Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
What the heck were British officials thinking when they detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow Airport? As you can read about here, they kept him in custody for nine hours and confiscated a bunch of computer equipment, thumb drives, and the like. They did so under the auspices of Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000, which authorizes detentions of persons suspected of being “involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."
As you’d expect, this foolish yet chilling act of official intimidation is being rightly condemned by Greenwald himself, and by commentators like Andrew Sullivan here. But I’m intrigued by the question of motivation: what did the British government hope to accomplish by doing this? I don’t know, but here are some possibilities that occurred to me.
First, it’s possible that this was just an act of overzealous low-level counter-terror bureaucrats, operating without official approval. But this explanation seems very unlikely: why would low-level functionaries single out Miranda (who was just transiting through Heathrow on his way back to Rio) and detain him for nine hours, all the while questioning him about his partner’s reporting on the NSA? And for that matter, how did he get on a watch list that would allow the British authorities to pluck him out from the thousands of people who stream through that airport every day? So I think we can rule out pure bureaucratic politics or low-level blundering as the explanation here.
Second, perhaps British officials were genuinely worried that Miranda (and by association, Greenwald and Laura Poitras) might be actively engaged in terrorism. But this is daft: whatever you think of Greenwald’s politics and journalistic activities, there isn’t the slightest basis for suspecting that he or his associates have ever endorsed or supported terrorism in any way. If British officials genuinely harbored such suspicions, we ought to be really worried about the quality of thinking inside these organizations.
Third, maybe they suspected that Miranda was transporting more of the information provided by Edward Snowden, information that had yet to be made public. In this version, they stopped him and seized the thumb drives, etc., to prevent another round of juicy revelations in the Guardian. Yet this account makes no sense either, because it assumes that Greenwald and Poitras aren’t smart enough to have made copies of any material that Miranda might have had on his person. If that was the goal, then detaining and harassing him accomplished nothing.
Fourth, maybe this was intended primarily as an act of intimidation: the British government was letting Greenwald know that they can harass his partner if he keeps releasing more materials that are….um….embarrassing to Britain’s U.S. ally. It sends the clear message to Greenwald that he's being watched, and those near to him are too. Greenwald himself believes that this was the motivation for the UK government’s action, and he may well be right. But if so, then it was also a completely lame-brained act on Britain’s part: you don’t need a triple-digit IQ to figure out that Greenwald is not the sort of person who can be intimidated in this fashion. On the contrary, his entire career as a blogger, writer, and journalist has been driven by the desire to expose and challenging abuses of power, and making him the personal object of this sort of abuse is hardly going to make him cease writing and go back to being a corporate lawyer. So if that was the goal, somebody in the UK counter-terror operation either hasn’t been paying attention, isn't very bright, or both.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that this was an act of petty bureaucratic vengeance. It was the outraged bleat of a transnational national security apparatus that is used to having its own way and generally disdainful of genuine oversight. In both the United States and the UK, as well as lots of other countries, the broad national security/intelligence bureaucracies are accustomed to acting with enormous latitude and autonomy. They get to decide what is secret and what is not, and they get to decide when it is ok to leak something to reporters and when it is preferable to prosecute someone for leaking or reporting. Most of the people doing these things undoubtedly believe that it is for the good of the nation; it just has the ancillary benefit of insulating them from annoying questions or criticisms from the rest of us.
They’re ticked off at people like Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, etc., because they just aren’t playing ball. And these critics and leakers have in fact released a lot of material that has punctured various myths about what officialdom is really doing. And officialdom is probably worried that if the veil of secrecy gets torn back further, ordinary citizens might be disturbed by what they learn and might start demanding that things change. Indeed, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have already provoked movement for reform, and it would hardly be surprising if a few people in the vast world of intelligence and counterterrorism decided it was time for some payback.
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Last week President Barack Obama proposed some modifications to the National Security Agency's program of domestic surveillance, but he missed a golden opportunity to build political support for the various programs that have been secretly vacuuming up phone records with little or no restraint. In particular, he could have directed the NSA to use all the information in a way that would benefit all Americans and make them appreciate what the NSA is up to.
What should he have done? Simple. Right now, Americans are routinely pestered by endless phone calls from marketers, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations, alumni fundraisers, and all sorts of other scummy people who don't mind interrupting you throughout your day. Signing up for the Federal Communications Commission's "do not call" registry doesn't do much good, as fly-by-night phone bank operators and robocallers routinely ignore these restrictions. I know: We probably get a dozen or more of these robocalls every day, and often at the most inconvenient times. You probably do too.
Here's an idea: Use the NSA's vast trove of phone information to put these guys out of business. If the NSA really does have access to all that phone data and is good at using computer algorithms to sift and sort it as everyone seems to think, why not use it to build an unassailable case against the organizations and businesses that are violating all those "do not call" laws? I mean: If the NSA really can eavesdrop on an al Qaeda conference call, surely documenting abuse of the "do not call" law would be child's play.
I know, I know: The NSA isn't supposed to do "domestic surveillance" or get involved in prosecuting Americans for domestic crimes. But it erased that line a while back, didn't it? If the NSA were used to put robocallers out of business, at least Americans would see some tangible, positive benefit for all the money spent spying on them.
Postscript: I hope you didn't miss the irony in Obama's announcement that the NSA's surveillance practices need to be modified. Had Edward Snowden not brought the NSA's current abuses to light, Obama (and the country) would never have recognized the need for a policy change. In other words, Obama was tacitly acknowledging that Snowden did us all a favor by revealing how out of control the NSA programs had become. But instead of getting our thanks (or at least granting a presidential pardon for the laws Snowden may have broken), Obama has moved heaven and earth to try to apprehend him. Ironic indeed.
Photo thumbnail: Lambert/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.
I'm more than a little amused by the post-Snowden charge that Glenn Greenwald and others of his ilk are guilty of "advocacy" or "activist" journalism, as if that is a reason to simply dismiss anything they might say. Jack Shafer has an excellent defense of this activity up at the Reuters website, where he reminds us how much worse off the United States would be had the muckrakers and other "activist journalists" of the past never done their work.
I want to make a different point. The charge that a journalist has become an "advocate" or an activist implies that there are two sharply defined groups of journalists out there: 1) Serious, Objective (read: "mainstream") Journalists who should be treated with deference, and 2) Partisan, Biased, Not-To-Be-Trusted-Unless-You-Agree-With-Them journalists who rightly merit a lower position on the media food chain. Anyone writing for the WaPo, NYTimes, WSJ, or Atlantic or appearing on PBS or NBC exemplifies the former group, whereas anyone from Drudge to Breitbart to Greenwald to Rachel Maddow supposedly represents the latter.
My problem with this distinction is twofold. First, accusing someone of "activist" or "advocacy" journalism is a cheap-shot way of trying to marginalize reportage or commentary that you happen to disagree with. To be sure, some journalists in this category are doing pretty bad work (on both ends of the spectrum), but that fact has to be demonstrated by examining their stories in detail and showing where they got things wrong or had their analytical thumbs heavily on the scale. The fact that the story had a point of view or an obvious target is not ipso facto evidence that it is wrong; truth is not defined as the halfway point between two extremes. And as we all saw in the run-up to the Iraq war, publishing in a respected "mainstream" publication is no guarantee that you'll get things right. (For more evidence of that fact, see here).
Second, and more importantly, I don't think there's any such thing as a purely "objective" journalist, and there are a gazillion ways that even reasonably honest reporters and editors end up shading stories to reflect their own appraisal of the situation or their political prejudices, or to simply avoid offending readers to the point that they might cancel their subscriptions or switch channels. All you need to do is compare coverage of Middle East topics in Europe with coverage in the United States, and you'll quickly discover that equally serious and mainstream media outlets treat these topics in significantly different ways.
