This is a guest post by Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University.
As the world goes green for St. Patrick' Day, it is good to reflect on what Ireland's experiences teach us. We might ask, why should a realist care about Ireland? What might be learned from the experiences of this small Island in the North Atlantic -- home to just 4.5 million people?
Realists care about strategy, of course, which is one good reason to ponder Irish history. Ireland was for centuries a key component of England's rear defense against the risk of foreign enemies. Realists also are keen to understand new tactics in warfare and anyone wishing to get a sense of how guerilla campaigns proceed -- and how state responses to them can backfire would be well advised to study Michael Collins and the Irish quest for independence. Add to that the personal risks to those who negotiate an exchange of land for peace -- Michael Collins to Yitzhak Rabin show this only too tragically. The Irish experience in managing its strategic relationship with Britain after independence -- by building tight transatlantic advocacy networks and by integrating into the European community -- also demonstrates how creative diplomacy can achieve major strategic goals.
Ireland is also an interesting case of a state applying realism and ideals in its foreign policy, a topic that realists and others have debated for decades. Ireland remained neutral in World War II because it wished to consolidate its independence and avoid conscription of its people into the British army. Nonetheless, Ireland cooperated in both overt and secret assistance to the allied powers -- likewise during the Cold War. Ireland also advocated the cause of self-determination for all nations at the United Nations -- out of moral sympathy, but also as a way to keep its own views towards Northern Ireland on the agenda of global politics. Ireland managed to show how small nations can lead on a range of issues from peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation. It is often forgotten, but the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty can be found in speeches by the Irish foreign minister at the United Nations in the late 1950s.
To what extent should journalists (and perhaps scholars) allow their sense of patriotism to shape what they publish? And more broadly, how should those concerns shape their interactions with government officials? Debate on this issue has been rekindled recently in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA employee who is now under arrest in Pakistan after an incident where he shot and killed two Pakistani assailants.
For competing perspectives on this incident, see Jack Goldsmith here and Glenn Greenwald here. Both writers make useful points and I recommend the whole exchange, but one passage in Goldsmith's post leapt out at me:
For a book I am writing, I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don't publish national security secrets. They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit. Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to "patriotism" or "jingoism" or to being American citizens or working for American publications. This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government's input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor."
Nationalism and patriotism being what they are, I don't expect reporters and commentators (or academics, for that matter) to be able to completely disassociate their personal attachments from what they think or write. But when they do let those biases in -- and especially when they do so explicitly -- then the rest of us are entitled to question their judgment on those matters. More generally, here's what disturbs me about the idea that national security journalists consciously adjust what they say in response to their patriotic feelings.
First, it is a common error to equate "patriotism" or "love of country" with deference to or support for the policies of the government. In fact, the main justification for a free press in a democracy rests on the assumption that it will take a skeptical, even adversarial, attitude towards the government and its policies. Such skepticism is needed given the information advantages that government officials normally possess: they can classify embarrassing materials, leak secrets selectively, and curry favor with sympathetic journalists by offering them unusual levels of "access." The more you dilute the basic confrontational attitude between journalists and officials, the more the vaunted "Fourth Estate" starts to resemble a Xerox machine that just repackages facts, arguments and justifications offered by those in power.
Today's NY Times reported the death of Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, whose recording of "Please Mr. Postman" was Motown Records first No. 1 hit. I first heard the song in the Beatles' cover version (which ain't bad), but the original is even better: sharp, urgent, and it's got that classic Motown groove (courtesy of the immortal Funk Bros.)
There's something rather symbolic in the timing of Ms.
Horton's death, especially in light of what's going on in the Arab world. You don't see the
connection? Consider the lyrics of
Please Mister Postman, look and see? (Oh yeah)?
If there's a letter in your bag for me? (Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why's it takin' such a long time? (Oh yeah)?
For me to hear from that boy of mine?
There must be some word today?
From my boyfriend so far away?
Please Mister Postman, look and see?
If there's a letter, a letter for me
I've been standin' here waitin' Mister Postman?
For just a card, or just a letter?
Sayin' he's returnin' home to me"
The song is an anthem to anticipation, uncertainty, and longing -- why hasn't she heard from that absent boyfriend? -- and the entire premise of the song depends on that fact she's waiting for an actual physical letter to be delivered. It's back in the era of snail mail, folks, when long-distance telephony was prohibitively expensive and there was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no way for ordinary people to communicate instantly on a regular basis over long distances. That also meant you were really dependent on whatever newspapers, TV, and radio chose to tell you.
