You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."
Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).
The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries. But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.
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There's a terrific article by Jack Snyder and Erica Borghard in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review, entitled "The Costs of Empty Threats: A Penny, not a Pound." Apart from its substantive contributions, it's also a nice illustration of how social science knowledge accumulates and progresses. Indeed, the article is also an excellent reminder of why we need a diverse array of scholars in our business, employing a variety of methods and theoretical perspectives.
In this piece, Snyder and Borghard challenge a well-known argument in the field of IR and foreign policy: namely, the idea that "domestic audience costs" give democratic states certain bargaining advantages in international disputes. The idea originated in a brief comment in one of Thomas Schelling's books, but the seminal treatment is a widely cited 1994 article by Jim Fearon (then at Chicago, now at Stanford). Fearon argued that democratic leaders who issued threats toward an adversary and then backed down risked paying "audience costs" (i.e., their publics would punish them for making the threat and then retreating). By contrast, authoritarian leaders did not face similar audience costs (because they were not accountable to public opinion), so they could retreat without fear of domestic electoral punishment. Paradoxically, this situation could give democratic leaders a bargaining advantage in crises: Because democratic leaders would worry in advance about the dangers of bluffing and then being forced to retreat, they would only issue public threats if they were serious and not going to back down.
Fearon's argument had considerable prima facie plausibility, and the basic idea has been used to explain a variety of international phenomena, including the so-called democratic peace. But Fearon did not provide systematic evidence to support his argument, and subsequent attempts to conduct empirical tests of the idea have yielded mixed results.
The Snyder/Borghard piece is the most serious attempt to test this conjecture to date. They conducted detailed historical investigations of a series of post-1945 international crises, and in their words, they find "hardly any evidence" that audience costs operate in the manner depicted. Instead:
Audience cost mechanisms are rare because (1) leaders see unambiguously committing threats as imprudent, (2) domestic audiences care more about policy substance than about consistency between the leader's words and deeds, (3) domestic audiences care about their country's reputation for resolve and national honor independent of whether the leader has issued an explicit threat, and (4) authoritarian targets of democratic threats do not perceive audience costs dynamics in the same way that audience costs theorists do.
And for your would-be policymakers out there, their bottom line is well worth emphasizing:
Future leaders of democracies should not come away from their political science classes having gained the impression that democracies can safely get their way in a crisis by publically committing themselves to fight for otherwise unpersuasive objectives.
There's also a broader lesson for the social sciences too. Like all fields of study, social science advances through a process of conjecture, debate, argument, and refinement. Fearon's original article was an important contribution that stimulated lots of creative thinking, and the fact that it may not stand up to careful empirical scrutiny is nothing to regret. We would not know what we now think we know had he not written the original piece (assuming, of course, that Snyder and Borghard's critique stands up to subsequent scrutiny too).
Note further that there was a genuine division of labor involved here, operating over more than a decade. Fearon's original piece was in the rational choice tradition, based on a formal mathematical model and buttressed by some suggestive supporting anecdotes. Snyder and Borghard's article, by contrast, is mostly a careful and sophisticated empirical test using qualitative, "process-tracing" methods, designed to tease out whether "audience costs" played a significant role in key decisions or not. But Snyder and Borghard also identify possible flaws in the original causal logic and identify alternative causal paths to account for the observed results. Thus, neither type of work is either purely "theoretical" or purely "empirical."
For the academy, the moral of this story is that study of international relations would be greatly impoverished if one approach, method, or theoretical perspective came to dominate the field. This would produce an intellectual monoculture where scholars with different strengths were less likely to engage in a productive if competitive interchange, and one where research agendas were set largely by what questions could be studied by the reigning method du jour. In addition to real-world relevance, academic departments ought to prize intellectual, theoretical, and methodological diversity, both because they will be better able to deal with new topics and because different approaches have different strengths and limitations. This is not an argument for an "anything goes" approach to methods; rather, it is an argument against the repeated efforts to impose a single template for what is "good scholarship" on the field.
I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 -- a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.
What's most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It's obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there's a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush's foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.
That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there's some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren't generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don't want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy.
Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won't decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what's truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.
Except that Washington won't do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we're about to do the same thing if we don't change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn't helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.
What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don't see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant -- Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don't want to tread on anyone's beliefs, but if that isn't a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don't know what is.
Lord knows that I don't have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder.
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The British statesman Lord Salisbury famously warned that "if you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe."
I was reminded of Salisbury's comment when I read the Times' story on a recent study of the national security implications of climate change. So I went online and read the actual report (by CNA Corporation, a DoD-funded think tank). It concludes that "climate change poses a serious threat to America's national security," describes it as a "threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world," and recommends integrating the national security consequences of climate change into existing defense and national security strategies (along with a number of other measures).
This is a bit of a "dog bites man" story, of course: when was the last time a DoD study concluded that some new global development was leaving us more secure? But as Salisbury cautioned, we need to take such warnings with a "very large admixture of insipid common sense."
If the purpose of the study is to highlight the need to take climate change seriously and to rally public support for doing something about it, then OK. The Times quotes retired general Anthony Zinni in this fashion, where he warns that we will either spend the money now to try to slow or halt climate change, or we will spend the money (and lives) later to deal with the consequences. This is a familiar political tactic: when you want to do something expensive, try to convince people that it is a critical national security imperative. That's one of the ways we got the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, (aka the Interstate Highway System) back in the 1950s: it was justified as a critical element in our national defense infrastructure.
