A few idle questions occurred to me this morning, and I thought I'd share them with you.
1. If NATO didn't exist, would the United States and Europe bother to create it? Why?
2. Is it possible that the Obama administration is just telling Israeli and Saudi leaders what they want to hear, and then doing what they think is in the U.S. interest? Wouldn't it be nice to think so?
3. Chuck Hagel is really upset that US defense spending is going down. My question: how many of you Americans out there are now worried about foreign attack as a result?
4. Perhaps the most fundamental question in politics is the classic "who guards the guardians?" In other words, how does one create institutions powerful enough to protect the state, without having them take over? Modern version: how do you keep super-secret agencies like the NSA from overstepping their boundaries? (If your answer is "Congressional oversight" you haven't been paying attention.)
5. Will a rising China continue to tolerate the U.S. security role in Asia, or will it gradually try to convince other Asian states to distance themselves from Washington? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about global politics over the next few decades.
6. How many people at AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, JINSA, the Presidents' Conference or the Saudi embassy are sitting around thinking: "how the heck do we stop a deal with Iran yet not get blamed for derailing it?"
7. Is the finance industry inherently corrupt? Every few months we hear about another big financial firm being indicted for something, and eventually paying a big fine. Yet the leaders of this industry are still respected public figures (and big-time political contributors). Seems to me if leading firms in an industry are more-or-less constantly being caught cheating, there's something fundamentally wrong with the way the whole sector is run.
8. If Toronto mayor Rob Ford has to resign in the wake of his admission that he used crack cocaine, which Canadian university will be first to offer him a visiting professorship?
9. Have ANY of the people who led the charge for NATO intervention in Libya expressed second thoughts about the results? Just asking.
10. Hawks and doves can both get their countries into big trouble. Hawks do it by getting you into unnecessary and protracted wars; doves by being too trusting and leaving you vulnerable. Yet being hawkish tends to pay off better professionally, at least in the United States. Why?
I have other questions too, but I'll stop there. Maybe some of you have answers!
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I have a question about the diplomatic value of all the NSA spying we've been reading about lately: Where's the tangible payoff for all this activity? With each week, it seems, we learn more about just how active and energetic the NSA has been. They've spied on our enemies, they've spied on our closest allies, and they've spied on us. The NSA's defenders have made various claims about thwarting terrors plots and the like, but these claims don't seem to stand up too much scrutiny. I repeat: Where are the big foreign policy and national security gains that we're reaping from this work?
As a realist, I'm neither surprised nor horrified to learn that governments spy on each other, or that a wealthy, powerful, self-important, and slightly paranoid country like the United States might...ahem...do a bit more of it than others. But this unthinking, unstrategic Hoovering of data, megadata, and actual conversations is obviously out of control, and the diplomatic and other costs could easily outstrip any putative benefits.
In particular, given our capacity and willingness to spy on virtually everyone, you'd think that American diplomats would be entering foreign policy contests and diplomatic negotiations with an enormous advantage over their counterparts. If we're as good at extracting private information from other countries' networks, cell phones, emails, and the like, you'd think U.S. officials would usually have a good idea of our antagonists' bottom line and would be really skilled at manipulating them to our advantage. We now know that the Allies in World War II got big strategic benefits from cracking German and Japanese codes; I want to know if we're getting similar benefits today.
It is hard to believe we are, given that America's foreign policy record since the end of the Cold War is mostly one of failure. And that leads me to suspect that one of two things is true. Either 1) the NSA is good at collecting gazilla-bytes of stuff but not very good at deciding what to collect or figuring out what it means, or 2) the rest of our foreign policy establishment is not very good at taking advantage of the information the NSA has worked so hard to acquire. In other words, either the NSA is not worth the money we're paying for it, or the rest of our foreign policy establishment is less competent than we thought. To be frank, I'm not sure which possibility I prefer.