I remember my first trip overseas in 1976, to study at Stanford's overseas campus in Berlin. Correspondence with my then-girlfriend took a minimum of three weeks (round-trip), and longer if one of us was slow in responding. Like the singer in the song: you waited for a letter, and wondered what no news meant. If a letter was delayed, you agonized over what it might imply. It was a world where events moved more slowly, precisely because it took time for news to spread. Today, my teenaged son and daughter are surprised and irritated if a friend doesn't respond to a text in five minutes.
Now consider what we're seeing in the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate outcome of events in the Arab world, the speed with which large numbers of people have responded to events far away is remarkable. Just as audiocassettes of the Ayatollah Khomeini's sermons served as a medium of transmission in Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, here a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.
At the same time, we're living with a nearly unprecedented outpouring of previously hidden information, via Wikileaks and the "Palestine Papers." This is the wave of the future, I suspect, because the Internet is making it impossible to contain a secret once it's out. Even if governments convinced some news agencies to suppress a secret, somebody somewhere else would release it and then we would all find it on the Web. That gives leakers a bigger incentive to release classified information, precisely because they can be more confident that the leak will get noticed and have an impact. This situation is bound to have significant second-order effects, as governments have to choose between supporting greater transparency, taking harsher action against leakers, or being more reluctant to speak candidly or to record confidential exchanges in ways that could be leaked.
In "Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes began by exhorting him to "Wait!" In today's world, the mediasphere isn't waiting for anyone.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
I'm on the other side of the world, and so I didn't get to see President Obama's speech in Arizona. I gather that he did well. I'm glad to hear it because one of the things presidents can do at times of crisis is to provide us with sentiments that most of us can readily embrace, at a moment when our unity as a nation is in some doubt.
I've tried to keep up with at least some of the blizzard of commentary that has followed the Arizona shooting, and although a lot of it has been thoughtful, I'm also disappointed (though not surprised) by the reflexive "who us?" reaction from a lot of conservative pundits. The most prominent example was probably David Brooks of the New York Times, who devoted an entire column to explaining why violent political discourse had absolutely nothing to do with a violent assault on a U.S. congresswoman. Brooks took this position, I suppose, because he knows that most of the hateful and violent rhetoric in America today comes from the right-hand side of the aisle. I'm not saying he agrees or endorses the worst rhetorical excesses of the American right (i.e., Brooks is often wrong but rarely openly hateful), but it was a pretty lame attempt to exonerate his ideological fellow-travelers.
One problem, of course, is that causality in a case like this is always murky. When someone arrives at a public event and starts shooting people, how do we determine the relative weight of mental illness, personal experience, opportunity, lax gun-control laws, and the toxic soup of violent rhetoric to which he had been exposed, when we try to figure out how something like this could have happened? Granting that Rep. Giffords's assailant was by all the evidence a deeply disturbed individual, it is still true that his madness manifested itself as an attack on a politician. He didn't shoot up his workplace, or a school, or even a random shopping mall: He chose a political target. And whatever his personal motives or internal dialogues may have been, he did this at a moment in our history when self-interested hatemongers have combined violent rhetoric and political polarization to an unprecedented degree. Yet for the American right, the violent, and frequently Manichaean, rhetoric that has been the stock in trade of some of their most prominent spokespeople (including Sarah Palin) is totally irrelevant, and anyone who says differently is just playing partisan politics.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
It's Christmas Eve, and my brain has been deadened by hours of grading a take-home final exam. (The papers themselves aren't bad, but reading dozens of answers to the same questions can get a bit mind-numbing). I can't dull the pain with egg nog or some other suitable spirit until this evening, so I'm taking a quick break to offer this holiday post.
My own holiday shopping is finished, thank goodness, but I began wondering about what sorts of gifts I'd like to see some prominent world leaders receive. In the spirit of the season, here's a hypothetical gift list for a few people who've been on my mind over the past year or so.