Similarly, there's no question that climate change could affect certain defense operations. For example, rising sea levels could affect access to overseas bases like Diego Garcia, and affect operations at key U.S. naval bases here at home. So there's clearly good reason for DOD to think about these issues and start planning ahead.
But as Matt Yglesias noted yesterday, the CNA study reads like an exercise in threat-inflation (he called it "hubristic imperialism"). It is entirely possible that climate change could provoke major refugee movements in certain areas (e.g., Bangladesh), and that such a development could have powerful effects on neighboring countries (e.g., India). But instead of immediately concluding that American interests are at stake, isn't this first and foremost India's problem? And if the United States starts devoting a lot of time and attention to figuring out how to mitigate such developments, won't that reduce India's incentive to reach a meaningful climate change agreement?
Climate change might also foster instability in various "volatile areas," but it does not immediately follow from that observation that U.S. interests will necessarily be affected in any significant way. Overall, the CNA study illustrates what might be called the Albright Doctrine: "Because we are the indispensable power, every global problem has to have an American solution."
But the more closely you look at the report, the clearer it is that the actual national security implications of climate change are modest, at least for the United States. The likely demands on U.S. military forces will be for humanitarian relief, not for the protection of vital U.S. interests. I have no problem with humanitarian relief, by the way, but let's call it what it is -- a form of global philanthropy -- and not try to sell it as a defense of the American people.
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With apologies to my associates here at FP, I find myself in some disagreement with the packaging of the current issue, and especially the special section on the "Axis of Upheaval."
The "axis of evil" was an unfortunate catch-phrase dreamed up in 2002 to scare the American people into supporting a foolish war. Its fatal flaw was the implication three very different regimes -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea -- were somehow in cahoots and should be dealt with in a similar fashion. The result, as readers have surely noticed, was failure on all three fronts.
A term like "axis of upheaval" is likely to mislead us in much the same way. It suggests that there is a high degree of connection, congruence, or coordination between a set of regrettable but largely unrelated problems. Grouping these diverse situations under a single rubric makes them all sound scarier, but that’s not a smart move when they are in fact of widely varying importance. Lumping them under one heading is a sort of glib mental shorthand that makes it harder to identify which problems must be addressed quickly, which can be put off, and which should be ignored.
For the world’s major powers -- and especially the United States -- the central strategic challenge today is figuring out how to allocate finite economic, military, and political resources. Great power rivalries are presently muted, so the big decisions involve minor powers like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, or unstable trouble spots like Pakistan, Somalia or Darfur. In each case, the same question recurs: should we intervene or should we stay out? Making the right call requires focusing on the particular circumstances of each case and the extent to which it actually threatens vital interests. When action is deemed necessary, we also need a strategy that is appropriate for the specific problem at hand. Russia’s situation bears little resemblance to the state of anarchy in Somalia, the drug war in Mexico or the crisis in Gaza, and we are more likely to judge each problem correctly and fashion a smart response if we resist the temptation to see them as part of some broader global trend.
In his introduction, Niall Ferguson suggests that these current troubles share the same features that ignited World War II: ethnic distintegration, economic volatility, and empires in decline. This claim makes the situation sound alarming, but the good news is that an even more important ingredient is missing. Today, there are no territorially expansionist and highly risk-acceptant great powers like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, countries that combined significant military power with deeply revisionist ambitions. Ironically, the main revisionist power in recent years has been the United States, which spent the past 15 years expanding NATO into Eastern Europe and then tried to "transform" the Middle East and Persian Gulf by force. Yet even George W. Bush didn't seek to redraw borders the way that Hitler or Tojo did. For the foreseeable future, the danger of a global conflagration is minimal.
Even if today’s instabilities are exacerbated by ethnic competition, financial turmoil and other background conditions, there’s nothing especially novel about the phenomenon of "upheaval." During the 1950s, there were coup d’etats, revolutions, or civil wars in Iran, Korea, Guatemala, Iraq, Lebanon, and Hungary (to name but a few), and subsequent decades witnessed mass killings in Indonesia and Cambodia, revolutions in Libya, Iran and Nicaragua, a "dirty war" in Argentina, a genocide in Rwanda/Burundi, Zimbabwe’s descent into turmoil, and protracted conflicts in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and many other countries. Yet as the Human Security Report Project (and several other studies) have shown, the overall level of global violence is significantly lower today than it has been for most of the past century.
It is also worth remembering that outside powers have at best a mixed record at managing upheavals outside their own borders. Foreign intervention in the French revolution helped trigger two decades of great power war, and Western efforts to suppress the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 backfired too. As Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece on Somalia shows, U.S. interference there has repeatedly made a bad situation worse, because U.S. leaders simply didn’t know what they were doing. Nor should we forget that the complex problems we now face in Central Asia are partly the product of centuries of imperial meddling, a legacy that also complicates the West’s relationship with much of the Middle East. It is hard to believe that more meddling now is going to make things significantly better. The spread of nationalism and the persistence of other forms of local identity eventually destroyed the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British, and French empires, and those same forces will confound outsiders’ attempts to impose order on those unhappy societies where instability is now rife.
This is not to say that the international community should simply ignore these various problems or believe that they can always wall them off. But the right course of action is to evaluate each case separately, both to figure out how serious a threat it poses and to fashion a response that has some chance of working. Above all, we need to take a calm and cool-eyed approach to these challenges, so that we focus on the threats that matter most and on the cases where we have a clear strategy for success. Somalia may be the "most dangerous place in the world" to visit, but that doesn't mean it poses the greatest danger to the rest of the world. A phrase like "axis of upheaval" may help sell magazines and give commentators something to talk about, but it is more of an obstacle to our understanding than an aid to it.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.