Or to be more specific: Was Edward R. Murrow of CBS abandoning "objectivity" when he helped bring down Joseph McCarthy? Is Bob Woodward an "objective" journalist when he paints flattering portraits of the people who have given him exclusive insider accounts? Does anyone seriously believe Jeffrey Goldberg is objective and detached when he writes about the Middle East or when he lets himself be a mouthpiece for Israeli politicians? Do we really think David Barstow of the New York Times was devoid of political intent when he exposed the Pentagon program that gave ex-generals VIP tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and then shopped them to media outlets so that they could deliver upbeat assessments of these wars? Is Matthew Lee of the Associated Press engaged in "activist" journalism when he grills unfortunate State Department spokespersons and exposes the hypocrisy or inconsistencies in U.S. policy?
My point is that plenty of respected mainstream journalists have points of view, and those points of view get reflected in what they write or broadcast. They aren't deceiving us or lying, mind you, and in most cases they are probably telling us what they think the real story is. In fact, if journalists don't exercise some independent, critical judgment, they just become stenographers for those in power. So we shouldn't succumb to the illusion that one type of journalist is reliably giving us "the facts," while a different category is feeding us biased heaps of propaganda.
None of this means that we shouldn't hold all journalists -- including those who air their political views openly -- to the same standards of accuracy. If Greenwald or Drudge or Frum or Matthews or Sullivan or Rozen or Sanger or Kristof or Zakaria or whoever gets things wrong, or if their reports and commentary make an obviously selective use of readily available evidence in order to advance a political cause, then they ought to be called on it. Simple as that. Ditto bloggers of all kinds, including me.
The Internet and blogosphere have made it easier for rumors and urban legends to gain traction prematurely, but they also make it easier to expose falsehoods and distortions over time. We are crowdsourcing truth, and I remain optimistic that this feature will eventually force all media outlets to raise their game. One day, maybe even Fox News. But the distinction between "activist" and "real" journalists is a false one and should probably be discarded. Why not use labels like "good/bad," "reliable/unreliable," "honest/dishonest," or "interesting/boring" instead?
As some of you may know, I published an op-ed today in the Financial Times, arguing that President Barack Obama should stop trying to apprehend Edward Snowden and offer him a presidential pardon instead. I argue that Snowden acted from laudable motives -- indeed, ones that are consistent with Obama's own emphasis on the need for "We, the People" to defend individual liberty and conduct open, transparent government. And unlike Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard, and other spies, Snowden didn't sell his information to a foreign government. I also argue that Snowden did a public service by informing us of the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance and exposing the inadequate oversight of these programs. Indeed, history warns that sooner or later a vast, secret system of surveillance will eventually be used for selfish purposes. Lastly, I suggest that even if he broke the law, he is as deserving of pardon as Richard Nixon, the Iran-Contra miscreants, or some of the other convicted felons whom Obama has already spared.
There is another reason Obama might decide that a pardon is in order. If Snowden goes into exile overseas, he is likely to remain a polarizing figure and even a martyr for years to come. By contrast, if he is pardoned, he is unlikely to attract much attention in the future. He will never again have access to government secrets, and there is little reason to believe that his views on other subjects will attract that much attention. From a purely pragmatic point of view (which is Obama's stock in trade), pardoning him might be the best way to put this incident behind us and move forward. Isn't that the reason Obama & Co. also declined to prosecute any Bush-era officials for authorizing torture?
Every year on the Fourth of July I sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. It's a habit I got into some years ago, but I take a peculiar pleasure in reading through the founding principles of the American Revolution, archaic language and all. In these days of creeping executive power, supine journalism, and reflexive threat-inflation, it's a valuable reminder that governments exist to serve the people -- and not the other way around.
On this Independence Day, I am wondering what the Founding Fathers would have made of Edward Snowden. The question is obviously a bit absurd, as they could hardly have imagined something like the Internet, or even the telephone, back in 1776. But they would have understood the ability of a government to seize the mail and to investigate and harass those suspected of disloyalty. And they surely would have understood the concept of risking one's future for the sake of one's ideals.
It is of course possible that they would have seen Snowden as some members of Congress do, as a man who betrayed his country by releasing classified information. But isn't it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit -- someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.
Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.
The United States can no longer protect the country's security with a citizen militia, of course, and a permanent defense establishment has become a necessary evil in the competitive world of contemporary international politics. But the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.
Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden's idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.
According to the New York Times, President Obama is hoping to establish a genuine personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter's visit to the United States this week. Hence the nature of the visit: an informal, in-depth, and deliberately casual event outside Washington, intended to give the two leaders the chance to get past the official talking points and really get to know each other.
It's easy to understand why Obama thinks one-on-one diplomacy is the best way to handle the delicate Sino-American relationship. Most politicians have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, as well as a certain faith in their innate ability to get on good terms with others and get them to do what they want. Although he's been criticized of late for lacking the "schmooze factor," Obama's whole career has been based on his ability to charm people, starting with the Democratic Party insiders who backed his campaign early and winning over the millions of voters who've now elected him twice. No doubt he's hoping to work a little of the same magic with Xi.
More importantly, given all the potential frictions between a rising China and a reigning U.S., what else is he going to do? Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other's red lines and resolve and some agreement on those issues where national interests overlap. In this way, each can hope to keep things from getting worse and at the margin make relations a bit warmer. In this sense, personal summitry of the sort being practiced this weekend is the only card either can play.
But even if Obama is successful this weekend, this effort is unlikely to prevent Sino-American rivalry from intensifying in the future. The basic problem is that the two state's core grand strategies are at odds, and good rapport between these two particular leaders won't prevent those tensions from re-emerging down the road.
Today, the United States has a dominant position in the Western hemisphere and faces no serious rivals nearby. As I've observed before, this basic level of territorial security is what allows the United States to roam around the world trying to shape events in far-flung places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Korean Peninsula, and the Balkans, and to concern itself with issues that are of often of secondary importance (like Libya or even Syria). Moreover, the United States also has a major security presence in East Asia -- China's home region -- and is planning on bolstering that presence in the years ahead. Despite the missteps of recent years, current geopolitical realities still favor the United States.
By contrast, China faces a decidedly unfavorable regional environment. Its relations with India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and several other neighbors are wary at best, and many nearby countries have close security ties or formal alliances with the United States (Imagine how we would feel if Canada were allied with China and Chinese warships had a base in Acapulco). Unlike the autarkic Soviet Union, China is also increasingly dependent on foreign trade to supply with raw materials, energy, and export markets, and this trade must travel through various ocean straits and choke points that leave it vulnerable to blockade. Moreover, its growing dependence on outside resources means that China's interests are increasingly global in nature; in the future, it will not be just a land power worrying mostly about events close to home.
Here's the rub: as long as the United States retains a significant military presence in Asia and a network of Asian allies, Beijing will have to worry a lot about security in its own region and it won't be able to interfere as often or as effectively in other parts of the world. And as long as this is the case, the United States will have a freer hand in the other places that it cares about.
But if China continues to rise economically, develops more military power, and uses its growing clout to slowly push the United States out of Asia, then the conditions that currently favor the United States will be gone. If China manages to create a "sphere of deference" in Asia and eventually convinces most Asian states to distance themselves from Washington, then it won't have to worry as much about its immediate neighborhood and it will be free to take a more active role elsewhere. China's geopolitical position would be more like the United States: it would be a regional hegemon that was increasingly free to intervene overseas when it felt that its interests required it to do so. And that might even include a more active role in the Western hemisphere, thereby forcing the United States to pay more attention to matters closer to home.