There is a third possibility, of course: The kind of information that the NSA is good at getting isn't that useful for most policy problems. They collect it because that is what they are able to do -- like the proverbial drunkard looking for lost keys under the lamppost "because that's where the light is" -- but the overwhelming majority of it doesn't really aid our foreign policy (or our counterterrorism efforts) very much. One might say the same for the vast majority of stuff that the U.S. government now classifies. Which raises the worrisome question of whether we are unwittingly laying the groundwork for a much more intrusive authoritarian state without getting much compensating benefits.
Given how ossified and entrenched government bureaucracies tend to be, I doubt another Church Committee-style congressional inquiry is going to have much effect on this problem. Instead, it seems to me that what we need is a real root-and-branch investigation that fearlessly probes the costs and benefits of these activities. And it can't be done by pre-neutered Congressional watchdogs whose sympathies are clear. To be both effective and credible, we'd need an independent task force of intelligence professionals, civil liberties experts, highly skeptical journalists (Jane Mayer or Glenn Greenwald, anyone?), some seasoned but sensible politicians, and maybe a smart academic or two. Otherwise, I suspect we'll get a whitewash, and a rapid return to business-as-usual.
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As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life's too short to spend all one's time on the activities of one particular interest group -- even if it has an awful lot of influence -- and there are many topics at least as important as the special relationship between the United States and one small country in the Middle East. Plus, I'm satisfied with my earlier writings on this topic, in part because subsequent events kept confirming their accuracy and because most of the criticisms we received were remarkably weak and tended to confirm our main points.
But occasionally I do see someone writing about the Israel lobby in a way that merits a response. Case in point: the recent WaPo blog post on this topic by Max Fisher, which inspired a sympathetic exegesis by Michael Koplow here. Fisher is often an astute analyst and Koplow has written some smart things on other topics, so it was somewhat surprising to see such careless reasoning from both of them.
The gist of their argument is two-fold. First, they maintain that there is a widespread belief that AIPAC and other organizations in the Israel lobby are all-powerful, and that the lobby "controls" U.S. Middle East policy. Koplow implies that John Mearsheimer and I hold this view, though Fisher does not. Second, recent events -- most notably the Obama administration's failure to heed AIPAC et al.'s push for military intervention in Syria -- demonstrate that this view is bogus. Together, the two pieces suggest that all this talk about an "Israel lobby" is sort of silly, and that these groups have rather limited influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Like some other attempts to kick up dust on this question, both pieces involve the ritual slaughter of a straw man. No serious person writing on this topic believes the Israel lobby is "all-powerful" or that it controls every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. It is telling that Fisher does not mention or quote any individual or group making such a claim. Mearsheimer and I certainly didn't; in our book we repeatedly state that the lobby does not get its way all the time. We also emphasized that its activities were akin to those of other powerful interest groups, and generally consistent with normal practice in American politics.
Viewed in this light, the lobby's failure to get the United States into a war in Syria is hardly telling evidence of its limited influence. Getting the United States to launch an unprovoked war is a big task -- especially when you consider how America's recent wars in that part of the world have gone -- and no lobbying or interest group can accomplish that by itself. Various elements of the lobby did play an important role in getting the United States to invade Iraq, but as we emphasized in our book, they didn't do it by themselves then either. In particular, the war would not have occurred had Bush and Cheney not gotten on board, and it would almost certainly not have happened absent the 9/11 attacks. As with all interest groups, it matters what they are asking for and when they are asking for it.
Does this mean the lobby's power is on the wane? Maybe, but not by much. Israel continues to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid each year, even though it is now a wealthy country. It gets this aid even as it continues to take actions the United States opposes, most notably building settlements in the Occupied Territories. The United States continues to provide it with diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international organizations, and U.S. officials consistently turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that are making the two-state solution that the U.S. favors impossible. Aspiring officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power still have to perform demeaning acts of self-criticism in order to win Senate confirmation. Do Fisher and Koplow think the lobby's influence has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this?
Or ask yourself this: why has President Obama spent more time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu -- the leader of a small Middle Eastern country whose total population is less than New York City -- than with any other foreign official, and why did Netanyahu recently get a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry? Is it because Obama and Kerry find Bibi's company so engaging that they just can't bear to be apart? I don't think so. One measure of the lobby's impact is simply the amount of time and attention that US officials have to devote to this one small country, while studiously ignoring its nuclear arsenal, illegal settlements, and other deficiencies. (No country is perfect, of course, but Israel is uniquely immune to criticism by prominent U.S. political figures.)
