependence and institutions in their publications also seem to be more likely to work in interdependent ways, while those who tend to emphasize anarchy, insecurity, and competition approach their own scholarly work in more zero-sum terms, wary of entangling alliances.
I am also not suggesting that personality is the only thing -- or even the main factor -- that shapes someone's theoretical preferences. Our beliefs about how the world works are also shaped by our life experiences, by whom we happened to meet in college or graduate school, by important real-world events, and even by purely instrumental incentives such as the availability of research funding. And yes: Evidence plays an important role; indeed, it can sometimes force us to rethink even our most fundamental theoretical assumptions.
Lastly, I'm not arguing that scholars who work in the liberal tradition are less ambitious, less driven, or less competitive than their realist counterparts. When it comes to professional standing, status, career advancement, etc., everyone seems to be sensitive to relative gains.
Privacy under siege here in the USA. Turmoil in Turkey. A grinding civil war in Syria. Obama and Xi making nice out in California. Bond markets queasy. The fate of the eurozone is still anyone's guess.
With so much going on, it's an awkward time to take a break from blogging, but I'm going to drop (mostly) off the grid starting tomorrow. I'm spending the next two weeks in Europe, attending conferences and seminars in France, Britain, Norway, and Crete. Not exactly a restful trip, but I'm looking forward to it anyway. I may post occasionally when connectivity allows, and I'm hoping a few guest bloggers weigh in while I'm away, but no promises.
If anyone needs to reach me, just contact the NSA. They'll probably know where I am … (just kidding … I think).
I've made this point before -- here and here -- and I suspect I'll have to make it again. But whatever you think of the outcome of yesterday's Super Bowl, the unexpected second half power outage was a small blow against U.S. power and influence.
Why? Because one of the reasons states are willing to follow the U.S. lead is their belief that we are competent: that we know what we are doing, have good judgment, and aren't going to screw up. When the power goes out in such a visible and embarrassing fashion, and in a country that still regards itself as technologically sophisticated, the rest of the world is entitled to nod and say: "Hmmm ... maybe those Americans aren't so skillful after all."
Or maybe we've just spent too much money building airbases in far-flung corners of the world, and not enough on infrastructure -- like power grids -- here at home.
P.S. The other lesson of the Super Bowl is that strategy matters. As in: the abysmal play-calling by the 49ers when they had first-and-goal inside the ten yard line, trailing by less than a touchdown. Four dumb plays, and the Ravens were champs. Sigh.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Here's a little fantasy for you to ponder: what if one of our senior foreign policy officials accidentally swallowed some sodium pentothal (aka "truth serum") before some public hearing or press conference, and started speaking the truth about one of those issues where prevarication, political correctness, and obfuscation normally prevail? You know: what if they started saying in public all those things that they probably believe in private? What sorts of "inconvenient truths" might suddenly get revealed?
In that spirit, here's my Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit.
#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons." U.S. presidents have talked about disarmament since the beginning of the nuclear age. According to the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, we're formally committed to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." It has even become fashionable for retired foreign policy experts like George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to call for eliminating nuclear weapons too (even though they would have strenuously opposed such actions while in office) and of course Barack Obama made some speeches about it early in his presidency. And now some folks are trying to make a big deal about Chuck Hagel's involvement with Global Zero, a respectable international campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons.
But let's get serious for a minute. Although the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile sharply since the end of the Cold War, it still has thousands either on active deployment or in reserve. Nobody in power is seriously advocating getting rid of all of them anytime soon, and even modest reductions (such as those stipulated by the most recent arms control treaty with Russia) are politically controversial. U.S. leaders have to pay lip service to the goal of total disarmament, and a few of them might privately favor it, but they understand that these weapons are the ultimate deterrent and that the United States isn't going to give them all up until it is confident that there is no conceivable scenario in which it might want them. Which means: not in my lifetime, or yours.
#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights." Presidents, diplomats, and other politicians talk about human rights all the time, and both Congress and the Executive Branch often bully small countries over their human rights performance, especially when we have other differences with them). But when human rights concerns conflict with other interests, our ethical concerns take a back seat nearly every time. Most Americans didn't care when the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis (many of them children), and none of the senior officials who authorized torture during the Bush administration has faced indictment or even serious investigation (Just imagine how much we'd be howling if we suspected some foreign government had been waterboarding captive Americans!). The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful, and we continue to trade and invest in China despite its own lax human rights standards. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. government is totally indifferent to such concerns, of course; what I'm saying is that we are rarely willing to do very much or pay significant costs in order to advance human rights, unless our strategic interests run parallel. Like most countries, in short, we talk a better game on human rights than we actually deliver. But you're not going to hear many American politicians admit it.
#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution." For official Washington insiders, the politically-correct answer to any question about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that we favor a two-state solution based on negotiations between the two parties, preferably done under U.S. auspices. Never mind that there's not much support for creating a viable Palestinian state in Israel (surveys in Israel sometimes show slim majorities in favor of a 2SS, but support drops sharply when you spell out the details of what a viable state would mean). Never mind that the Palestinians are too weak and divided to negotiate properly, and the failure of the long Oslo process has diminished Fatah's legitimacy and strengthened the more hardline Hamas. Never mind that the latest Israeli election, while it weakened Netanyahu, did not strengthen the peace camp at all. And never mind that the United States has had twenty-plus years to pull of the deal and has blown it every time, mostly because it never acted like a genuine mediator. But nobody in official-dom is going to say this out loud, because they have no idea what U.S. policy would be once the 2SS was kaput.
#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can." Most U.S. leaders like to talk about global partnerships and the need to work with allies, and they try not to speak too glowingly about American dominance. But make no mistake: U.S. leaders have long recognized that being stronger than everyone else was desirable, and nobody ever runs for president vowing to "make America #2." That's why U.S. leaders have always been ambivalent about European unity: they want Europe to be sufficiently unified so that it doesn't become a source of trouble, but they don't want it to cohere into a super-state that might be powerful enough to stand up to Washington.
The problem, of course, is that openly proclaiming global primacy irritates other governments and makes them look for ways to keep Washington in check. That's why the first Bush administration had to disavow an early draft of the 1992 Defense Guidance; it was way too explicit in laying out these familiar aims. But dropping that draft didn't alter the ambition, and despite what you might think, neither Clinton, Bush Jr., or Obama has abandoned the basic goal of keeping the United States #1. Whether their policies advanced that goal is another question.
#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it." Everyone knows that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure since the early 1960s -- that's half a century, folks -- but it never changes because the stakes don't seem worth it and it would tick off a handful of influential people in Florida. Everyone knows the foreign policy side of the "war on drugs" has been no more successful than the anti-drug campaign here at home, but you didn't hear Kerry say that during his hearings last week and you won't hear Hagel (or anyone else) say that either. Everyone knows that most U.S. allies around the world have been free-riding for decades and taking advantage of our protection to pursue their own interests, but saying so out loud wouldn't be ... well, diplomatic. More and more insiders know that the Afghan war is a loser, but we're going to pretend it's a victory because that makes it getting out politically feasible. It's obvious that our basic approach to Iran's nuclear program has been misguided, and that we've spent the last two decades giving Iran more reasons to want a nuclear deterrent and digging ourselves into an deeper diplomatic hole. But don't expect officials to acknowledge that simple fact, and certainly not in public.
Like I said, this is just an idle fantasy. I don't really want to see what Kerry or Hagel or McDonough or Lew or others would be like on truth serum (though I sometimes wonder if somebody is slipping a smidge to Biden every now and then). But it is kinda fun to imagine what they might blurt out in an idle moment, especially if the normal inhibitions and constraints were removed. What would you expect them to say?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
So 2012 is coming to an end and you're busy planning how to ring in 2013. Are you aiming to host a world-historical event? If so, you might want to think about the impact that some past festivities have had on international affairs. And be careful: sometimes a poorly planned party can have all sorts of unintended consequences. As both inspiration and public service, therefore, today I provide my own list of Top Five Parties in International History.
#1: The Boston Tea Party. As a loyal American, I gotta start with this one, which helped kick off the War of Independence and free the American colonists from King George III's cruel yoke. I know, I know: it wasn't really a party, it was an act of political protest by the Sons of Liberty. It didn't even get the name "tea party" for decades. But c'mon: do you really think the participants were all sober, and that tossing all that English tea in the water wasn't fun? And in retrospect, it had far more positive effects than the plutocrat-financed shenanigans of the 21st century namesake (the "tea party movement").