In short, the struggle for hegemony in Asia will be a crucial pivot point for the 21st century: if it goes one way, the United States will preserve much of the freedom of action that it has enjoyed since 1945. But if it goes the other way, the United States will be sharing the world stage with a peer competitor with a larger population, a larger economy (in absolute terms), and the same capacity to shape events around the world that the United States has long been accustomed to.
At the most basic level, this is why the United States is "pivoting" to Asia: to try to prevent China from establishing a dominant position there. It is this fundamental incompatibility between strategic objectives that will fuel Sino-American rivalry in the future, no matter how well Obama and Xi (or their successors) get on this weekend. And with so much potentially at stake for both countries, you can easily see why intense competition is likely.
Of course, this pessimistic scenario will not arise if Chinese economic growth stalls, or if internal problems force China's leaders to concentrate on domestic matters. Nor am I predicting a future war between the United States and China, or even a competition as nasty and intense as the Soviet-American "Cold War." After all, there are powerful economic incentives for both sides to keep the competition within bounds, and there isn't the same level of ideological animosity that gave the Cold War its particular Manichean character. And there's some comfort in the realist argument that bipolar worlds tend to be both tense but also stable. But the tension between U.S. and Chinese grand strategies is bound to generate recurring frictions, and is likely to generate an intense competition for allies and influence, especially in Asia.
Nothing in international politics is inevitable, of course, and sometimes enlightened statecraft can overcome structural pressures. If U.S. leaders are consistently wise, far-sighted, judicious, calm, and resolute -- not just now but for the next forty years -- and if their Chinese counterparts are equally sensible, restrained and smart, then it is entirely possible that the two governments will navigate the future diplomatic rapids with skill and aplomb. But seriously: how likely is that optimistic scenario? Based on what we know of each country's history, can we be confident that both countries can go for thirty or forty years without eventually choosing a leader or two who aren't especially wise, astute, sensible, or restrained? For this reason, relying on personal rapport to manage relations between the world's two most powerful countries seems like a pretty weak reed to me.
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Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the "leader of the free world," the "indispensable nation," and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn't always marry these ambitions to a set of policies and practices that would help it achieve them.
Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?
My concerns have nothing to do with Ms. Kennedy herself, of course. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she's neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she's certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I've missed something, she doesn't speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost, or Tom Foley), she's a political neophyte.
True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. So one might argue that she'll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.
It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn't have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to convince Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn't noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don't want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region's history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.
Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America's overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice. Money quotation:
"[P]ositions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service. . . [Ambassadors] should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including ... useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country. . . . Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor."
Yet despite this strong and sensible recommendation, roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it's one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.
The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don't put someone in centerfield just because they purchased a lot of advertising from the team's owners or have been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn't appoint amateurs -- no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are -- to key diplomatic posts either.
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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.
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Today is Hillary Rodham Clinton's last day as Secretary of State. She's been receiving mostly accolades for her service, including considerable praise from President Obama in a recent joint televised interview. But with the exception of the mean-spirited and highly partisan grilling she got from a congressional committee over Benghazi, most of the interviews I've seen have been pretty gentle affairs. I've sufficient respect for Secretary Clinton's talents and intellect that I'd like to see her take a swing at a few fastballs.
In that spirit, here are my Top Ten Tough Questions for Secretary Clinton:
#1. You have said that your "biggest regret" during your four years of service was the loss of four American lives during the Benghazi attack. It was a painful event, to be sure, and your regret is understandable, but aren't there many other events and decisions whose negative consequences were much greater? Shouldn't we be focusing more on the loss of American, NATO, and local lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or our inability to bring other conflicts to an end, and not on this one unhappy occurrence?
#2. You have been widely praised for your tireless travels, logging more miles than any Secretary of State in our nation's history. It's easy to understand why getting out of Washington, DC is so tempting, but is all that travel really necessary or desirable in an era when modern communications would allow you to speak face-to-face to virtually any world leader anytime you want? Videolinks would even permit you to give speeches and answer questions anywhere in the world, but without having to go there in person. Looking back, do you think you might have had more influence had you stayed home a bit more?
#3. You have been justly praised for being a great team player in this administration, something that many people did not anticipate when you were nominated. At the same time, the Obama White House and NSC has held the reins on a lot of key foreign policy issues. What foreign policy problems do you wish you had been given greater authority to handle on your own?
#4. As Secretary, one of your major initiatives was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, eventually released in 2010. It created a bit of buzz when it was released, but it seems to have largely disappeared from the scene. What concrete and tangible impact has this report had on the conduct of American diplomacy or on specific policy initiatives in key areas?
#5. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama appointed "special envoys" to handle thorny foreign policy areas like Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and North Korea. One of these envoys was the late Richard Holbrooke, a close personal friend of yours. For various reasons, none of these special envoys seem to have accomplished very much. What lessons should we draw from this failed experiment? And did having all these independent operators diminish your authority and ability to craft an overall foreign policy strategy?
#6. U.S. military forces are now organized in various regional combatant commands, each under a designated regional "commander-in-chief" or CINC. These regional CINCs have a vast array of military, intelligence, and other assets at their disposal, and the resources they can bring to bear far exceed those of the State Department. For this reason, foreign governments often pay as much or more attention to the CINCs as they do to the U.S. ambassador, for the simple reason that the CinCs can do more for or against them. Here's my question: if you were an ambitious young person who wanted to make a mark on U.S. foreign policy, why go to a nice four-year college and then join the Foreign Service? Wouldn't it make more sense to go to West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs and try to become a senior military leader instead?
#7. One of your signature issues has been the advancement and empowerment of women, and your efforts on this issue have won you enormous praise both here in the United States and in many other countries. Given your strong convictions on this issue, are you sorry that you are being succeeded by a wealthy white male, that the Pentagon will also be led by another white male, and that there are hardly any women in top foreign policy jobs in Obama's second-term team? Did you ever raise this issue with the President, and if so, what did he say?
#8. You have made it clear that you strongly support former Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination as Secretary of Defense. What did you think of the Senate Armed Services' Committee grilling of him yesterday? Was it appropriate for them to talk incessantly about Israel, and to ignore most of the key problems that he will face as SecDef? Why do you think the Senators -- including your successor, Kirsten Gillibrand -- acted in this way, and what do you think foreign governments thought as they watched the circus?
#9. What is one aspect of world politics and America's global role that you believe most Americans do not understand? If you could magically change one thing that most Americans believe about the rest of the world and its relationship with us, what would it be?
#10. What do you regard as your single greatest achievement as Secretary of State? And if you could have one "do-over" -- apart from Benghazi -- what would it be?
Secretary Clinton is a seasoned pol by this point, and I'm sure she'd find a way to dodge some of those queries. But what if we put her on truth serum first...?
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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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?
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Today I want to do a shout-out for the just-released report of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk. I was privileged to participate in this council this year, and the report is the product of three days' deliberation and discussion back in November and subsequent discussion and redrafting afterwards. (Kudos to Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group for ably chairing the group).
Our task was to assess geopolitical risks in 2013. You can read the full report for some specific forecasts, but our overarching theme was the increasing vulnerability of elites in virtually every sector. In a globalized and unequal world where information flows almost instantaneously, where economic tides can shift without warning, where masses can mobilize via new media, and where the slightest transgressions can be amplified and repeated in the blogospheric echo-chamber, elites in both the public and private sector can find the ground shifting beneath their feet suddenly and without warning.