1. For Barack Obama. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. President Obama is ending the year on an up note, having successfully managed to end Don't Ask Don't Tell and obtained Senate approval for the New Start Treaty. I think the former achievement is more important than the latter, but both are worthy accomplishments. The new Congress won't be nearly as friendly (and the last one was no picnic), so the president will need all of Machiavelli's wily advice to confound his opponents. Let's hope he learns that it's better to be feared than loved, at least when you're dealing with today's Grand Obstructionist Party.
2. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: a pair of reading glasses, an espresso machine, and a couple of days off. Why? So she can read the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I just downloaded this sucker, and it's over 200 pages of bracing bureaucratic prose. I plan to read it myself over Xmas break, but I'll bet it takes me a few espressos to get through it too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be cited more than read, even by people at State.
4. For Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: A copy of Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes, and Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Because if we don't get to "yes" on two states, one state is what you'll end up with.
5. For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: A copy of The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chavez has been obsessed with Simon Bolivar -to the extent of exhuming his remains in an attempt to prove that the South American hero was poisoned-but Marquez's novel also offers a warning of the sort of fate that Chavez himself may be destined for.
6. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: A copy of Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." Running the United Nations must sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, and every bit as absurd as Camus judged the fate of man to be. But perhaps the Secretary-General can take comfort from Camus' conclusion -- "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."
7. For North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un: A DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question is: will he govern like Nurse Ratched, or like McMurphy?
8. For General David Petraeus: A Youtube link to Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There just might be a lesson in there.
9. For Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao: A framed reproduction of Matisse's Fall of Icarus, as a reminder of what can happen when one flies too high too fast.
10. For readers of this blog: My thanks for your interest, your sometimes spirited dissents, and your generous words of support. May each of you bask in the love of family and friends this holiday season, and may we all grow a little bit wiser in the year ahead.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
There was a brief flap last week when the Nixon Library released a tape of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the former president. At one point, Kissinger says "the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."
A number of pundits have already explored what these disturbing remarks tell us about Kissinger himself and his relationship with Nixon, but Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who is now a columnist for the Washington Post, has decided that the real culprit is the entire "realist" approach to foreign policy. Not only does he consider realism to be a "sadly limited view of power, discounting American ideological advantages in global ideological struggles," he claims that "repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience."
Such statements tell us two things: 1) Gerson hasn't read many (any?) realists, and 2) Gerson hasn't spent much time reflecting on the morality of his own government service. If he had, perhaps his own conscience would be a bit more troubled.
For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy. Most academic realists thought the Vietnam War a foolish waste of U.S. resources, for example, yet Kissinger prosecuted that war with enthusiasm during his tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state. Similarly, most contemporary realists opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Kissinger supported it (as did Gerson). Before indicting an entire school of thought on foreign policy, therefore, you'd think Gerson would have spent some time familiarizing himself with what realists actually wrote.
Furthermore, Gerson is wrong to claim that realists are indifferent to moral concerns. (See here for a thoughtful discussion of this issue). Realists emphasize the role of hard power and are generally skeptical of idealistic crusades, but not because they think morality has no place in human affairs. Indeed, most realists that I know are deeply moral individuals who wish that humans (and states) behaved in a more ethical fashion; unfortunately, history makes it abundantly clear that bad behavior is commonplace and that prudent leaders have to take that possibility into account.
As far as I'm concerned, there are only three key points to make about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" last week.
First, as I've noted before, this decision will strengthen U.S. national security. Any policy that reduces the pool of qualified candidates for military service is inherently inefficient, and makes it harder for the United States to produce the best armed forces at the least cost. The only relevant question was whether allowing gay Americans to serve openly would have deleterious effects on cohesion or morale, and the evidence that it won't is overwhelming. By voting to repeal, the House and Senate have made America stronger.
Second, this decision is completely consistent with American ideals. Our politicians constantly proclaim their commitment to human liberty, and surely that ought to include a deeply personal trait like sexual preference. Both gay and straight personnel will of course be expected to follow appropriate rules of conduct towards others (just as the rest of us are supposed to do in civilian life), but a glaring contrast between our ideals and our practice has now been eliminated.
Third, the transition to the new policy will not occur overnight, and that's appropriate too. As the Times noted today, any major change in personnel policy involves adjustments, and it's better to get it done right than to get it done with undue haste. My bet is that the armed forces will handle implementation well, and in a few years we'll look back and wonder what the whole fuss was about. 'Bout time, too.