#2: The Congress of Vienna. After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work.
#3: The "2500 Year Anniversary of the Persian Empire." In October 1971, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran presided over a lavish celebration to mark the supposed 2500th anniversary of the "Persian empire." Dozens of world leaders and celebrities assembled at an elaborate tent city in Persopolis, where they dined for over five hours on quail's eggs with caviar, roast peacock, and a host of other delicacies, served on custom Limoges china and accompanied by some of the world's most expensive wines. The whole blowout reportedly cost over $100 million, and was condemned by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the "Devil's Festival." The contrast between the Shah's pretensions and extravagance and the poverty that many Iranians still endured was all-too apparent, and the ill-conceived party played a small but not inconsequential role in undermining the legitimacy of the Pahlavi regime.
#4: The Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1520, Henry VIII of England traveled with most of his entire court to France to meet King Francis I. The purpose of the visit was to negotiate a treaty of alliance, but the summit soon degenerated into a testosterone-fueled competition, with each king trying show the other who was wealthiest. Encamped in two nearby villages, the two monarchs put on increasingly ostentatious displays including fireworks, the building of a temporary fountain that dispensed wine and water, elaborate arrangements of silks and gems, and sporting contests. The extravagance nearly bankrupted both monarchs, and the rivalry exacerbated the other obstacles to the alliance and the two leaders ended up enemies instead. The moral: if somebody wants to bring a really expensive bottle of wine to your party tonight, just let them.
#5: Woodstock. The enormous outdoor rock festival at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York in August 1969, both symbolized the youth movement of the 1960s and is now seen as its apotheosis. It wasn't the first outdoor rock festival or even the biggest, but it was undoubtedly the most memorable and had the most lasting cultural impact. You don't hear people talk about the "Lollapalooza Generation," do you?
These five historical parties can provide either inspiration or a cautionary lesson for your revels tonight. My advice: party responsibly, and get ready for 2013. Even if U.S. foreign policy follows the minimalist path I predicted in my last post, the rest of the world will provide us with plenty of things to worry (and blog) about.
Happy New Year!
I've finished my holiday shopping (at last), which means it's time for another round of hypothetical gift-giving for some important world leaders and political figures. If it were in my power, here's what I'd be sending some notables this year.
1. For Barack Obama: A dartboard. No, not so he can pin a picture of John Boehner on it, but so he can make some hard choices about his second-term priorities. Energy independence? Gun control? Rebuilding infrastructure? Middle East peace? A real negotiation with Iran? Climate change? Tax reform? The list is endless. Obama tried to do way too much during the first year of his first term, and I'm hoping he's learned his lesson and will focus more in the second term. Maybe a dartboard can help.
2. For Syrian tyrant Bashar al Assad: A one-pound bag of Arabian coffee to wake up and smell. Or better still: a one-way ticket for himself and his immediate family to anywhere they want. As an added bonus, a recording of this classic song. Just go. Now.
3. For Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and all the other people who called the election for Romney: A copy of Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise. Because it's never too late to learn.
4. For defeated GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney: Nothing. You've got five houses, a fleet of cars and boats, and a loving family. What could I possibly give you except my vote (and I'm afraid it's too late for that)?
5. For the people of America, and especially its children: A ban on assault weapons, and a Congressional resolution declaring that all the 2nd amendment guarantees is the right to keep a muzzle-loading musket.
6. For Benjamin Netanyahu: A signed copy of Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. And a mirror.
7. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: A one-year membership in the spa of her choice, and a book contract that takes until 2017 to complete.
8. For the Republican Party: A roundtrip ticket to see the Wizard of Oz. Because the party desperately needs a heart, a brain, courage, and a way to get back home to its true conservative roots.
9. For the beleaguered people of the eastern Congo: A miracle. Because it appears that is what it will take to end their suffering.
10. For my readers: My thanks for continuing to engage with this blog (and now @StephenWalt on twitter). I wish you all a joyful holiday season, the warmth of love from friends and family, and a New Year that turns out better than realists normally expect. I'll be back online after Xmas.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
If you read this blog, you've probably heard about the various "isms" in the field of international relations. There's realism, of course, but also liberalism, idealism, and social constructivism. And don't forget Marxism, even though hardly anybody claims to believe it anymore. These "isms" are essentially families of theory that share certain common assumptions. For example, realists see power and fear as the main drivers of world affairs, while liberals place more weight on human acquisitiveness and the power of institutions.
But there's another major force in world affairs, and sometimes I think it deserves an "ism" all its own. With tongue in cheek and apologies to a famous Chinese sage, I'll call it "Confusionism." For Confusians, ignorance and stupidity are the real key to understanding state behavior, not fear, greed, ideals, class interests, or any of those other things that people think drive world affairs. When Confusians seek to explain why states act as they do, they start by assuming that leaders do not understand the problems they face, have only a vague sense of where they want to go, and no idea at all about how to get there. Instead of starting with the rational actor assumption beloved by economists, realists, and most liberals, Confusians hone in on all the reasons why humans typically get things wrong.
Confusionism is the opposite of the assorted conspiracy theories that you often read about. Some people believe that the world is run by a shadowy network of elites (e.g., the Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg, Council on Foreign Relations, etc.). Other people think everything is ultimately the product of some secret Zionist conspiracy, or the machinations of oil companies and the military-industrial complex. Islamophobes are convinced there is some sort of well-oiled Muslim plot to infiltrate Europe and America, impose Sharia law, and stick all our young women in harems. If you read enough Robert Ludlum, watch The Matrix too often, or spend enough time patrolling the nether regions of the blogosphere, you might find yourself thinking along similar lines. If that happens, get help.
These warped world-views all assume that there are some Very Clever People out there who are busy implementing some brilliant long-term scheme for their own selfish benefit. But if you've actually met a few real politicians, run a small business, or merely tried to get a dozen family members to a wedding on time, then you know this is not how the world really works.
Which is where Confusionism comes in. It begins by recognizing the limits of human reason, as well as the inherent uncertainties and accidents that accompany all human endeavors. Because men and women are fallible and because our knowledge is imperfect, screw-ups are inevitable. Why do you think the first two letters in the acronym SNAFU stand for "situation normal?" Clausewitz taught us "in warfare everything is simple, but the simplest things are very difficult," but his insight was not limited to the battlefield. Leaders rarely have accurate information, they are usually guessing about the results of different choices, and even well-formulated plans often go wrong for no good reason. For Confusians, world leaders aren't Megaminds implementing fiendishly subtle stratagems; they are mostly well-meaning ignoramuses stumbling around in the dark. Just like the rest of us.
Evidence that supports Confusionism is easy to find. What explains George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003? Simple: he was deeply confused, and so were the people advising him. How are we to understand Mao Zedong's disastrous decision to launch the Great Leap Forward? Easy: his head was full of goofy ideas, he had no idea what he was doing, and he didn't realize how badly he'd blundered until millions had starved. The Russo-Georgian War of 2007? Clearly the product of rampant confusion on both sides. The Euro crisis? Isn't it obvious that the people who created the Euro were confused about the feasibility of a common currency that lacked the institutional framework to sustain it in hard times.
Confusionism doesn't explain every case, of course. There are times when countries identify clear interests, devise effective strategies for achieving them, and implement those strategies more-or-less as intended. Realism is right to emphasize the importance of insecurity and fear, liberalism is sometimes correct in pointing to institutional arrangements that can facilitate cooperation, and social constructivists have a point when they argue that norms and identities also affect state behavior. But we shouldn't forget the important role of human folly, which is where Confusionism shines.
When will Confusians see things more clearly than others? Watch out for the following deadly warning signs:
1. New circumstances. When leaders are facing a completely new set of problems, it will take them awhile to figure out what it all means. Until then, confusion will reign. It took a decade or more before Americans and Soviets understood the full implications of the nuclear revolution, and even then a lot of idiotic things were published and uttered on that topic for decades afterward. And because both sides were deeply confused about how deterrence worked, they spent trillions building well over 60,000 thermonuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy each other many times over.