"The vulnerability of elites cuts across emerging markets and advanced economies, democracies and authoritarian states, public and private institutions, and a wide array of issues. This is the challenge: as their legitimacy gets called into question, political actors struggle to react to instability, crises and opportunities in the most effective manner. Whether it is the growing disparity of wealth or the evolving flow information, several factors are facilitating pushback against existing policies and institutions and making both governments and some private actors across the globe look increasingly fragile."
Examples? Think of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and (one hopes) Bashar al-Assad. Look at what happened to CIA director David Petraeus or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Consider how Rupert Murdoch's reputation and clout were tarnished by the phone hacking scandal, and ask yourself where his former editor Rebekah Brooks is now. Similarly, the Jimmy Savile scandal brought down the head of the BBC, showing that the leaders of a powerful and sophisticated news organization cannot control the news cycle.
Given that the annual WEF meeting at Davos is a confab of global elites, I wonder if our report will make any of them feel a bit ... well ... nervous. Some of them should.
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When Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was taking his uber-blog, The Dish, independent and relying solely on reader subscriptions to fund the operation, the first thing I thought of was...
Not because the announcement made me yearn for a nice IPA, but because it made me wonder whether what is happening to the media environment is in some ways analogous to the extraordinary improvements in brewmaking over the past couple of decades, especially here in North America.
Back in my youth, beer in America was a consistently bland and homogeneous product. Watery lagers predominated, because the big brewing companies all sought to appeal to the median drinker. There just wasn't much difference between Bud, Miller, Schlitz, etc., which is why beer like Coors -- which had even less flavor but was hard to get in much of the country -- could become a fad for awhile. Beer snobs sometimes drank imports like Beck's or Guinness, but the major U.S. brands were boring, conventional, and competing to be more-or-less like each other. Kinda like Detroit's Big Three automakers or the three major TV networks.
Enter the microbrewery revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, enterprising Americans in search of good beer began drawing on artisanal brewing traditions and techniques from Europe, leading to an explosion of small craft breweries whose main selling point was creativity and diversity. Not to mention taste. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, microbrews thrived by presenting unique and interesting products that could actually hold a beer fan's interest. Instead of putting out a cheap product to be swilled in front of the TV or at a football game, microbrewers sought to produce something you could savor, discuss, and get seriously passionate about. No wonder I haven't sipped a Bud in years. Even the Obama White House has caught the bug, producing its own Honey ale in recent years.
So too with blogs. As Sullivan has realized, you don't have to be connected to some big media giant like the New York Times or the Economist in order to have a significant readership. It helps to be part of a well-known brand, of course but it's not essential, especially if you're more interested in appealing to a smaller group of engaged readers than in grabbing as much market share and advertising revenue as you can.
Furthermore, as the diverse set of writers that Sullivan often features on his blog illustrate, those who work primarily in the blogosphere are usually more interesting, provocative, willing to experiment, and well-informed than the mainstream commentators and pundits writing for the big media outlets. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm constantly impressed by how many smart people and good writers now inhabit the internet, and I frequently find myself in awe of how well so many of them use language and how much genuine pleasure one can get from reading them. By contrast, outstanding writing is becoming harder to find in a lot of mainstream media platforms, and its almost an endangered species in the hallowed halls of academe. It's not that they are bad writers, it's just that they are mostly so cautious, predictable, and bland. You know: like PBR.
Given the effectiveness of modern search engines, interested citizens can get lots of information from the web if they're willing do a little bit of dedicated trolling, which in turn makes it harder for governments, interest groups, or big media conglomerates to control discourse anymore. And that's why authoritarian governments in countries like China or Iran have worked so hard to slap restrictions on this free-wheeling environment, lest their own actions and legitimacy get undermined by the unconstrained flow of ideas.
None of this is big news by now, and Sullivan isn't the first blogger to rely solely on reader support. He's just the most visible and prominent, and his experiment reminds us that the information revolution that we are all living through is still in its early stages. But I hope Sullivan's venture succeeds and that others follow his lead. I don't know what the information industries will look like a decade or two into the future, but it's certain to be different than it is today and a lot different than it was when I was a kid. I'm already reconciled to the fact that I'll eventually have to give up my cherished morning newspapers and get almost everything in digitized form. I'll heave a nostalgic sigh when that happens, but in the end I think it will be for the best. Why? Because I also believe that the open exchange of information and ideas eventually leads to greater collective wisdom and better public policies. For this reason, the break-up of big media oligopolies and the proliferation of independent voices is a good thing.
And on that happy note, I think I'll have a beer.
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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
FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they'd say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he's bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.
Dan's main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that's exactly what they did.
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won't do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you'd ever get and you wouldn't be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.
To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus' hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O'Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus' various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn't as if there wasn't plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.
Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren't likely to solicit advice from people who aren't already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what's really going on.
I have a pretty simple question to pose today. Can you think of any major political figures -- and especially within the domain of foreign policy -- whom you admire for their integrity? I'm talking about people who have a well-earned reputation for truth-telling, and for sticking up for what they believe in even if it might be professionally disadvantageous. You know: someone who is at least as interested in doing good as in advancing their own climb up the professional ladder, and who doesn't bend with every prevailing shift in the political winds.
I can think of a few political figures with such saint-like qualities -- Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc. -- but that's a very high bar. I'm also aware that politics is the art of compromise and that political leaders sometimes have to make hard moral judgments in a messy world. So I'm not trying to hold everyone to some other-worldly moral standard. Nor am I suggesting for a moment that my chosen profession is filled with paragons; I've been an academic for far too long to believe that anymore.
Nonetheless, I'm still struck by how rarely you see people in the foreign policy establishment resign on principle or take positions that they know will attract controversy and jeopardize their future prospects. Instead of a world of plain-speaking truth-tellers, we have a culture of spin, of anonymous leakers and finger-in-the-wind politicos who make policy by first asking how it's likely to play in the polls, with influential interest groups, or with their superiors. That's how you get policy paralysis on Gitmo, a "surge to nowhere" in Afghanistan, and a "peace process" in the Middle East that no one in power will admit is a charade.
And to give this issue a contemporary spin, isn't that the real reason to be less than enthusiastic about Susan Rice's candidacy for Secretary of State? Not because she spoke a bit too rashly over Benghazi, but because she's been more interested in her own ascent than in the principles she seeks to uphold. (The same is even more true of many of her critics, of course). How else to explain her accommodating attitude towards African dictators, or the enthusiasm with which she helped smear Richard Goldstone after his famous UN report on Operation Cast Lead was released? No doubt she was following instructions, of course, but I'll bet it never even occurred to her that what she was being asked to do was simply wrong and that maybe she ought to resign instead.
But it's not really fair to single her out: she is just a creature of a larger political culture. During the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Policy Planning chief Richard Haass reportedly had serious doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq, but you didn't see either of them resign in protest and go public with their objections. Instead, it was a few low-level officials like John Brown or Brady Kiesling or British foreign secretary Robin Cook who had the backbone to denounce a war that was both foolish and illegal and resign. Let's not forget that Saint Hillary and John Kerry backed the war too, and Hillary was also an enthusiastic supporter of the foolish Afghan surge back in 2009. Instead, it was courageous young military officers like Paul Yingling and Matthew Hoh who put telling the truth as they saw it ahead of professional advancement and with the predictable professional consequences.