Finally, if you're not wearing blinders, it is impossible to miss the fact that AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, the RJC, the ADL, and a host of other hardline groups in the lobby are now the principal opponents to a diplomatic deal with Iran. Just look at this article from The Forward, or this one from Ha'aretz, which make it clear that these are the principal groups holding Obama's feet to the fire on this issue. And of course it is many of these same groups or individuals who have been insisting for years that the U.S. keep all options "on the table" and use force against Iran if necessary. Absent pressure from these groups, it would be much, much easier for the United States to come to terms with Tehran.
Will they succeed in derailing a deal? I don't know. As I laid out in detail more than a year ago, the situation vis-à-vis Iran is different than the pre-war situation with Iraq in 2003, and "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States are not as unified on this topic. A reasonable deal with Iran is clearly preferable to another Middle East war, and preferable to making unrealistic demands that make it harder to monitor Iran's nuclear research activities and might eventually convince Iran to pursue actual weapons. Because the United States and its allies have powerful incentives to pursue a diplomatic solution, resistance from hardline groups in the lobby may be insufficient to stop them.
Bu no interest group gets everything it wants. Interest groups and lobbies advance their cause partly by pushing for specific policies (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). But they also succeed when they can limit the options that policymakers are willing to consider or can force policymakers to offer up other concessions to keep these groups happy. AIPAC famously lost the AWACs fight during the Reagan administration, but the battle was so difficult and costly that Reagan never really challenged it again. Similarly, former US Mideast negotiator (and FP colleague) Aaron David Miller has noted that "those of us advising the Secretary of State and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking, and when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn't like, we too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship." Bottom line: powerful interest groups often get their way not by achieving specific goals directly, but by shaping and constraining the options politicians are willing to contemplate.
So the question to ask is not whether AIPAC "wins" any particular issue (particularly when that issue involves a big demand). It is what US policy would be if these groups did not exist, or if they were advocating a different course of action. In other words, if Obama and Kerry didn't have to worry at all about the lobby, or if groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now had as much clout as AIPAC, would the United States have handled relation with Iran in exactly the same way for the past twenty year or more? More tellingly still: would the United States have done a better job of brokering an Israel-Palestinian peace if its negotiators (a number of whom were drawn from the lobby's ranks) had not been acting as "Israel's lawyer" and if the U.S. could have made its aid to Israel conditional on an end to settlement building? If you think the lobby's clout had no impact on our mishandling of these two important problems, I've got a bridge to sell you and then a couple of books for you to read.
One final point. Despite the flaws in their two posts, Fisher and Koplow may in fact be on to something. Two things have changed since Mearsheimer and I wrote our original article and subsequent book: 1) a lot more people are aware of the lobby and understand that its positions are often harmful to U.S. (and Israeli) interests, and 2) a few more people are willing to talk and write about this phenomenon openly, instead of being silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism or the fear of professional retribution. Democracy thrives on free, open, and rational debate, which is why a sensible but frank discussion of the lobby's influence is all to the good. Or as Andrew Sullivan might say: know hope.
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One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it's most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. relationship with Iran, but that's hardly the only place where we are constantly being reminded about the need to keep our powder dry and our finger on the trigger.
The more I think about it, however, the dumber that expression sounds. Why? Because for the United States, the option of using military force is always on the table, especially when we're dealing with weak states like Iran. After all, since the end of the Cold War the United States has used force over and over: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Serbia, and a host of other places too. We've fired cruise missiles, Hellfires, and other sophisticated chunks of ordnance at a wide variety of targets, and you could add Special Forces operations and computer viruses (e.g., Stuxnet) to the list.