2. Unfamiliar environments. It is hardly surprising that the United States has been stumbling its way over the past couple of decades, as we've wrestled with the politics of places that are vastly different from us. We were confused when we sallied forth to Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other places, and no country as ignorant of world history and as linguistically-challenged as America is likely to sort these places out. It's the downside of American exceptionalism: if we're as unique as we like to think we are, then the rest of the world is very different and is bound to confuse us. A lot.
3. Overflowing in-boxes. Policymakers are bound to be confused when they are constantly rushing to put out today's new bonfire and don't have time to think about what they are doing or saying. (This is what got Susan Rice into hot water, right?) Confusionism helps you understand why ambitious great powers get into trouble: they are always trying to do too many things in too many places, and that inevitably leaves them operating with a flawed understanding of most of the problems with which they are contending. Getting involved everywhere also makes you a prisoner of the locals on whom you have to rely for advice, and they'll work 24/7 to convince you to do what they want. Needless to say, this is a good way to maximize one's state of confusion.
4. Taboo topics. Nations are more likely to sort out problems when information is readily available and alternative views can be debated freely. It follows they will get confused when secrecy abounds, or when topics become taboo and hard to discuss openly. Small wonder, therefore, that totalitarian societies commit some of the biggest blunders (collectivized agriculture, anyone?), or that governments in open societies get confused whenever they start shielding their actions from public scrutiny and accountability (see under: Gitmo, drone warfare, covert action, etc.).
5. Ideological blinders. Rigid and all-encompassing world-views are a fertile source of confusion. A simple set of dogmas can provide great psychological comfort to believers, but they invariably clash with reality and thus provide a poor foundation for policymaking (or for running a national election, as today's GOP seems determined to prove). Whenever you hear anyone offering up universal and unquestioned truths about politics or society, your Confusion-detector should start pinging and you should hope that they never get close to power.
6. Success. Paradoxically, states can be more vulnerable to confusion after victory, because it often fosters over-confidence. "Victory disease" is a familiar wartime phenomenon, as a string of successes increases the appetite and encourages leaders to believe they can do no wrong. And once leaders stop thinking with their heads and start operating with their hearts and hopes alone, they are bound to stumble.
More seriously, I don't really think Confusionism will become a school of thought in IR, and there is already a pretty extensive literature on the closely related phenomenon of misperception. But the label reminds us when we are puzzled by what national leaders do, an obvious explanation is that they are just as confused as we are. And sometimes more so.
Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, even though its origins can be traced back to Old World harvest festivals. It is based in part on a romanticized story of the Pilgrims, which took on new life after Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a day of thanks intended to help reconcile North and South after the Civil War. It is also celebrated in Canada, however, so Americans don't have a monopoly on gratitude.
Still, if you're an American citizen or a green card holder, you've probably got a lot to be thankful for, especially compared to citizens of a lot of other countries. But of course, we Americans often forget to be properly thankful for many of our blessings; instead, we seem to think we deserve them because we are So Darn Exceptional. With that thought in mind, here's a slightly contrarian Top Ten List of Things Americans Should be Thankful For (But Often Aren't).
1. We have a state of our own. Americans could start by being thankful that the rebellious colonists won their war of independence, straightened out the Articles of Confederation, and built a strong state of our own. Having your own state means that you can protect yourself against enemies and there's a government to go to bat for you if you get in trouble. By contrast, stateless peoples like the Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Romany, Tamils, Jews before 1948, and many others live at the mercy of others. Given our own revolutionary past, you'd think we'd have a bit more sympathy for peoples trying to escape oppressive foreign rule, but never mind. In any case, in the dog-eat-dog world of global politics, having a state of our own is clearly something to be thankful for.
2. There are no great powers nearby. Given our propensity to exaggerate global dangers, Americans often forget that they are remarkably secure. We haven't had any powerful states near us since the 19th century, and we haven't had to worry seriously about defending our own territory against invasion. (This is what makes movies like Red Dawn so laughable). Or as the French Ambassador to the United States said back around 1910: "America is the most favored of the nations. To the north, a weak neighbor. To the south, a weak neighbor. To the east, fish. To the West, more fish. " This extraordinary level of territorial security explains why Americans are free to go gallivanting all around the world "searching for monsters to destroy" and trying to tell the world how to live. We've forgotten what it is like to face a real threat to our independence, and that sort of amnesia is a luxury for which we should be very thankful indeed.
3. We didn't adopt the same austerity programs that Britain, Europe, and Japan did. A lot of Americans are still hurting from the after-effects of the Great Recession, and those who are still unemployed may not feel especially appreciative tomorrow. And it's clear with hindsight that the governmental response to the financial crisis could have been more effective. But compared with the other industrial democracies, the United States has done much better to eschew austerity and focus more attention on stimulus. So let's give thanks for that.
4. We got lucky when they handed out the natural resources. Americans like to attribute their rise to wealth and power to their virtuous and hardworking nature, embrace of capitalism, novel Constitution, and commitment to liberty. But just as important was the fact that the country happened to be founded on a continent with fertile soils, navigable rivers, abundant wildlife, and a temperate climate. It had lots of iron ore and other minerals, plenty of oil, and it turns out we've got more natural gas than we know what to do with. (Good for us, if not necessarily so great for the atmosphere). This Thanksgiving, Americans ought to silently acknowledge that our privileged status today owes as much to good fortune as it does to any unique American virtues.
And while we're at it, let's not forget that realizing our "Manifest Destiny" involved the deaths of millions of native Americans and taking vast territories from other countries by force. Recalling the uglier side of America's rise to world power is a good way to keep overweening national pride in check.
5. In (many) Gods we trust. I don't know about you, but I for one am thankful that the Founding Fathers didn't try to establish a state religion and instead celebrated theological diversity, including the freedom not to believe. Over the past two centuries, the idea that free men and women could worship whatever gods they choose has protected this country from a powerful cause of civil strife in many other parts of the world. We can give thanks that anti-Semitism has been discredited and marginalized and Islamophobia confined mostly to far-right whack jobs and a few desperate politicians.
Just look at the last presidential election: a Christian with a Muslim name got 70 percent of the Jewish vote, while his opponent -- the first Mormon to be nominated -- didn't lose by that much (i.e., he had over 48 percent of the popular vote). That's America.
And maybe one of these days we'll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegience to any unseen superhuman entity. Amen.
6. Another successful election. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should give thanks that this country has once again conducted an election where peace prevailed, citizens voted, and the losers conceded, mostly with good grace. Some GOP leaders may be baffled by the results, but they didn't take up arms or hire a lot of lawyers to try to reverse them. Who knows? They may even start pondering why they lost in a serious way, and beging move their party away from some of its antideluvian notions. That would be something to be grateful for too.
7. Tolerance of diversity. In addition to religious freedom, Americans can be grateful for the progress we have made in embracing those who at first seem different. This includes immigrants, who are often viewed with suspicion yet consistently become some of our most ambitious, energetic, hardworking, and accomplished citizens. Consistent with our liberal ideals of individual human liberty, our country is gradually ending discrimination against gays. We continue to work to reduce the long legacy of racial discrimination. Our reward is a country whose cultural life has been enriched by diverse currents and whose society has managed to take advantage of the best the world has to offer. We are far from perfect, but the American melting pot remains a phenomenon that richly deserves our thanks.
8. No war with Iran. Having wound down one losing war and positioned us to end another, at least President Obama has had the good sense not to start a third war with Iran. Keep your fingers crossed that he remains as wise in his second term, but be grateful that he didn't succumb to all the fear-mongering, even in an election year.
9. Health care for all Americans. I don't want to go all partisan on you, but unless you're one of the One Percent (and maybe even if you are), you ought to be grateful that we've finally taken steps to insure that all citizens get basic medical care. True, most of the industrialized world got there long before we did, but better late than never. It's not a perfect system and it's bound to need improvements over time, but we all ought to feel good about helping our fellow citizens feel good. And say a word of thanks, too.
10. What about the rest of you? Here's a suggestion: if you're not an American, this Thanksgiving you might give thanks if you haven't gotten a lot of attention from Uncle Sam lately. You might not want to be totally ignored (especially if the South China Sea laps your shores) but getting a lot of attention from the United States hasn't been such a good thing in recent years (see under: Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) So if you're citizen of one of the many countries that Americans like to visit but American troops and drones don't, you can be thankful, too.