So to repeat the question: can you think of any foreign affairs experts -- to include policymakers, pundits, scholars, wonks et al -- whose basic integrity, honesty, and moral courage you admire? This doesn't have to be people we agree with, by the way, just someone who might be suitable for inclusion in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage. Nominations now open, and all countries and political movements are eligible.
UPDATE: For a related post that raises additional questions about Rice's waffling on Iraq, see Peter Beinart here.
TREVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Several accounts highlighted Brubeck's role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists -- including luminaries like Louis Armstrong -- were featured in these tours, which were intended to show off the appealing sides of American culture in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. This was a Bambi-meets-Godzilla competition, btw, with the Soviets in the role of Bambi. I like Shostakovich and respect the Bolshoi, but Soviet mass culture was outmatched when pitted against the likes of Satchmo.
But here's my question: why isn't the United States doing similar things today? The State Department still sponsors tours by U.S. artists -- go here for a bit more information -- but you hardly ever hear about them and it's not like we're sending "A-list" musicians out to display the vibrancy of American cultural life. Celebrities and musicians are more likely to do good will tours to entertain U.S. troops in places like Iraq, but the sort of tours that Brubeck and others did in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have become a minor endeavor at best.
The problem, I suspect, isn't a lack of interest in cultural diplomacy or even lack of funding. Instead, I think this is an consequence of globalization. Today, someone in Senegal or Indonesia who wants to hear American jazz (or hip-hop, or blues, or whatever) just needs an internet connection. The same is true in reverse, of course; I can download an extraordinary array of world music just sitting here in my study at home. And that goes for videos of performances too, whether we're talking music or dance or in some cases even theatre. Plus, top artists tour the world on their own in order to make money; they don't need to go as part of some official U.S. government sponsored tour. And given the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy in some parts of the world, official sponsorship is probably the last thing some artists would want.
But there may some exceptions to that rule, in the sense that are a few countries where artistic exchanges might open things up in ways that diplomats cannot. Iran isn't likely to welcome Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, perhaps, but have we thought about an artistic exchange with some slightly less edgy U.S. performers? If table tennis could help thaw relations with Mao's China, maybe jazz, acoustic blues, or even classical music could begin to break the ice with Tehran. Iran's has a large under-thirty population that is by all accounts hungry for greater access to world culture, so this sort of exchange would build good will with the populations that will be rising to positions of influence in the future. Plus, Iran has plenty of gifted performers who might find a ready audience here. And you can send a delegation of American musicians without violating UN sanctions or having to answer a lot of thorny questions about nuclear enrichment.
Update: In response to this post, Hishaam Aidi of Columbia University and the Open Society Institute sent me this piece, which takes a critical view of the State Department's more recent efforts to use hip-hop artists as a form of cultural outreach. Well worth reading, and my thanks to Hishaam for sending it to me.
The California Museum via Getty Images
As you might expect, the unfolding saga of the Petraeus/Broadwell/Kelley, etc. affair has been a popular topic of conversation during breaks here at the World Economic Forum meetings. (The other fun topic is speculation about who will get top posts in Obama's second term). Here with a few additional comments.
For what it's worth, I couldn't care less about the private lives of public figures, although I suppose I would worry some if I thought they were spending hours canoodling when they were supposed to be winning a war or conducting the public's business. But in general, I think Americans hold public figures far too accountable for their sex lives, and insufficiently accountable for their actual performance while in office. The only group that is even less accountable are pundits (see under: Weekly Standard, Fox News, etc.).
That said, I think there are two obvious implications of these revelations.
First, even if Petraeus eventually gets somewhat rehabilitated and doesn't disappear from public life, these events will puncture the image of a superhuman general that he has carefully cultivated over the years. More importantly, this embarrassing personal failure will open the door to a more toughminded and dispassionate look at his actual record in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his brief tenure as CIA head. Indeed, that process has already started, as these pieces by Michael Hastings, Robert Wright, Michael Cohen, and Paul Pillar show.
And the key thing to keep in mind with respect to both wars is that the United States lost. In Iraq, the "surge" was at best only part of the reason that violence declined after 2006, even though Petraeus and other counterinsurgency mavens tried to spin it that way. More importantly, all the hype about the surge cannot conceal the fact that United States spend over a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, and ended up creating an unstable state riven by sectarian tensions, and at least partly aligned with ... Iran. No good reason for a ticker tape parade there.
In Afghanistan, Petraeus and the other generals managed to sell an inexperienced commander-in-chief a bill of goods about how escalating the war would break the back of the Taliban and permit us to achieve victory. Now, some four years later, we are no closer to a decisive victory and the Afghan surge is increasingly recognized to be a fig leaf designed to give us an excuse for a long-overdue withdrawal. The expenditure of hundreds of billions of more dollars and hundreds of soldiers' lives did not produce a strategically meaningful different in the outcome, and one wishes that Petraeus had given Obama rather different advice back in 2009.
To recognize these failures is not to blame these outcomes solely on Petraeus or the military, of course; U.S. civilian leaders deserve a lot of the blame too. My point is simply that it's not just Petraeus' personal reputation that will be tarnished by these revelations; his image as a successful military commander is also going to suffer.
Second, this whole episode reminds us of the corrupt and incestual relationship that exists throughout the national security establishment, to include lots of people in the media and commentariat. As I've written before, the excessive deference -- indeed, veneration -- often given the U.S. military is not healthy, because it encourages both journalists and academics to suck up to powerful and charismatic generals instead of treating them as public servants who need to be aggressively challenged. On this point, see these intelligent comments by Tara McKelvey and Andrew Sullivan.
The point is not to tear our generals down for sport; it is rather to subject them to the same critical scrutiny that anyone doing the public's business should receive. The last thing the military should get is a free pass from the media, academia, or the other designated watchdogs in our society, and the arc of David Petraeus' career shows the hazards that arise when reporters, pundits, and other people check their critical faculties at the door.
Third, as the inimitable Glenn Greenwald argues as only he can, this affair is also Exhibit A for those believe we have a Surveillance State run amok. Money quotation (h/t Sullivan:
"So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell's physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime -- at most, they had a case of "cyber-harassment" more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people -- and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court."
But if those are the key lessons, the lingering question is whether anything will change. Will reporters become less cozy and more confrontational in dealing with the Pentagon? I wouldn't bet on that. Will we provide citizens (and public officials) with real protections for their online privacy? I rather doubt it, especially when we don't even know exactly what information the government might be collecting on us. If this scandal is like a lot of others, in short, it will have more impact on the lives of the protagonists that it does on public policy.
Full disclosure: As some people may know, I was the third member of Petraeus' dissertation committee at Princeton back in the 1980s. I was added near the end of the process when one of his other advisors left for another university. As I recall, it was a pretty good dissertation, but I've had no contact with Petraeus in over twenty years. In a slightly bizarrre coincidence, I was also one of Paula Broadwell's advisors during her time in the Kennedy School's Ph.D. program, but have not seen her since she left the program some years ago. I have no knowledge of or insight into their personal dealings, apart from what I've read in various news accounts.
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Alex Massie has already offered an incisive takedown of the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award this year's peace prize to the European Union, but I can't resist the temptation to offer a few comments myself.
First, who exactly gets the award? Do all the citizens of the EU get partial credit? Only full-time employees of the EU Commission? Will I be soon be reading resumes from EU applicants for admission to Harvard, each of them listing "Winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize" among their accomplishments?
Second, who gets to accept the award and make the usual platitudinous speech? EU Council President Herman von Rompuy? Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton? What about EU Commission President Juan Manuel Barosso? All three? I'm sure Tony Blair is already working on his speech, in the hope that maybe he can somehow wrangle his way onto the podium. It would of course be the height of irony if the peace prize announcement raised tensions within the EU, either due to wrangling over who got the spotlight or irritation over what they said. Stay tuned.