Of course, people do not use this admonition to keep force "on the table" in a serious or sophisticated fashion; it's just an easy way for politicians and pundits to show they're tough-minded and not averse to using the pointed end of the stick. In other words, it's a way to maintain your inside-the-Beltway street cred. But it's really a meaningless phrase, because countries like Iran (and others) are well aware that the option of using force is right there and could be used if U.S. leaders ever decided it would accomplish a genuine positive purpose.
In fact, this constant insistence that force must be "on the table" also reveals a pervasive blindness about how the United States looks to others. People repeat this phrase because they seem to think that other countries see the United States as a feckless wimp that will never do anything to harm them and that our politicians need to rattle sabers and bluster just to get other countries' attention. News flash: That's not how the rest of the world sees Uncle Sam these days. In reality, everybody knows the United States is still very powerful -- the sequester notwithstanding -- and other countries are well aware of the frequency with which we've been blowing things up in different places for the past 20 years. Our politicians may be trying to remind U.S. voters that they are willing to use force, but the rest of the world hardly needs to be told at this point.
In the vast majority of cases -- including Iran -- the use of force makes no sense because it won't advance U.S. policy goals and could in fact make things worse. And the only way to give the option of using force more coercive bite is to make it look like we are really about to use it, either by issuing an ultimatum (with a strict time limit) or by mobilizing forces in a highly visible way so that it really looks like we're coming. But that tactic has obvious risks: If the target doesn't capitulate and do our bidding, either we have to follow through with an attack we may not really want to launch or we pay the political costs of issuing a threat and then backing down. Issuing overt military threats is also a really good way to destroy the current coalition that is pressuring Iran and the absolutely best way to convince Iran that it has no choice but to sprint across the nuclear threshold as quickly as it can.
Given the many options that America's vast military power creates, the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to convince others that force is off the table. If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we're not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won't accomplish much and we probably couldn't overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won't exercise either option?
In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of "nonaggression" pact. Such pledges are never ironclad, however, and U.S. and Iranian officials both say they will judge each other not by words but by actions. The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that's going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It's a tricky problem, but isn't it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?
In the end, the real issue is whether potential adversaries can resolve the political issues that might bring the use of force into play. The option to use it is always right there on the table -- especially for the United States -- but most states don't worry about this very much because the political differences between them and us aren't serious enough to warrant a military response. The bottom line: We would get further in our efforts to resolve some of our differences with others if U.S. politicians and commentators weren't constantly reminding them that we have oodles of military power lying right there on the table ready to be used. I mean: It's not like Iran doesn't know that already.
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One of the hardest things for a great power to do is reverse course when it's made a strategic blunder, especially when it involves a war. Fred Ikle wrote a whole book about this problem -- the classic Every War Must End -- where he described many of political obstacles that getting in the way of cutting one's losses and either making peace or just getting out. You know some of the reasons: politicians don't like to admit they screwed up, the fallacy of "sunk costs" continues to drive policy, the military doesn't like admitting defeat, etc. And even when the decision to end a war is made, it usually takes longer to get out than it should.
Case in point: Afghanistan. I don't know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn't going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn't going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to "surge" there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave. The corrupt Karzai government has been giving us a hard time about the terms under which the residual force would operate, however, and insisting that we accept their terms if we wanted to stay.
But instead of seizing this free gift and saying "da khoday pa amaan" ("goodbye" in Pashto), Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials have done a full-court press to persuade Karzai & Co. to let us keep pouring resources into this bottomless pit. To do that, reports the New York Times, U.S. officials "are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered."
I have two comments. First, if you've read any of the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), you'd know that vast sums of money have been squandered already. It therefore beggars belief that we're going to do a better job of monitoring Afghan spending of our aid programs with a smaller force. Bottom line: a lot of the money spent in the future is just going to disappear.
Second, this whole enterprise looks like a can-kicking, face-saving operation, precisely the sort of long, drawn-out end that Ikle and others have described. In this regard, it is revealing to read what retired general David Barno, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-05, told the Times we are going to get for this extra effort (my emphasis):
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded - fuel, food, weapons, salaries. . . If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."