I was watching some of the America's Cup World Series races going on out in San Francisco, and it occurred to me that the evolution of the Cup is a perfect illustration of globalization at work.
Back in the day, the America's Cup was both a nationalistic and gentlemanly endeavor. The New York Yacht Club controlled the Deed of Gift that governed the competition, and it entertained periodic challengers. For decades the challengers were all from Britain until the Australians got into the act (and eventually won it). The competition took place in several formats, including big J boats and classic 12 meters. A certain mercantilism prevailed, insofar as the rules stipulated that challengers had to be built and equipped entirely in the country from which the challenge originated.
As in any competitive sport, there was gradual but steady progress in yacht design and technique, with occasional breakthroughs, like Intrepid's trim tab design in 1967 and Australia II's revolutionary winged keel in 1983. But it was still a pretty sedate and mostly amateur affair up to the late 1980s.
What has happened since then? Here's where the America's Cup becomes a symptom of globalization. First off, it's no longer really the "America's Cup" in any literal sense, and it isn't being conducted according to some fixed and traditional set of rules. The America's Cup has instead become a brand name for a series of global yachting competitions, with lots of different competitors and formats.
Second, as competition has intensified, the pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically. Today, the winner is likely to be the team that spent the most on a radical design or came up with a clever innovation that gave them a distinct advantage over the others. And that costs money. It used to be said that if you had to ask how much it cost to own a racing yacht, you couldn't afford it, and that much hasn't really changed. The Cup is still a hobby for mega-wealthy people like Oracle's Larry Ellison, but it's also become a big corporate endeavor. All of the boats now have corporate sponsors and their sails and hulls are plastered with more logos than a NASCAR automobile.
Third, it's not really a national endeavor anymore. Like an iPhone, the component parts of the different boats come from all over the world. And like any modern multinational corporation, so do the crews and skippers. Some of the teams still sport "national" names, but they all try to recruit the best talent from all over the world. Like other professional sports, in short, it's a globalized market where "labor" mobility is extremely high.
Fourth, let's not forget the rule of law. Globalization depends on a lot of things, including the emergence of at least a rudimentary system of rules to govern trade investment and other global transactions. Similarly, the America's Cup has been beset with litigation ever since New Zealander Michael Fay sued the San Diego Yacht Club over the terms of competition in 1988. So in addition to hiring clever designers and talented crews, a successful Cup competitor may need a talented legal team that can take advantage of legal technicalities. And just as corporations have become adept at moving quickly to countries where production costs are lower, so have America's Cup competitors. When Oracle's Larry Ellison couldn't get the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco to run the competition the way he wanted, he joined the neighboring Golden Gate Yacht Club and used it as the sponsoring body instead.
Is this a good trend or not? The traditionalist in me mourns to passing of the 12 meter era, in much the same way that I feel nostalgic for the touch game that characterized the wooden racket era in tennis. But the new formats, which now feature large, very fast, unstable and fragile catamarans, have undoubtedly increased the audience appeal of the event. The ways things are going, the next step will be to equip the boats with rams and replay the battle of Lepanto. I'll bet even more people would watch.
In any case, trying to halt the march of "progress" is probably impossible, which is probably true of globalization too. Sail ho!
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
I saw the documentary film "Searching for Sugarman" over the weekend, and it got me thinking again about the dearth of popular, mass-market political protest music these days. In case you haven't seen it (and you should!), the film is about a Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded a couple of albums in the early 1970s. His songs (which are featured on the soundtrack) are pretty interesting, but the albums flopped. He dropped out of the music business after that, but in one of those cosmic bounces that no one can foresee, ended up becoming a cult figure in apartheid-era South Africa. Progressive musicians there saw his music as revolutionary, and it helped inspire their own anti-apartheid artistry. I won't spoil the various revelations of this wonderful film, except to say that it does capture how music can transcend boundaries and have unexpected political repercussions. It's also a fascinating human story.
Meanwhile, over in Moscow, the punk band Pussy Riot got sentenced to two years in jail for "hooliganism," all because they had the temerity to poke some harmless fun at Vladimir Putin and made the mistake of doing it inside a Russian Orthodox Church. Now there's a real threat to public order! And the government's lame response is revealing: throwing young female musicians in jail is like taking out a full page ad in the world's leading newspapers announcing "We are afraid of independent thinking and have absolutely no sense of humor." In a world where success increasingly depends on tapping into the energy, imagination, and initiative of the citizenry, Putin is telling young Russians to be dull and conformist. I think he's also betraying a profound sense of insecurity: when a three-person punk band is a threat to society, you know that the government has lost all perspective. He's got Madonna ticked off too, although I'm not sure that matters all that much.
But as I've written about before, I'm still struck by the apolitical nature of modern popular music. Plenty of artists continue to record songs with serious political content, but none of them seem to have much popular resonance. Protest songs get recorded, but they don't make it to the top of the charts and they don't inspire much political action by their listeners. A mega-star like Bruce Springsteen can record an entire album like "Wrecking Ball" -- clearly inspired by the financial crisis and the declining fortunes of the middle-to-lower class -- but I'll bet most of the people attending his concerts jump out of their seats for "Thunder Road" and "Prove It All Night."
But I'm not sure why that's the case, especially given the contemporary context of two lost wars, persistent economic problems, and widespread contempt for politicians of all kinds. You'd think this would be a moment where at least one or two artists would be writing political songs and attracting a huge audience, and maybe even using their art to inspire political change. But I get little sense that contemporary musicians are shaping political attitudes or behavior as they might have in earlier eras.
It might be because there's no draft, and so anti-war songs don't hit home with a population of young people who don't have to serve if they don't want to. It might be because the digital/internet revolution has carved the listening audience into smaller and smaller niches, so that it's harder for any artist to write something with broad appeal and a political message. You get political messages inside each genre (i.e., in hip-hop, alt-country, folk, etc.) but nobody commands a platform as large as Dylan, the Beatles, or even Creedence Clearwater did back in the days of AM and FM radio saturation. It could be that other art forms have superseded music; younger people are too busy playing Wii or downloading Jon Stewart reruns to pay any attention to the lyrics of the songs on their iPhones. Maybe it's just simple demographics: the counterculture movement of the 1960s was fueled by the sheer size of the baby boomer bulge. Or perhaps it's because there is no real Left anymore -- which is where the good songs came from-and because the Right thinks Mike Huckabee is cutting edge.
Sadly, I'm not expecting this to change in 2012. A bland suit like Mitt Romney isn't going to inspire noteworthy songs of protest or praise, and groups like Rage against the Machine have already complained about Paul Ryan's transparent attempt to give himself a hip patina by saying he likes their music. As Rage guitarist Tom Morello explained:
Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the
embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two
decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor
Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul
Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine."
"Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage."
Barack Obama has revealed a certain tame affection for blues and soul music (and even an unexpected singing ability), and his 2008 campaign got a boost from a number of sympathetic artists. But I'll be surprised if will.i.am decides to record a follow-up to "Yes We Can," this time around, unless he's willing to focus the lyrics on drone strikes and the raid that got bin Laden.
I had a relaxing vacation out on Fire Island, though of course I didn't get quite as much accomplished as I intended. But I did do a lot of reading, and I thought I'd pass a bit of what I learned on to all of you.
I started with Volume 4 of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, which covers the period 1958-1964. In this period Johnson runs half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) for the 1960 presidential nomination, accepts the vice-presidential nod, and then languishes miserably in a powerless position. He's mostly ignored (if not openly dissed) by Kennedy's inner circle, and thinks his political career is mostly over. But Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 suddenly places him in the Oval office, and Caro offers a vivid description of how LBJ rises to the occasion, gets Kennedy's legislative program moving, and helps the country overcome a major national trauma.
The book is a great read, and Caro has few equals at sketching a character or describing how personalities operate within American institutions. He does have a weakness for stark contrasts and mano-a-mano confrontations (e.g.. he makes much of the blood feud between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, going back to the early 1950s), but such portraits are part of what make the book difficult to put down.