Third, this year's award is essentially aspirational, in the same way that the Committee's decision to award the 2009 prize to President Obama was really a hope for the future rather than a reward for past accomplishment. The EU has done more for peace than Obama had at the time he got the award (or since, to be honest), but that's not why it got the prize this year. Instead, the Committee sought to remind Europeans of the benefits of unity at a moment when the prolonged eurocrisis threatens the entire European project. The Committee was telling European leaders: "Please don't make this award look stupid by letting the euro collapse and allowing nationalism to reassert itself in dangerous ways: You'll look really bad, and so will we." A laudable goal, perhaps, but I rather doubt that this award is going to affect the calculations or behavior of the bankers and politicians who hold Europe's future in their hands.
Fourth, the people who should be really ticked off by this award are all the organizations and individuals around the world who have worked tirelessly for peace on a daily basis, often for little reward and at considerable risk to themselves. You can get rich working for defense contractors and can enjoy a comfortable life working for hawkish think tanks, but hardly anyone becomes rich and powerful lobbying for peace. There are literally scores of such grassroots movements in conflict-torn countries around the world, motivated solely by deep-seated moral conviction. The EU has been a positive force in European affairs, but working in the Brussels bureaucracy is a pretty comfortable gig compared to leading demonstrations against a dictator or trying to promote negotiations in some bitter civil conflict. Or what about giving the award to peace theorist Gene Sharp, whose insightful writings on non-violent resistance helped inspire and guide the Arab spring? This year's award was thus a missed opportunity to shine a light on those individuals and groups whose example might inspire the rest of us.
Lastly, the main justificaiton for the award is the EU's contribution to building peace in Europe, a continent that had been torn by war for centuries. Fair enough, but it "didn't do it alone." The EU is one of the reasons why European politics turned peaceful after 1945, but military factors and security institutions mattered at least as much if not more. To be specific, war in Europe was discouraged by Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe and American domination of NATO, and peace was further enhanced by each side's understandable fear of nuclear war. To put it bluntly: France, Germany, Poland, etc., weren't going to fight each other anymore because the United States and Soviet Union wouldn't let them. And a big reason the two superpowers behaved cautiously and reined in their allies was their perennial fear that a conflict in Europe would escalate to a suicidal nuclear war. Not exactly a noble (or Nobel) motive for peace, perhaps, but an effective one.
Indeed, the artificial stability imposed by the Cold War order was one of the background conditions that helped make the European Union possible. Insightful statesmanship and adroit politicking played important roles as well, of course, and the emergence of all-European institutions has surely helped bind the continent together in valuable ways. I’d even argue that the conditions attached to EU membership played a key role in smoothing Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy following communism’s demise. But if you want to understand why there’s been no war in Europe since 1945, you’d want to give as much credit to NATO and nuclear deterrence as you would to the EU itself.
Somehow, I don't think the Nobel Committee will award a peace prize to the bomb or to a military alliance. But it wouldn't be any sillier than the award they just gave.
What's wrong with America? Everyone has their own pet answer to that question -- especially in an election year -- but my nominee today is lack of accountability, especially among political pundits. To be specific: for high-profile public intellectuals, malfeasance of various sorts has virtually no professional consequences.
Consider first the discovery that CNN host Fareed Zakaria had plagiarized an article by the New Yorker's Jill Lepore for one of his Time columns. Both Time and CNN suspended Zakaria temporarily, but eventually concluded that it was an isolated incident and reinstated him.
To his credit, Zakaria (whom I've known for twenty years and regard as a friend), immediately owned up to his mistake and vowed to rethink the professional arrangements that led to his embarrassing blunder. That was the right response, but my larger point is that his error will have no consequences whatsoever for his future career trajectory. None. The whole incident might someday rate a short paragraph in his obituary, but that's about all.
The next example is my Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson's instantly-infamous Newsweek cover story "Hit the Road Barack," which purported to offer a comprehensive indictment of Obama's performance as president. Here the problem wasn't inadvertent plagiarism; it was blatant dishonesty. As a diverse flock of respected commentators quickly pointed out, Ferguson's factually-challenged critique of Obama rested on an array of obvious misrepresentations and sleazy manipulations. Please don't take my word for it: just read James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Brad DeLong, Matthew O'Brian, and Joe Weisenthal. And that's just a partial list.
Unlike Zakaria, who promptly acknowledged his error and apologized, Ferguson responded by quickly doubling down on some of his original arguments. And he did so by selectively quoting a CBO report, deliberately omitting a key sentence that completely altered the meaning of the quotation. See Dylan Byers here.
Misrepresenting sources is normally a cardinal sin for a professional historian, even when writing in a popular venue. But is this likely to have any tangible consequences for Ferguson? Nah. Harvard won't do anything (and given the principle of academic freedom, it shouldn't). Neither will Newsweek, which is probably more worried about staying afloat for another year than it is about fact-checking its cover stories. In this sort of world, what incentive does Ferguson have to get things right?
One could argue that public intellectuals like Ferguson and Zakaria aren't really that important, and that their fates won't make much difference to the life of the nation. That might be true, but the absence of accountability goes far beyond them. Corporate CEOs mismanage companies and escape with lavish golden parachutes. The financial sector misbehaves for a decade and then gets bailed out. A former National Security advisor helps lead the country into a disastrous war, gets promoted to Secretary of State, and later becomes one of the first female members of the Augusta National Golf Club. By this standard, Ferguson and Zakaria's sins are pretty small potatoes.
Nonetheless, it would be better for the United States if there were some tangible sanction for Zakaria's careless error and Ferguson's deliberate dishonesty. In business, making big mistakes hurts the bottom line. In war, getting the facts wrong gets people killed. But in politics and punditry, egregious and/or willful errors carry no penalty, provided their purveyors are sufficiently popular or aligned with well-heeled political interests. Just look at the unsinkable careers of the people who gave us the Iraq war, many of whom could return to power if Mitt Romney wins in November. Absence of accountability is at least part of the reason why our political life is governed not by logic and evidence, but by fact-free fairy tales. And when you base political decisions on flights of fancy, bad results are to be expected.
Chris Hondros/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.
Imagine my surprise. I went to my office mailbox last Friday, and there was the new issue of Foreign Affairs. I was expecting the usual distillations of conventional wisdom, but there on the front cover was the name "Kenneth Waltz," along with the eye-grabbing title "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb."
For those of you who don't know, Waltz is arguably the preeminent IR theorist of the post-World War II generation, and certainly the preeminent postwar realist. (Full disclosure, he was also the chair of my dissertation committee back in graduate school). In addition to landmark works such as Man, the State, and War and Theory of International Politics, he is also well-known for a controversial Adelphi Paper arguing that the slow spread of nuclear weapons might not be so bad, and might even be desirable.
Waltz's brief article on Iran echoes this logic. He argues that nuclear asymmetry is inherently destabilizing, because it makes the unarmed side (Iran) feel weak and vulnerable and thus encourages it to look for ways to make itself more secure. At the same time, rival states who already have the bomb (in this case, Israel and the United States), will spend a lot of time contemplating preventive war (as indeed we have). If Iran gets the bomb, however, then the logic of deterrence will kick in and relations between these countries will be more stable, not less.