For years a number of political scientists have been complaining about the propensity for scholars to study topics that are of little real-world value or of interest only to a handful of fellow scholars. We've come to call this the "cult of irrelevance." At the same time, many academics cloud their analyses in obscure jargon or a fog of methodological "sophistication," and rarely bother to offer up translations for the busy policy-maker. To make matters worse, although academics defend the institution of tenure fiercely, most of them do not use the protection it affords to pursue topics that might be politically controversial.
These unfortunate tendencies are not universal, however, and a number of us have tried to address the broader issue in various ways. You can read about the general subject here, here, here, or here. In that spirit, I'm also happy to pass on the news that a group of political scientists have organized a week-long summer institute designed to tackle the problem head-on. Under the guidance of Bruce Jentleson of Duke, Steve Weber of UC-Berkeley, and James Goldgeier of George Washington, a new International Summer Policy Institute will "deliver an intensive curriculum designed to teach participants how to develop and articulate their research for a policy audience, what policymakers are looking for when they look to IR scholarship, whom to target when sharing research, and which tools and avenues of dissemination are appropriate." The Institute is part of a larger effort to "bridge the gap" between academia and policy, and you can find out more about its activities here.
Needless to say, I think this is a worthy enterprise. Together with efforts like the Tobin Project, it may encourage more academics to focus their research efforts on policy-relevant topics and teach them how to communicate their results in ways that policymakers will find more accessible. The point here, by the way, is not to "dumb down" scholarship or to imitate the plethora of partisan think tanks now located inside the Beltway. Academic scholars should be independent researchers first and foremost, and seekers of truth above all. But the topics that they choose to address can be chosen to illuminate important policy issues more directly, and devoting some time to figuring out how to communicate their results more broadly would surely be a good thing.
What is also needed is a change in academic practice, including the criteria that are used to make key hiring and promotion decisions. The standards by which we assess scholarly value are not divinely ordained or established by natural law; they are in fact "socially constructed" by the discipline itself. In other words, we collectively decide what sorts of work to valorize and what sorts of achievement to reward. If university departments placed greater weight on teaching, on contributions to applied public policy, on public outreach, and on a more diverse range of publishing venues -- including journals of opinion, trade publishers and maybe even blogs--then individual scholars would quickly adapt to these new incentives and we would attract a somewhat different group of scholars over time. If university departments routinely stopped the "tenure clock" for younger academics who wanted to do a year of public service, that would enable them to gain valuable real-world experience without short-changing their long-term academic futures. It would also send the message that academia shouldn't cut itself off from the real world. And it probably wouldn't hurt if deans, department chairs, and university presidents welcomed controversy, encouraged intellectual diversity, and defended the slaying of sacred cows. As I've said before, academics really shouldn't count it a great achievement when students have no interest in their classes, and when people outside the ivory tower have no interest in what we have to say.
Americans like to think the United States is different (i.e., "better") than other countries. The idea that the United States is "exceptional," a "shining city on a hill," or destined by Providence to play a special role in world history, is a popular theme among politicians and widely embraced by ordinary U.S. citizens. As Karen Tumulty pointed out in an interesting Washington Post piece last week, the idea of "American exceptionalism" has also become yet another stick that conservatives are using to beat up President Obama, because he supposedly doesn't think we're all that unique. (In fact, like most politicians, Obama has praised America's "exceptional" qualities throughout his career).
Every country has certain unique features and interests, of course, but the idea that any state is truly "exceptional" is sharply at odds with a realist view of international politics. Realism depicts international politics as an anarchic realm, where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other. As a result, states must ultimately rely on their own resources and strategies to survive. It is, in other words, a "self-help" world, and this situation forces all states -- and especially the major powers -- to compete with each other, sometimes ruthlessly. Although realists acknowledge that domestic politics sometimes matters and that there are important differences between different great powers (and different leaders), the most important difference between states is their relative power.
This view obviously over-simplifies a lot, but it also helps us guard against seeing any state as either uniquely virtuous or immune to folly. Because it is a competitive world, even highly principled leaders will end up doing some pretty unprincipled things when they can get away with it, and even cruel despots may be forced to constrain their evil impulses if they are confronted by resolute opposition. In a competitive order, nice people sometimes have to act nasty, and nasty people are sometimes forced to behave better than one might otherwise expect.