But for me, a subtler message in the book (possibly overstated for dramatic effect) is that John F. Kennedy wasn't much of a president. He was smart, articulate, charming, and courageous (as his exploits in World War II revealed), and he often had sound political instincts. He had a knack for attracting talented acolytes and inspiring deep loyalty from them, and he knew how to use a gifted advisor/speechwriter like Ted Sorenson to great effect. But his record as a congressman and a senator was unremarkable, and Caro's account shows he didn't achieve much in his three years as president. The main elements of his legislative program were stalled in Congress, and his main foreign policy achievement was managing a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba that his own policies (e.g., the attempt to overthrow Castro and an unnecessary nuclear weapons build-up) had helped provoke. We obviously will never know what he might have achieved had he not been assassinated and if he had won a second term, but this book makes it clear that the post-assassination hagiography has little basis in fact.
My next selection was David Kang's "East Asia before the West," which I recommend to anyone with a shaky grasp of East Asian history. It's a slim book that focuses primarily on explaining the Sino-centric trade and tributary order that existed in Asia from roughly 1400 to 1900. Kang's emphasis is on interpreting this history, and demonstrating how this order differed from the Westphalian model that has inspired most contemporary IR theory. In particular, he argues that relative power played a lesser role in relations between China and its principal neighbors (Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) than realist theories might suggest, and that status (defined largely in cultural terms) was in fact of critical importance. Instead of being competing billiard balls interacting on the basis of relative power, Kang depicts these societies as heavily (though not totally) shaped by Chinese cultural ideas (primarily Confucianism). Relations among them reflected norms of deference that reflected not just power but also the degree to which other societies met Chinese cultural standards. He also depicts it as an unusually peaceful order -- at least with respect to state-to-state relations -- with the bulk of violence being directed at rebels, bandits, or nomadic tribes, rather than by governments against each other.
Not surprisingly, I though the book downplays the role of power somewhat. Given how much larger and stronger China was, it's not all that surprising that the lesser states didn't challenge it (and in the rare cases when they did, it didn't go well for them). But it is quite a thoughtful book, and well worth your time.
My last selection (apart from a few novels), was Fredrik Logevall's forthcoming book "Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam." It is a fascinating, beautifully-written, and deeply depressing account of the First Indochina War (i.e., the war between France and the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh), with particular emphasis on the background role played by the United States. Many parts of this story have been told before, but Logevall's account provides much new detail and important new insights. Among other revelations, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more hawkish on Vietnam than is sometimes claimed, and that the U.S. came closer to intervening during the siege of Dienbienphu that I had previously believed.
It is impossible to read the book without being struck by contemporary parallels, and without concluding that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has learned virtually nothing over the past sixty years. Although the French clearly knew more about Vietnamese society than their American counterparts did, officials in both governments were often embarrassingly ill-informed about the actual state of Vietnamese society and opinion. Back in Washington, key decisions were often being made by people (such as Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles) who had little knowledge of Asian history or society and who were inevitably distracted and shaped by problems elsewhere. And alleged experts like Senator Mike Mansfield (whose opinions were heeded because he had once taught classes in Asian history) were blinded by Cold War ideology and simplistic ideas like the "domino theory." Meanwhile, the American public was chronically misinformed about Asian events by publishers like Henry Luce of Time and Life, and well-organized propaganda campaigns.
Logevall never makes explicit comparisons between the events he describes and more recent counterinsurgencies, but the parallels are quite remarkable. Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French forces in Indochina faced enormous logistical difficulties and were frequently vulnerable to ambushes (including what we would know call "improvised explosive devices"). The occupying powers were allied with local elites who were feckless, unreliable, and corrupt, and neither the French nor the United States ever had much leverage over their local clients. The French faced chronic manpower shortages, largely because the war was increasingly unpopular and French politicians could not institute a draft and deploy conscripts there. Instead, they had to rely on legionnaires, troops from their other colonies, or on professional soldiers. Similarly, the Pentagon has always had trouble finding enough troops to run its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course could never contemplate turning to a draft. The French thought that a heroic general (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) would reverse their fortunes and produce a victory, just as U.S. leaders have occasionally pinned their hopes on the likes of David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Both the French and the Americans tried to create local forces who could take over for them; neither effort succeeded to the extent necessary. Massive expenditures and much suffering was justified by baseless fears of falling dominoes, just as today U.S. pundits have somehow managed to turn impoverished Afghanistan into a "vital interest." Finally, Logevall shows that U.S. citizens had very little knowledge of what the United States was actually doing in Indochina -- especially in the period between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the escalation of direct U.S. involvement -- just as we are mostly kept in the dark about the full extent of our involvement in places like Yemen or Pakistan today.
All in all, a pleasant vacation, even if I spent a lot of it reading about unpleasant things and drawing depressing conclusions. Alas, that's an occupational hazard for people in this business, even when we're supposedly taking a break.
I'm off on vacation starting tomorrow and this time I intend to go cold turkey and not blog while I'm away. I really mean it this time. I've lined up a stellar group of guest bloggers to fill in on occasion, so keep checking this space to see what they've posted. I'll be back on July 9th -- you're all in charge while I'm gone.
As usual, I'll be spending my time back on the beach at Fire Island. My main goal is to do a lot of reading and thinking. I've got a few thesis chapters to read and a grant proposal to write, but mostly I'm looking forward to a hefty bag of beach reading. I'm going to start with the latest volume of Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, and follow that with John Gaddis' recent biography of George Kennan. Then comes David Kang's East Asia before the West, which has been sitting on my desk for months. And if there's still time left, I'll probably go to Miko Peled's The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.
Man does not live by non-fiction alone, however, so evenings will be spent with some lighter fare. I'll pass on Fifty Shades of Grey, but I've still got to finish Joseph Kanon's Istanbul Passage before I start Alan Furst's Mission to Paris. And the beach house where I'm staying is filled with old Rex Stouts and other decomposing paperbacks, so I won't run out of brain candy while I'm there.
That ought to keep me out of trouble for ten days or so. Here's hoping that the next two weeks are an unusually dull period in world politics so that I won't be tempted to chime in. And I hope all of you get some time off too; even workaholics need to take a break and let their thoughts run down different pathways for awhile.
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I've been in Berlin since last Thursday, and it's been an interesting exercise in slightly rueful nostalgia. I lived in West Berlin for a semester in 1976, as part of an undergraduate overseas study program. It was the first foreign country I'd ever visited and one of the great formative experiences of my early adult life.
I've been back for very brief trips twice (in 1991 and again in 2007) yet this time I've found that my memories from that first trip aren't very reliable, and even supposedly familiar haunts look odd. Of course, this is partly because Berlin has been transformed by reunification -- most obviously in the areas where the Wall was -- but also because it has been thirty-five years. Cities can change a lot in that time, and my own memories have clearly faded with the passage of time. There are moments when the past comes come back vividly, as when I read the U-bahn (subway) map and recall the names of the stations on the route from my apartment to class, or when I heard the recorded announcement saying "zuruck bleiben!" just before the subway doors close. But apart from those Proustian moments, it mostly feels like I am visiting an unfamiliar place.
I took a walk last Thursday after I arrived, strolling from my hotel through the Tiergarten to the Holocaust Memorial -- which is very effective and moving, though not without controversy -- and then onto Pariser Platz. This is the area just east of the Brandenburger Tor, and it was an abandoned zone during the Cold War, with large empty spaces around the Wall itself. It has now been transformed into a vast and inviting public square, complete with fancy hotels, a Starbucks, the "Kennedy Museum," and other classic tourist attractions. There's a wonderful bit of not-quite-accidental symbolism in the fact that the British, French, and American embassies are all located there. These were the three Western powers that governed different German zones after World War II, and it is probably no accident that they ended up with this choice real estate in the very heart of reunified Berlin.
Yesterday I wandered through some old haunts in the center of what was West Germany (Kurfurstendamm, Savigny Platz, Zoologischer Garten, etc.), and then took the subway out to a trendy neighborhood in the old East Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg). There the contrast with 35 years ago was really striking; my overwhelming sense of the old DDR was drab and monotonal grey ... but today this neighborhood is funky and energetic and artsy. And I kept reflecting on how successive German governments made rebuilding and restoring Berlin a national priority and actually pulled it off, even if it hasn't become an industrial or financial center again. I wonder what it would take to get the United States to do something like that.