Waltz maintains that this pattern has generally applied in other nuclear contexts, whether one looks at U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, China's acquisition of the bomb in the 1960s, or the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan, which fought major wars before each got the bomb but have fought only relatively minor skirmishes since. He also reminds his readers that there is no evidence that Iran's leaders are irrational (and certainly no more irrational than ours), and no good reason to think they would ever use a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes or give one away to terrorists. (This latter possibility is especially absurd: Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?)
You should definitely read this important and well-argued article, which makes a lot more sense than the so-called "analysis" that others have dreamed up to make the case for war. I happen to think Waltz is too sanguine about the pacifying effects of nuclear weapons in this context, and that he discounts the other risks associated with nuclear spread (including questions of custody and authority). For these reasons, I think it would be better for us and for the region if Iran did not get the bomb. After all, taken to its logical conclusion, Waltz's argument implies that the United States ought to simply give Iran a few nuclear weapons (along with appropriate safeguards against unauthorized use), as a way of making the region more stable. Pretty hard to imagine that happening.
My other concern is that Waltz's article might convince more Iranians to restart an active weapons program, a step that might easily provoke trigger-happy Americans or Israelis into military action. The logic of nuclear deterrence may work well once both sides have reliably survivable forces, but the transition period where one side has them and another is getting close almost inevitably invites consideration of preventive war, with all the attendant costs and risks.
But Waltz's central point -- that we vastly overstate the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran -- is surely right. And remember: At this point the United States is trying to prevent not an Iran that is actually armed with nuclear weapons, but an Iran that would in theory be physically capable of building a nuclear weapon at some point down the road. This latter objective is a fool's errand, because Iran already has the knowledge and the technology to become "nuclear capable" if its leaders decide they want to be, and there's no way for us to prevent that without occupying the country. If we want to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, our best course is to try to convince them to forego that objective by taking the threat of force off the table and diminishing their perceived need for a deterrent, and by offering up a diplomatic deal that preserves their right to enrich. Unfortunately, that's not the position that we have taken so far, which is why the slow-motion standoff continues.
What's the most useless waste of time, money, and fuel that you can think of? A NASCAR race? A Star Trek convention? The Burning Man festival?
Well, right up there with those obvious granfalloons is the recent NATO summit in Chicago. I've now read the official statements and White House press releases, and it's tempting to see the whole thing as a subtle insult to our collective intelligence. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many world leaders flown so far to accomplish so little.
Along with the usual boilerplate, there were three big items on the summit agenda.
First, the assembled leaders announced that NATO will end the war in Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, and gradually turn security over to the Afghans themselves. This decision sounds like a significant milestone, but it's really just acknowledging a foregone conclusion. Popular support for the war has been plummeting, and the Obama administration has been lowering U.S. objectives for some time. In fact, the war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago (mostly because the Bush administration invaded Iraq and let the Taliban come back), and Obama's big mistake was failing to recognize this from the start. The 2009 "surge" provided a fig leaf to enable the U.S. and NATO to get out, but the cost has been billions more dollars squandered, more dead NATO soldiers and dead Afghans, and a deteriorating relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. It's nice that NATO is acknowledging these realities, but it didn't take a summit to figure this out. Perhaps the only benefit of this announcement is that it might make it harder for Mitt Romney to reverse course in the event he gets elected, though I'm not at all sure that Romney would want to do so anyway.
Second, NATO has piously declared -- for the zillionth time -- that its members will enhance their military capabilities by improved intra-alliance cooperation. This step is justified in part by highlighting the alliance's supposed recent achievements, to wit:
"The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security."
NATO is "unmatched" because the United States maintains a global military presence, but the self-congratulation here seems misplaced. Libya hardly looks like a success story right now, success in Afghanistan has been downgraded not to what we originally wanted but to whatever we think we can achieve, and the Balkan operation now appears open-ended.
More importantly, how many times have we seen this movie? Ever since the 1952 Lisbon force goals, NATO's European members have promised to improve their capabilities and then failed to meet their agreed-upon goals. This pattern has continued for five-plus decades, and it makes you wonder why anyone takes such pledges seriously anymore. If EU countries can't find the money to backstop a proper firewall for the fragile Greek, Italian, and Spanish economies, it is hard to believe NATO's European members are going to make significant new investments in defense. I'm not saying they should, by the way, given that Europe faces no significant conventional military threats. Last time I checked, the U.S. was spending about 4 percent of its GDP on defense and the rest of NATO was averaging about 1.7 percent. Both halves of the transatlantic partnership will be trimming budgets in the years ahead, no matter what they said in Chicago. So I wouldn't put much stock in item #2.
Third, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to the missile defense boondoggle. Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we've spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.
The summit did give Obama the opportunity to show off his home town to his European friends. As a former Chicagoan, I'm glad they had the chance to look around a great American city, and I hope everyone had a good time. But both the attendees and the various groups protesting the summit seem to have missed the most important fact about the gathering: It just wasn't a very important event.
I happen to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and so I get various emails announcing upcoming events. Yesterday I received a notice about a not-for-attribution tele-conference with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. A few hours later, I received the usual invitation to the Council's annual conference in New York. The speaker at the opening session will be General Martin Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs), and other key events at the conference include a mock NSC meeting focusing on the confrontation with Iran and a dinner reception to be held at the USS Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. The closing event will be a conversation with retired Army general Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
None of this is all that surprising, but am I the only one who sees it as more evidence of the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy? The Pentagon already spends several billion taxpayer dollars each year on public relations; does CFR need to give it another platform from which to purvey its views? More importantly, will any well-known advocates of a more restrained and less militarized global posture be given a chance to lay out their views at the annual meeting? What about experts who think U.S. military leaders were at least partly responsible for the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan?
America's founding fathers were wary of excessive military influence, and by the end of his long career, so was President (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower. They understood that in a free society, powerful institutions should be confronted and held accountable. Since 9/11, however, we've seen a predictable but growing deference to military expertise and advice. Politicians bend over backwards to tell us how much they support "the troops" and hardly anyone in office is willing to challenge military leaders openly. Just read Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, and you get a good sense of how civilian authorities can get rolled by those in uniform.
I favor a strong defense and I enjoy having students and fellows from the armed services here at Harvard. I don't think our military leaders are mindless warmongers (on Iran, for example, they seem a lot more sensible than the more hawkish civilians). And I certainly don't think CFR should cut itself off from the Pentagon entirely, though the danger of that occurring seems remote. But I would like to see more balance in mainstream discourse on foreign and national security policy, including at venerable institutions like CFR. To paraphrase Clemenceau, war is still too important to be left to the generals.
The big event at Harvard yesterday was "A Conversation with Henry Kissinger" at Sanders Theater. The event featured the 89-year old statesman reflecting on his time at Harvard, his career in government, and the future relationship between the United States and China, along with several other topics. He was joined in the discussion by my colleagues Graham Allison (who moderated) and Joseph Nye, and by Jessica Blankshain, a graduate student from the Department of Government.
I won't try to summarize the whole conversation, but instead merely highlight a couple of moments that I found especially interesting. First, at one point Kissinger said he thought the best academic preparation for government service was training in philosophy, political theory, and history. In particular, he argued that training in political theory taught you how to think in a disciplined and rigorous manner, and knowledge of history was essential for grasping the broader political context in which decisions must be made. It was clear that he also sees a grounding in history as essential for understanding how different people see the world, and also for knowing something about the limits of the possible.
I found this observation intriguing because these subjects are not what schools of public policy typically emphasize, even though they are supposedly in the business of preparing students for careers in public service. The canonical curriculum in public policy emphasizes economics and statistics (i.e., regression analysis), sometimes combined with generic training in "public policy analysis" and political institutions. The Kennedy School (where I teach) does require MPP students to take one core course in ethics (which is grounded in political philosophy), but there's no required course in history and each year I feel my students know less and less about that important subject. Instead, they flock to courses on "leadership," as if this quality was something you can learn in a classroom in a semester or two. I would love to have asked Kissinger to elaborate on how aspiring public servants are being trained these days.