That's right: more than ten years of war, and we've managed to create a corrupt central government that cannot defeat the Taliban (who aren't getting $4 billion a year in US aid, by the way). The government can manage a stalemate, but only if Uncle Sucker keeps thousands of troops there and keeps the money flowing. . . presumably forever.
I don't quite know how to describe this policy, but I sure wouldn't use the word "strategy."
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Some of America's Middle Eastern allies are reportedly not very happy with the United States these days. I refer, of course, to Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are troubled by U.S. discussions with Iran and upset by Obama's reluctance to plunge head-first into the Syrian quagmire. But those of us with a more strategic view of U.S. interests in the Middle East may welcome these developments, as they contain the kernel of a more flexible and effective approach that may be emerging.
Let's start with U.S. interests. The United States has at most three strategic interests in the Middle East. First, we want Persian Gulf oil and gas to continue to flow to world markets. Hydraulic fracturing notwithstanding, a major disruption in energy supplies from the Gulf would drive up world prices and hurt a still-fragile global economy. Second, we want to discourage countries in the Middle East from developing WMD, and especially nuclear weapons. (It would have been better had the United States done more to stop Israel from getting the bomb, but that horse left the barn in the 1960s.) Third, we would like to reduce extremist violence emanating from this region, mostly in the form of terrorism. (This threat is usually exaggerated, in my view, but it is hardly non-existent.)
The key to advancing these interests is two-fold: first, help maintain a balance of power in the region, and second, keep the US military presence there to a minimum. If one regional state becomes too powerful, or if an external power were able to intervene there, it might be able to dominate the various oil-producing countries and manipulate energy supplies in ways we might find unpleasant. Concerns about that possibility led the United States to create the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s, and led us to tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. It also led to our direct military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
At the same time, excessive U.S. interference and a large-scale U.S. military presence threatens our other strategic goals, either by encouraging some states to seek WMD as a means of deterrence or by fueling anti-American terrorism of the Al Qaeda sort. Policies like 1990s-era "dual containment" or the Bush administration's disastrous attempt at "regional transformation" were strategic missteps for this reason, not to mention their human and economic costs. Given the unpredictable turmoil that has roiled the region ever since the "Arab spring" erupted, it makes even more sense for the U.S. to keep its presence limited, lest we be seen as a predatory imperial power addicted to interference in local political events.
A balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) approach to the Middle East also highlights the costs of America's "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia. If you are playing the balance of power game, you want to maximize your diplomatic flexibility and avoid becoming overly committed to any particular ally. As was said of England during its own balance of power heyday: it had "no permanent friends, only permanent interests."
Today, because the United States is so closely tied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, it gets blamed for and associated with their various misdeeds. Specifically, we are seen as complicit in Israel's cruel treatment of its Palestinian subjects, and seen as the chief protector of a decadent Saudi monarchy whose ruling values are sharply at odds with our own. Equally important, preserving these "special relationships" has reduced U.S. influence over both partners: the Saudis have repeatedly dragged their feet on counter-terrorism issues while Israel has continued expand settlements and either threatened or used force with disturbing frequency, and often in ways that complicate US relations with the rest of the region.
Talking to Iran and taking a more measured approach to intervention in the region is thus a very good development. Although the United States and Iran won't become close allies anytime soon, rebuilding a working relationship with Tehran would be a great benefit to the U.S. strategic interests. Not only would it facilitate cooperation on various issues where U.S. and Iranian interests align (such as Afghanistan), but the mere fact that the U.S. and Iran were talking to each other constructively would also make our other allies in the region more attentive to our concerns and responsive to our requests.
I don't want to overstate this trend or exaggerate its likely benefits: the United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won't immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It's also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.
Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power -- a geographic reality we sometimes forget -- and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing "hard to get." That's why it's not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.
For further reading: for an excellent analysis of these issues which makes a number of similar points, see Paul Pillar's blog post here.
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I spent this past weekend in Southern California, visiting my daughter at her college's Parents Weekend. While I was there, I drove her out to see the house in Glendale where my mother was raised. My grandparents had moved there from Phoenix in 1932, and we visited them many times during my childhood. I hadn't seen the house in nearly 30 years, but memories came flooding back as we drove around.