By the way, the conference I attended on "Social Science and the Public Sphere" was quite enjoyable, and I learned a lot from several of the papers and from the ensuing discussion. Sociologist Michael Burawoy gave two presentations, one on different modes of knowledge ("professional," "critical," "policy," and "public") and another on the threats facing the modern university (#1: excessive regulation, on the British model, and #2: excessive marketization, on the U.S. model). Not sure he persuaded me completely, but lots to think about. There was also a fascinating paper on the history of economic thought by Norwegian economist Erik Reinert, showing how economics evolved in a path-dependent fashion and that there were several forks in the intellectual road where the field could have gone in a more historical, institutional, and diverse direction, instead of the individualist, rationalist, and hyper-mathematical course the field has taken (at least in North America). He also quoted a passage from philosopher Francis Bacon' The Advance of Learning on "degenerate knowledge" which could easily apply to lots of social science today:
Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do putrefy and corrupt into worms;--so it is the property of good and sound knowledge to putrefy and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate questions which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen, who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit."
Yeah, what he said.
Economist Mark Thoma gave a nice presentation on his experiences as the author of a well-known economics blog, and historian Thomas Bender of NYU contributed a terrific paper on the evolution of the social sciences in the United States. Among other things, I learned from it that when Johns Hopkins University pioneered the Ph.D. degree here in America, it was not intended primarily as a credential for future academics. Instead, Bender writes, "it was intended to instill in [recipients] ‘the mental culture' that would serve them in careers in ‘civil service,' ‘public journalists' or, more generally, the ‘duties of public life.'" In other words, it took another few decades to create the inward-looking and frequent navel-gazing enterprises that the social sciences have become.
The audience offered up some challenging questions, and the other participants were a stimulating and likeable group. All in all, well worth the trip. And then yesterday I gave a lecture at the Deutsche Gesellschacft fur Auswartiges Politik (DGAP, or "German Council on Foreign Affairs"), summarizing a forthcoming article on the "twilight of the American era." (You can get a preliminary sense of my argument here). I enjoyed the talk and especially the questions, and we could easily have continued the conversation longer. At dinner with some DGAP colleagues we spent a fair bit of time talking about the future of the Euro, and I would say that most of them were more optimistic than I have been. In particular, they emphasized the difference between public policy and public opinion: yes, German popular opinion is hostile to further bailouts, but German politicians understand that at the end of the day, letting Greece go down the tubes would be bad for everyone, including Germany. So long as they can make further aid conditional on genuine reforms, eventually the deal will get done. We'll see.
A final comment from the perspective of someone who bikes to work daily in Boston: Berlin is a wonderful city for bicyclists and there are lots of them. For one thing it's mostly flat, and doesn't get snow like we do in New England. But the Berliners have also gone to great lengths to make bike travel easy and safe, with dedicated lanes on streets and or sidewalks. And confirming stereotypes of Teutonic orderliness, you find most of the cyclists observing all the traffic regulations, including waiting a street lights even when there are no cars around and it would perfectly safe to cross. Definitely not instinctive scofflaws like me. Boston has been trying to do something similar for its cyclists, but let's just say we've got a ways to go. But once the price of gas gets high enough, maybe American cities will do more to encourage bicycle commuting. There will be less traffic, and we'd all be a lot healthier too.
I'm typing this from Lille, where I participated in a seminar on the "Arab spring" at the University and gave an evening lecture on U.S. Middle East policy and the role of the -- surprise -- Israel lobby. We had a good discussion, and the students asked some excellent questions. And now home to Boston, where I have a pile of neglected duties waiting to greet me.
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I was at a book party last night, and a colleague and I started talking about our favorite books in the field. I remarked that one of the odd things about IR (and most social science, for that matter) is that it is rarely entertaining. To be sure, a lot of the work is interesting, and when you read a really terrific book, there can be a genuine sense of intellectual excitement. But how often does one read a work of political science or international relations and find it a genuine pleasure to read? And in particular, how many scholars in the field of IR are truly amusing or entertaining writers?
I can't think of many. Make a list of the big names in the IR field: Waltz, Huntington, Mearsheimer, Nye, Jervis, Simmons, Wendt, Keohane, Krasner, Katzenstein, Waever, Sikkink, etc., etc. Most of them are lucid prose stylists, but with the partial exception of Waltz (who gets off some acerbic sallies on occasion), you'd hardly call any of them a particularly witty writer.
This may be partly due to the subject matter (it's tough to make a lot of jokes when you write about war and peace), but I think it also reflects the normal academic desire to Be Taken Seriously as a Social Scientist. Indeed, the conventions of most academic journals seem deliberately designed to encourage a dry, leaden prose style that is devoid of any personality whatsoever.
So here's my question: who are the most amusing, entertaining, or witty writers in the field of international relations and foreign policy? I don't mean books or aticles that are "funny" because they are wildly off-base; I mean scholars who are a joy to read because their prose is lively, they offer amusing asides, and maybe even manage a laugh-out-loud witticism on occasion. And to narrow the field a bit more, let's exclude journalists (who are rarely all that amusing but usually have livelier writing styles).
My nominees would be John Mueller, James Scott, and Thomas Schelling. Honorable mentions might go to Dan Drezner (for his book on zombies), and Geoffrey Blainey (for his The Causes of War, though Blainey is really a historian/journalist). My three main nominees are all serious academics with long records of scholarly achievement, but each of them is also a joy to read, in part because their prose styles are relaxed and unpretentious and because each is capable of genuine wit.
So nominations are now open. "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Who's the wittiest IR scholar of them all?"
There's a fascinating piece in today's New York Times, summarizing the findings of a recent Science article on the origins of human language. Based on a mathematical analysis of phonetic diversity (i.e., the number of separate sounds in different languages), biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland has determined that human language originated in southern Africa around 50,000 years ago (some scientists believe its origins may be even earlier).
You've got to hand it to our species: 50,000 years isn't that long a time. Think of all the good and bad ideas that we've produced in 50 millennia: Shakespeare, the "divine right of kings," both slavery and abolitionism, relativity, the Bhagavad Gita, fascism, a mind-boggling array of religious dogma, liberalism, Marxism, the movies of Fred Astaire, Mad magazine, Japanese manga, rap, hip-hop, and bebop. The list is infinite … and now there's the blogosphere.
But here's what I wondered as I finished the article: Who uttered the first pun? And did those early humans groan when they heard it?
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This is a guest post by Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University.
As the world goes green for St. Patrick' Day, it is good to reflect on what Ireland's experiences teach us. We might ask, why should a realist care about Ireland? What might be learned from the experiences of this small Island in the North Atlantic -- home to just 4.5 million people?
Realists care about strategy, of course, which is one good reason to ponder Irish history. Ireland was for centuries a key component of England's rear defense against the risk of foreign enemies. Realists also are keen to understand new tactics in warfare and anyone wishing to get a sense of how guerilla campaigns proceed -- and how state responses to them can backfire would be well advised to study Michael Collins and the Irish quest for independence. Add to that the personal risks to those who negotiate an exchange of land for peace -- Michael Collins to Yitzhak Rabin show this only too tragically. The Irish experience in managing its strategic relationship with Britain after independence -- by building tight transatlantic advocacy networks and by integrating into the European community -- also demonstrates how creative diplomacy can achieve major strategic goals.
Ireland is also an interesting case of a state applying realism and ideals in its foreign policy, a topic that realists and others have debated for decades. Ireland remained neutral in World War II because it wished to consolidate its independence and avoid conscription of its people into the British army. Nonetheless, Ireland cooperated in both overt and secret assistance to the allied powers -- likewise during the Cold War. Ireland also advocated the cause of self-determination for all nations at the United Nations -- out of moral sympathy, but also as a way to keep its own views towards Northern Ireland on the agenda of global politics. Ireland managed to show how small nations can lead on a range of issues from peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation. It is often forgotten, but the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty can be found in speeches by the Irish foreign minister at the United Nations in the late 1950s.
Today's NY Times reported the death of Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, whose recording of "Please Mr. Postman" was Motown Records first No. 1 hit. I first heard the song in the Beatles' cover version (which ain't bad), but the original is even better: sharp, urgent, and it's got that classic Motown groove (courtesy of the immortal Funk Bros.)
There's something rather symbolic in the timing of Ms.
Horton's death, especially in light of what's going on in the Arab world. You don't see the
connection? Consider the lyrics of
Please Mister Postman, look and see? (Oh yeah)?
If there's a letter in your bag for me? (Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why's it takin' such a long time? (Oh yeah)?
For me to hear from that boy of mine?
There must be some word today?
From my boyfriend so far away?