After Joe Nye asked him if there were any decisions he made that he wished he could do over (a question that Kissinger mostly evaded), he went on to reflect on how his thinking has changed over time. He noted that he has had lots of time to read and reflect since leaving government service, and he said there were many things about the world that he understood better now than when he was serving in government. He also said he was not as "self-confident" in some of his judgments as he had been when he was younger. But then he said he wasn't sure this greater wisdom would make him a better policymaker. The reason, he said, is that being a policymaker requires a powerful sense of self-confidence, precisely because so many decisions are not clear-cut -- they are 51/49 judgment calls. As he put it, "You don't get rewarded for your doubts." And in those circumstances, a little bit of bravado goes a long way; it might even be a job requirement.
It was entirely predictable, of course, that the event was briefly disrupted by a vocal protester who was quickly escorted from the room. One of the questions asked during the Q and A took a similar approach, reciting a list of Kissinger's alleged crimes and ending with the question "How do you sleep at night?" I understand where such questions come from, but I've also thought this tactic is a remarkably ineffective way to try to make a political point. Disrupting public gatherings is a form of free speech and I wouldn't try to ban it, but my experience is that it is almost always counterproductive. The reason is simple: When someone gets up and starts shouting accusations, it violates our innate sense of courtesy and almost always turns the crowd against the protester and toward the person they are attacking. I like spirited discourse as much as the next person, but I've found that a respectful, well-aimed, and devastating question usually opens more minds and does more damage than passionate denunciations do.
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How many of you know what the phrase "rope-a-dope" means? For those who don't, the phrase describes the strategy that Muhammad Ali used to defeat the heavily favored George Foreman in their heavyweight championship fight in Zaire in 1974, the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle." Foreman had demolished former champ Joe Frazier in two rounds in a previous bout, and most observers expected him to make short work of the older and smaller Ali. But Ali had prepared a clever strategy, and he spent the early rounds of the fight covering up and leaning against the ropes. Foreman landed lots of ineffectual blows, punched himself out, and became exhausted. Ali came off the ropes and knocked Foreman out in the 8th round.
What, you ask, does any of this have to do with international politics? I'll tell you. The "rope-a-dope" is a nice metaphor for an effective strategy for great power competition, somewhat analogous to the strategy of "bait and bleed." During the Cold War, for example, it made good sense for the United States to let the Soviet Union waste blood and treasure trying to win meaningless victories in places like Angola, or Afghanistan. By the same logic, Soviet leaders were smart to let us fight for years in Vietnam. In both cases the outcome of these conflicts didn't really matter very much to the overall balance of power, so letting the opponent punch themselves out trying to win was a clever approach.
Today, one could argue that China (and maybe a few others) are employing the "rope-a-dope" against us. And like poor George Foreman, we are falling for it. We get the honor of pouring money and lives into fruitless state-building projects like the current Afghan war, while China concentrates on building a stronger economy, gradually reforming its political order, and cultivating good working relations with other countries. Remaining bogged down in Central Asia or distracted by Iran also diverts us from focusing more attention on China, and makes us less likely to do some over-due "nation-building" here at home.
If we were smarter, of course, we'd be looking to saddle potential rivals with a lot of expensive order-keeping activities, and let them bear the burden in difficult or intractable local conflicts. That would give foreign policy elites less to do, perhaps, but that might not be such a bad thing either. Case in point: Why not let China worry about Pakistan's future, and get itself embroiled trying to manage the various quarrels and blood feuds in Central Asia? They could hardly do a worse job than we have, and we'd probably end up with a better relationship with most of the region. It is astonishing how much more popular we might be if we played hard-to-get more often, so that others would be less resentful of our constant sermonizing and interfering. Heck, if we stood aloof more often, some states would quickly do a lot more to try to make sure we didn't forget about them.
One caveat: The key to the "rope-a-dope" strategy was Ali's ability to prevent Foreman from landing telling blows in places that did matter. To make it work in international politics, the United States would a clear sense of which areas were strategically vital and which didn't matter all that much. And we'd also have to be able to distinguish between areas where it is useful to retain a lot of influence, and places where our main interest is simply to prevent some hostile power from dominating.
This task won't always easy, but it shouldn't be impossible either. It does require a significant mental adjustment, however, back to a focus on U.S. national interest instead of vague and idealist notions about spreading our "values" and creating an American-centered "world order." American leaders have to stop thinking that the whole world is their responsibility and stop deluding themselves into thinking that we can and should "pay any price and bear any burden." From a purely American perspective, letting allies bear more of the burden in key regions and encouraging adversaries to blunder into sinkholes and quagmires, makes a lot more sense.
Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think.
I wasn't present for any of the private discussions, of course, and I have no idea what impression top U.S. officials took away from their exchanges. I know even less about what Xi or his entourage concluded from the exchanges. But here's why I'm inclined to downplay the significance of the visit.
First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I've noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition -- especially in East Asia -- will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China's continued ascent, I'm guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.
The second reason I'm inclined to downplay this week's meeting has to do with timing. Assuming Xi does make it to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, he will only be president for a maximum of ten years. A lot can happen during his tenure, but China's overall power position isn't going overtake America's in that period and I believe the odds of a serious Sino-American quarrel will still be rather low while he is in office. The real test of Sino-American relations will still lie some distance into the future. As a result, what Xi's individual qualities and likely preferences matter somewhat less. (To the extent that they do, I'd argue that what really matters is Xi's ability to manage China's economy and its internal politics, not his views on specific foreign policy issues).
Third, although China remains an authoritarian state, its president is not an absolutist ruler. Whatever Xi's personal tendencies might be, he will be operating within a political system that will inevitably constrain what he's able to do. Again, that's not to say that his own character is irrelevant, only that its impact on actual policy will be warped, limited or shaped by other political forces.
The last reason why I'm inclined to discount the significance of this sort of visit is the fact that nobody can read minds. One can never be sure that you really know what someone else is thinking, especially in the sort of highly-scripted, read-your-talking-points type of sessions that predominate. You may be able to get a pretty good read on other leaders if you spend a lot of time with them (think of Reagan, Shultz and Gorbachev, Kissinger and Sadat, the interlocutors at Camp David in 1978, etc.) but that's not necessarily certain if you're dealing with someone who is a world-class dissimulator. So any impressions formed on this visit can only be provisional, which perforce lowers the value of the various exchanges.
Of course, the relative impact of individual, domestic, and international-structural causes is a long-running issue in the IR field (see under: level of analysis problem, or this classic work). I'm hardly going to resolve it in a single blog post. And to repeat: I'm not suggesting that leaders' personalities and propensities don't matter at all, or that they might not be extremely significant in certain circumstances. But on the whole, the rapt attention paid to high-profile visits of this sort is exaggerated, and especially right now. In other words, the future course of Sino-American relations is going to be determined primarily by enduring structural forces (or conceivably domestic interests), and not by whether Xi Jinping is smart, patient, risk-averse, impetuous, witty, cranky, brilliant, crafty, obtuse, ignorant, well-briefed, or whatever.
None of this is to argue against having top leaders in China and the United States get to know each other a bit better. And nothing will stop journalists (and bloggers!) from writing a lot of stories when they do explaining What It All Means. But in my case, I think it means less than you've been told up till now.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.