Be patient: This post really is about foreign policy.
It's still a nice little house and a pleasant middle-class neighborhood; what's different is that the WASPs are mostly gone and the community is now mostly Latino. And seeing the transformation got me thinking about groups and tribes and nations and the inevitable melding of cultures that is a central part of human history.
At any given point in time, human groups take enormous pride in their own values, achievements, and culture. These beliefs and traditions often form the core of individual and group identities and are regarded as something sacred and fundamental. Accordingly, they must be defended against outsiders. Sometimes these group identities are amusingly innocent or even trivial -- as with Red Sox vs. Yankee fans -- and at others time they are the taproot of bitter and violent wars. Think of Serbs vs. Croats, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Israeli Jews vs. Palestinian Arabs, Hindus vs. Muslims in South Asia, and so on and on back through the ages. Modern nationalism is of course another manifestation of this tendency of cultural groups to see themselves as distinct from and superior to others in some way and to seek an independent state in which these values can be protected and preserved.
And so it is when neighborhoods change. I'll bet there were some people in my grandparents' old neighborhood who were upset as its composition shifted, just as there are Americans who worry about what will happen once the "white" population is no longer a majority. Fear of the "other" plays a big role in such concerns, as well as the fear that the values one cherishes today are under siege and may be lost forever. This same impulse sometimes takes a deadly turn, as in the murderous rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway or the recent killing of a Muslim grandfather in Britain by a Ukrainian immigrant who claims to have been defending the "white" race.
But the idea that there is something essential and unchanging about any cultural construct is fundamentally flawed. It assumes that a group's values and customary practices are fixed and eternal, handed down and preserved from some pristine founding moment. It also assumes that membership in the group is tightly controlled, as opposed to evolving over time. In fact, most if not all group cultures are a mélange of distant and obscure historical sources, most of them long-since forgotten. Even the values of today's cultural groups aren't fixed; they are constantly being reshaped by interactions with other groups and by amalgamations and assimilation of new members. It's true of language, music, cuisine, art, and even religion. No man is an island, wrote John Donne, and neither are the world's various groups.
In other words, the "core values" that different tribes, nations, religions, sects, etc. seek to defend -- sometimes to the death -- are neither pure nor fixed, and many of the sacred and "eternal" principles that people are so committed to today are going to evaporate or evolve in the years ahead. This will occur in most cases not because some outside power imposed a different set of values by force, but simply because ideas, norms, values, and behaviors are always being shaped by exposure to the ideas, norms, values, and behaviors of others.
The only way to keep a culture pure and unchanging is to isolate its members from outside influences (and even that won't work completely). Fundamentalist religions use various techniques to do this -- e.g., living in separate communities or compounds, barring marriage to non-group members, or conducting elaborate indoctrination rituals, etc. -- but it's a losing game in today's interconnected world. Countries like pre-Meiji Japan and today's North Korea tried to keep foreign influences out too, but that's impossible to do these days.
It's also a recipe for stagnation. Isolating oneself from outside influences is a good way for any society to remain trapped in the same rut forever, like a restaurant that never changes its menu or a musician who plays the same songs exactly the same way at each performance. Indeed, I would argue that the most vibrant and dynamic societies tend to be the ones that are most open to new ideas and influences and willing to incorporate them into one's existing cultural portfolio.
If the United States has done one thing right over the past two centuries, it has been its willingness and ability to assimilate new groups and transform them relatively quickly into "Americans." It's hardly been a smooth or perfect process, of course, but the key point is that it wasn't a one-way street. New arrivals didn't just passively accept the cultural and political practices established by the (Anglo-Saxon) Founding Fathers and leave them as they were. Instead each new group brought somewhat different ideas with it and helped weave them into the broader fabric of American society. For example, the black Americans who descended from African slaves ended up enriching American culture in countless ways. In short, what it means to be "American" isn't a fixed notion and never has been.