Please Mister Postman, look and see?
If there's a letter, a letter for me
I've been standin' here waitin' Mister Postman?
For just a card, or just a letter?
Sayin' he's returnin' home to me"
The song is an anthem to anticipation, uncertainty, and longing -- why hasn't she heard from that absent boyfriend? -- and the entire premise of the song depends on that fact she's waiting for an actual physical letter to be delivered. It's back in the era of snail mail, folks, when long-distance telephony was prohibitively expensive and there was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no way for ordinary people to communicate instantly on a regular basis over long distances. That also meant you were really dependent on whatever newspapers, TV, and radio chose to tell you.
I remember my first trip overseas in 1976, to study at Stanford's overseas campus in Berlin. Correspondence with my then-girlfriend took a minimum of three weeks (round-trip), and longer if one of us was slow in responding. Like the singer in the song: you waited for a letter, and wondered what no news meant. If a letter was delayed, you agonized over what it might imply. It was a world where events moved more slowly, precisely because it took time for news to spread. Today, my teenaged son and daughter are surprised and irritated if a friend doesn't respond to a text in five minutes.
Now consider what we're seeing in the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate outcome of events in the Arab world, the speed with which large numbers of people have responded to events far away is remarkable. Just as audiocassettes of the Ayatollah Khomeini's sermons served as a medium of transmission in Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, here a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.
At the same time, we're living with a nearly unprecedented outpouring of previously hidden information, via Wikileaks and the "Palestine Papers." This is the wave of the future, I suspect, because the Internet is making it impossible to contain a secret once it's out. Even if governments convinced some news agencies to suppress a secret, somebody somewhere else would release it and then we would all find it on the Web. That gives leakers a bigger incentive to release classified information, precisely because they can be more confident that the leak will get noticed and have an impact. This situation is bound to have significant second-order effects, as governments have to choose between supporting greater transparency, taking harsher action against leakers, or being more reluctant to speak candidly or to record confidential exchanges in ways that could be leaked.
In "Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes began by exhorting him to "Wait!" In today's world, the mediasphere isn't waiting for anyone.
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This is the time of year when pundits (and party-goers) get asked to offer predictions for the New Year. I'm going to resist the temptation, because as Yogi Berra warned, "prediction is really hard, especially about the future." He was right.
In 1849, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "war is on its last legs, and universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism." In 1911, British scholar G.P. Gooch wrote that "even a successful conflict between states can bring no material gain. We can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel, and when the peacemakers shall be called the children of God." And we all know about the famous forecast that humanity had reached the "end of history," or the claim that globalization would eventually force other states to copy America's farsighted combination of markets, financial innovation, and "rule of law" if they wanted to enjoy economic prosperity. Yeah, right.
But it's not just these optimistic forecasts that turn out to be off-base; fortunately, some pretty pessimistic predictions did not pan out either. In 1950, a smart guy named Albert Einstein warned that "unless we are able, in the near future, to abolish the mutual fear of military aggression, we are doomed." In 1961, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow predicted that "The nuclear arms race is accelerating: within at the most ten years, some of these bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can. That is the certainty." The late Herman Kahn, another physicist and self-proclaimed futurologist, offered a similar forecast at about the same time, declaring that "unless we have more serious and sober thought we are not going to reach the year 2000 -- or even 1965 -- without a cataclysm."
These failed forecasts might lead you to conclude that you simply shouldn't listen to predictions by physicists, but even a good realist like Hans Morgenthau got it badly wrong at times. In 1979, Morgenthau predicted that "the world is moving ineluctably toward a third world war -- a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long." All I can say is that I'm glad he was wrong.
For a longer list of failed predictions about war and peace, check out the appendix to John Mueller's Quiet Cataclysm, which was my source for the quotations offered above. I'm not saying that scholars, pundits, and prognosticators don't get it right from time to time, but trying to offer specific predictions for the next year or so strikes me as a harmless but not very serious exercise. Social scientists can forecast certain broad trends, and our theories can certainly identify recurring tendencies that can help us anticipate broad features of the emerging strategic landscape. But the combination of human imagination, agency, contingency, and unanticipated consequences generally plays havoc with efforts at crystal ball-gazing.
Case in point: at a New Year's Eve party two years ago, I predicted that at least one country would leave the eurozone within the next year. I was clearly wrong about the specifics, but not about the general problems that the euro would face. Which merely goes to show that you can be broadly right but still be precisely wrong.
In any case, I'm not going to offer any predictions this year (at least not until I've had a glass or two of champagne). Instead, I'm taking the social scientist's normal cop-out and will look in the rearview mirror instead. And instead of just gazing back at 2010, here's my Top Ten Global Events of the past decade, in no particular order of importance:
1. January 2001: The inauguration of President Gore (oops, I mean Bush). The contested U.S. presidential election in 2000 proved even more momentous than we realized at the time, because it brought George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a gaggle of neoconservatives to power. I'm not saying Al Gore would have made a great foreign-policy president, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than Bush and Co. All in all, a hell of a way to start a decade.
2. 9/11. No surprise here, of course. 9/11 altered the course of U.S. foreign policy as dramatically as Pearl Harbor in 1941, and mostly for the worse, and because the United States is so powerful, its response to 9/11 had far-reaching implications all over the world. As horrific as that day was, the real damage came in the form of self-inflicted wounds (such as the invasion of Iraq) that proved even more costly than al Qaeda's original attack.
3. The Beijing Olympics. I pick this as a symbol of China's emergence as a major player in global politics, which is of course precisely what the Chinese government intended. One could also argue that it marked the end of China's self-effacing strategy of a "peaceful rise," and the beginning of a more self-assertive approach to advancing Chinese national interests. In other words, they're starting to act a lot like the great powers of the past, which implies increased great-power security competition in the decades ahead.
4. The Crash Heard 'Round the World. When the history of the 21st century is written, the financial meltdown that began in 2007 is bound to receive plenty of scrutiny. Unless, the same institutions whose greedy machinations helped produce it -- and who are still largely in place -- manage to generate something even worse in the years to come.
It's Christmas Eve, and my brain has been deadened by hours of grading a take-home final exam. (The papers themselves aren't bad, but reading dozens of answers to the same questions can get a bit mind-numbing). I can't dull the pain with egg nog or some other suitable spirit until this evening, so I'm taking a quick break to offer this holiday post.
My own holiday shopping is finished, thank goodness, but I began wondering about what sorts of gifts I'd like to see some prominent world leaders receive. In the spirit of the season, here's a hypothetical gift list for a few people who've been on my mind over the past year or so.
1. For Barack Obama. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. President Obama is ending the year on an up note, having successfully managed to end Don't Ask Don't Tell and obtained Senate approval for the New Start Treaty. I think the former achievement is more important than the latter, but both are worthy accomplishments. The new Congress won't be nearly as friendly (and the last one was no picnic), so the president will need all of Machiavelli's wily advice to confound his opponents. Let's hope he learns that it's better to be feared than loved, at least when you're dealing with today's Grand Obstructionist Party.
2. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: a pair of reading glasses, an espresso machine, and a couple of days off. Why? So she can read the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I just downloaded this sucker, and it's over 200 pages of bracing bureaucratic prose. I plan to read it myself over Xmas break, but I'll bet it takes me a few espressos to get through it too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be cited more than read, even by people at State.
4. For Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: A copy of Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes, and Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Because if we don't get to "yes" on two states, one state is what you'll end up with.
5. For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: A copy of The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chavez has been obsessed with Simon Bolivar -to the extent of exhuming his remains in an attempt to prove that the South American hero was poisoned-but Marquez's novel also offers a warning of the sort of fate that Chavez himself may be destined for.
6. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: A copy of Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." Running the United Nations must sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, and every bit as absurd as Camus judged the fate of man to be. But perhaps the Secretary-General can take comfort from Camus' conclusion -- "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."
7. For North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un: A DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question is: will he govern like Nurse Ratched, or like McMurphy?
8. For General David Petraeus: A Youtube link to Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There just might be a lesson in there.
9. For Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao: A framed reproduction of Matisse's Fall of Icarus, as a reminder of what can happen when one flies too high too fast.
10. For readers of this blog: My thanks for your interest, your sometimes spirited dissents, and your generous words of support. May each of you bask in the love of family and friends this holiday season, and may we all grow a little bit wiser in the year ahead.