The ethnic, racial, and religious diversity of the United States creates problems, to be sure, but this feature is also what makes it so interesting to live here. My own personal history is almost a stereotype of this process: If you look just at my immediate family and my in-laws, we have a bunch of people from different European backgrounds (most of whom ended up either as Episcopalians or atheists), plus Latinos, Mormons, Sikhs, Jews, Asians, and some who defy readily easy classification. Our family would be less interesting if it were more homogeneous, and so would the country as a whole.
There has been a lot of talk about the "clash of civilizations" ever since Samuel Huntington wrote that famous essay and book. Sam was a great scholar and a friend, but I thought he was wrong then and I still think so today. Cultural differences may play a role in contemporary global conflict, but most of them seem to be occurring within civilizations and not between them. More to the point, these clashes seem to me to rest on a tragic error: the belief that it is both necessary and possible to defend one's own group's values against the values of others, instead of welcoming the fruitful interaction that cultural exchange can produce.
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I'm in Williamsburg, Virginia, to give a set of lectures at the College of William and Mary. I'll be speaking first to students on the virtues of theory and the vices of "simplistic hypothesis testing," based on the article I wrote with John Mearsheimer that was recently published in the European Journal of International Relations. Then a class presentation on the relationship between academia and the policy world, which will address issues I've discussed here. And then I wrap up with a public lecture this evening on "Why Does U.S. Foreign Policy Keep Failing?"
There are a lot of potential answers to that last question, and I'm sure each of you has your favorite candidate(s). My own list is a pretty long one (and no, it doesn't start with the Israel lobby), but the one I'm thinking most about today is the irresponsibility of so many public officials. How can one retain any respect for most politicians these days, given their recent behavior? The GOP appears to be making a run at the world record for self-destructive political conduct, which wouldn't be so bad if they were the only ones damaged by it. Unfortunately, their brain-dead fiscal brinkmanship is actively harmful to the U.S. economy and is doing more damage to U.S. credibility than a thousand Munichs. Not that it bothers people who are trapped in the Limbaugh/FOX News bubble.
As I've noted before, a key part of the problem is a lack of accountability within our entire political system, and maybe even our entire society. Politicians in gerrymandered districts aren't accountable because they only have to appeal to a carefully selected set of voters who already agreed with the incumbents. (This is democracy inside-out: Instead of broad groups of voters selecting their political representatives, we have career politicians drawing district lines in order to cherry-pick the voters they want). Foreign-policy "experts" can launch disastrous wars and commit countless follies -- and then land safe sinecures at various D.C. think tanks, from which they can plot their return to power and continue to lobby for the same policies that failed when they were in power. Top officials can admit they lied to Congress or screw up the Obamacare rollout and still remain comfortably in their posts. With rare exceptions, military commanders can continue to rise even when their battlefield performance is subpar. And it's not like we've held Wall Street accountable for its own machinations either. Even universities tend to turn a blind eye to faculty misconduct unless it is truly egregious (and sometimes not even then).
Given all that, it's probably hopeless to expect elected officials to show a lot of insight, courage, or backbone. Think about it: How many politicians can you name who seem to be genuinely admirable people, animated not by their own ambitions and ego but by a sincere desire to serve the public? Similarly, how often have you heard some leading political figure say a bunch of nonsensical things that they knew were not true, but did so because saying them was politically expedient?
By contrast, how many politicians can you name who have taken positions they knew might jeopardize their political futures, but did so because they truly believed it was the right thing to do? How many have openly admitted they were wrong about some weighty issue and actually seem humbled by this moment of fallibility? Whether one looks left or right, there just don't seem to be many people with those qualities in our political life these days. I can think of a few, but not many.
I'm not naive about this issue: Politics is the art of compromise, and even principled leaders sometimes have to make trade-offs to advance a broader agenda. And clinging firmly to principle can be dangerous if the principles are loony (see under: Tea Party). But whether the issue is our inability to address basic fiscal issues in a responsible manner, our propensity to intervene in places of no strategic importance, our eroding infrastructure, or the growing gulf between privileged people like me (and you) and the rest of society, the country is crying out for some pragmatic people who are interested in Getting Things Done and have some idea how to do it.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.