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Yesterday I learned that one of my posts-to be specific, my thoughts on the Cordoba House/Park 51 controversy -- is a finalist for 2010 Prize in Politics from the internet aggregator website 3Quarks Daily.
The winners will be chosen by journalist and writer Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper's, and announced on Dec. 21. I'm grateful to anyone who mentioned me during the nomination period and I feel honored to be among the finalists. I will now start preparing my "concession" post for Dec. 22.
See 3Quarks Daily nominations here.
2. Harvard students showed that they have clearer ethical vision than Harvard's leaders.
3. The Obama administration's loss is Just World Books' gain. (Translation: Ambassador Chas Freeman has written a book: America's Misadventures in the Middle East.) Buy it and read it and you'll be really annoyed that he was witch-hunted out of public service.
4. The Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence was short-listed for the Sakharov Prize and right-wingers go bananas. The award eventually went to a prominent Cuban dissident, but anything that drives the WSJ op-ed page crazy is probably a good thing. See the Magnes Zionist here.
5. Britain's defense cuts confirm my view of NATO's future. Like Dorian Gray, the alliance is slowly fading into irrelevance while trying to keep up appearances. No matter how many new "strategic concepts" get written and how many nice meals they serve at the next ministerial meeting, the high-water mark of transatlantic security cooperation is behind us.
6. NYT columnist Tom Friedman had a moment of clarity.
7. NYT reporter Ethan Bronner did too! There are even hints that a few people in the Obama administration may be aware of just how badly they have screwed this one up. I'm not really smiling at this one, of course, but it is gratifying when occasional flashes of insight emerge from the cloud of propaganda and prevarication that normally surrounds this topic.
9. I finished my first Barry Eisler novel, and rejoiced in the fact that there is a whole bunch more that I haven't read it. Combined with the new John Le Carre book, my addiction to espionage fiction will be sated for awhile.
My family took relatively few vacations when I was growing up, and I didn't get into the habit myself until I was well into adulthood (and even parenthood). But now I've come to appreciate the value of a change of scene, and the opportunity to let one's mind wander down unfamiliar paths for awhile. Among other things, I've found that some downtime often clarifies issues that have been clouded, and helps us see things in a new light. If we spend all our time pounding away at the same problems, we tend to come up with the same solutions over and over again. Sometimes that's the right thing to do, but taking a bit of time away can be intellectually liberating. Not to mention good for one's mood.
I'm headed off for a couple of weeks vacation tomorrow, and my intention is to try to partially wean myself from my faithful laptop and let others carry most of the load here. I've lined up some interesting guest bloggers for while I'm away, and I'm sure I won't be able to resist chiming in now and again. I've loaded my Kindle with a bunch of new books, packed a few others, and my main goal is to kick back and absorb some new ideas. And when I'm not doing that, I intend to spend a lot of time walking on the beach lost in thought. In any case, I'm counting on all of you to keep the world on an even keel till I get back to full-time blogging, sometime around the end of the month. . .
One more thing: thanks to all of you for reading this blog. If you can, take some time off yourselves!
The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He's also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.
In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:
You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "
He then proceeds to trace how the same combat-induced condition once known as "shell shock" (two syllables, clear and evocative), gradually evolved into "battle fatigue" (four syllables), then "operational exhaustion" (eight syllables) and then into today's "post-traumatic stress disorder." (eight syllables plus a hyphen!). And in the process, its nature is concealed and its impact is quietly diluted.
The spirit of Carlin is probably smiling ruefully right now, because this tendency appears to be alive and well. According to the Associated Press, the Army has now dropped the term "psychological operations" (nine syllables, unless you use the two-syllable label "psy-ops").
The new term is -- are you ready? -- "military information support operations" (a whopping fourteen syllables). Both the old term and the new one are euphemisms, but the latter is precisely the sort of bland and neutral phrase intended to conceal what is really going on.
You know, just like saying "enhanced interrogation" (seven highly misleading syllables), instead of "torture" (just two syllables; clear, on point, and illegal).
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
I didn't get a comment on the "Gang that Couldn't Spook Straight," otherwise known as the hapless Russian spy ring that never seemed to do any spying. It turns out one of the spies was a student here at the Kennedy School, but I didn't have any contact with him and can't offer you any inside information. Given that Harvard Law School has Alger Hiss among its alumni, I'd say we've still got a ways to go. But as a colleague of mine noted, it does lend a new meaning to the term "mid-career program."
In any case, my favorite line in the whole business was uttered by a neighbor of "Richard and Cynthia Murphy" of Montclair, NJ. "They couldn't have been spies," joked 15 year-old Jessie Gugig. "Look what she did with the hydrangeas!"
I guess this means prospective al Qaeda moles can conceal their true identities by cultivating nice gardens (while taking care not to buy too much fertilizer, of course). But that also means we ought to be suspicious if anyone's garden is too nice. Uh-oh... I've got three hydrangeas in bloom in my garden right now, and if I start getting the fish-eye from my neighbors, I guess I'll know why.
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I'm just back from a quick lecture trip in Paris, and offer here a few quick and unscientific observations.
1. You know all those clichés about how unfriendly Parisians are to Americans? In my experience, totally false. I had a nasty encounter with an ill-tempered concierge in a cheap hotel in 1976, and that's it. Virtually everyone I've ever dealt with there has been friendly and welcoming, and even tolerant of my French, which I daresay is tres imparfait.
2. Contrary to modern mythology, not all Parisians are thin.
4. There are lots of bicyclists in Paris. As a confirmed bike commuter myself, I can only applaud. I didn't see a single one wearing a helmet. Pourquoi?
5. As I've noted before, Europe is far more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural than it was when I first visited, a trend especially evident in Paris. It leads to certain incongruous moments, to say the least. On the Metro one evening, an older man entered the car with an accordion and began serenading the passengers (almost all of whom were non-white) with traditional French songs (think Aznavour or Piaf). The passengers sat there stone-faced and completely unresponsive, and I didn't see him earn any tips. Weird.
6. Lastly, a culinary puzzle I've pondered before: Why is that you can go into just about any modest establishment in any city or town or village in France and be assured of finding wonderful bread? Similarly, you can go into any non-descript café in a tiny Italian village and get an espresso that Starbucks would kill to duplicate. Or wander into any anonymous pizza joint in Manhattan and you can get a slice of thin-crust pizza that is ineffably superior to versions of the same thing found elsewhere.
The point is not that the foods themselves are unique; globalization has spread falafel, sushi, pad thai, rogan josh, borscht, and countless other foods to many corners of the world. (Although, as a fan of the perenakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine of Singapore, I keep waiting for someone to open a perenakan restaurant here in Boston). Instead, the puzzle is why the imitations tend to be inferior to the originals, unless you are dealing with very high-end purveyors. It's not like making a decent baguette or a good thin-crust pizza is a classified secret like stealth technology. Is this simply because consumers of the globalized imitation have lower standards (i.e., they're just happy to have such foods available, even if they're not made particularly well), or is it because some foods require specialized techniques and local ingredients (i.e., the right kind of flour or water) that aren't as widely available or as easily duplicated as we think?
el gran flaco/flickr
Via Andrew Sullivan, I learn that Ramesh Ponnaru of NRO's The Corner has never watched American Idol. I can't make the same claim, alas: my teen-age kids were big fans a couple of years ago (they moved on as they matured) and I confess that I watched a couple of episodes with them before my taste-o-meter rebelled.
But I am proud to say that I've never watched an episode of 24 or Lost, and I don't think I missed much. I read enough sky-is-falling, eve-of-destruction propaganda doing my day job, and I don't need to add to it in my off-hours. In addition to encouraging more permissive attitudes toward torture, shows like 24 also feed the mistaken beliefs that 1) the whole damn world is a vast and murky conspiracy, and 2) the United States possesses magical powers to monitor and shape events in real time. If that were really true, would we have marched into such deep quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan? The cruel reality is that political life is messy and unpredictable and most people in government aren't evil geniuses. (Well, OK, maybe Dick Cheney). Instead, they are mostly just ambitious human beings with the normal array of human frailties. We don't need the likes of Jack Bauer to save the day; what we need is a tough-minded recognition that life isn't fair, that bad things are going to happen no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that victory often goes not to the side that is most ambitious but to the side that makes the fewest mistakes.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.