This world-view helps insulate realists from the sort of myopic hyperpatriotism that leads others to see their own conduct as moral and justified, yet to see others as evil or aggressive when they do exactly the same thing. To take an obvious example: realists don't think it is all that surprising that Iran might be interested in a nuclear capability, and don't immediately assume that its enrichment program is a sign that Tehran has evil intentions. After all, the United States is vastly wealthier, far more secure, and has a much larger conventional military force than Iran does, yet U.S. leaders still think they need several thousand nuclear weapons in order to be truly safe. Yet we don't think we're evil or aggressive by spending billions on a large nuclear arsenal; we're just being prudent.
This perspective also makes realists inherently skeptical about claims to American exceptionalism: we understand that U.S. leaders aren't always nicer or wiser or more moral than other policymakers. Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, drone strikes, preventive war, etc., may all be regrettable, but realists don't find them surprising, because we know that states will do lots of bad things when they are a) really scared, and b) think they can get away with it.
The real difference between the United States and virtually all other countries is that the United States has been unusually secure for much of its history, and very powerful for six decades or more. Realist theory tells you that when a state is really powerful, it will be less constrained by the power of others and it will be able to indulge all sorts of foreign policy whims. It can decide that it has "vital" interests on every continent; it can declare itself to be "indispensable" to almost every important issue, and it can convince itself that it really knows what is good for everyone else in the world. If you're wrong, it may not matter that much in the short term. If you are really powerful, in short, you can do a lot of stupid things for a long time. Even when those blunders are costly, the damage will add up slowly and demands for reform may be ignored. Look at how long it took General Motors to finally go bankrupt: it was obvious for decades that foreign automakers were eating GM's lunch, yet its management never took the steps that might have keep it competitive.
None of this is to say that the United States doesn't have certain unique and admirable traits. On balance, I'd argue that its role on the world stage has been positive one, and other governments (or leaders) might have acted in far worse ways had they been in a similar position of primacy. But realism is a good antidote to the jingoistic self-congratulation that pervades our political discourse, as well as the powerful tendency to see our own conduct as highly principled, while condemning others when they act in much the same way. Of course, that's not unique to Americans either.
My colleague and friend (and brother-in-law) Christopher Stone sent me an email over the weekend, and I thought I should share it with you. His message read as follows:
I was reading EM Forster's Two Cheers for Democracy on the plane out to LA yesterday, and I came across an extraordinary little essay that seems to me to point to important elements of our politics today.
The essay is called "Post-Munich," and it is a reflection, written in 1939, on the curious political psychology that gripped England after Chamberlain made his deal with Hitler. He describes the country as in a strange double-state: still deeply fearful, and yet simultaneously distractible by the routines of life promised through the deal. Here is what Forster writes:
'This state of being half-frightened and half-thinking about something else at the same time is the state of many English people today. It is worth examining, partly because it is interesting, partly because, like all mixed states, it can be improved by thought.'
Forster goes on to describe why it is so hard to break free and face what needs to be done:
'We are urged. . . to face facts, and we ought to. But we can only face them by being double-faced. The facts lie in opposite directions, and no exhortation will group them into a single field. No slogan works. All is lost if the totalitarians destroy us. But all is equally lost if we have nothing left to lose.'
'Sensitive people are having a particularly humiliating time just now. Looking at the international scene, they see, with a clearness denied to politicians, that if Fascism wins we are done for, and that we must become Fascist to win. There seems no escape from this hideous dilemma and those who face it most honestly often go jumpy.'
Back to Chris:
If you just substitute terrorists for totalitarians and terrorism for fascism, you have a pretty good picture of our politics today. But here's the important question this raises in my mind:
Why, I ask myself, does the United States today seem like England after Munich? The Taliban are not Hitler. I think it is because we have indulged this same appeasement, but with ourselves. We are on both sides of the bargain: we are the world's threatening tyrant, and we are the world's best hope for freedom. And rather than fight out that battle, we have decided we can have it both ways. We have walked up to the fundamental choice that we face about our role in the world, and we have made a Munich pact with ourselves instead of choosing liberty and democracy for all. The point here is that it is as unstable and unholy a pact as Munich. It will come undone, and it should come undone. But then the real choice and the real peril will confront us."
My reaction: I reproduced his email because I think Chris is on to something (just as Forster was back in 1939). Americans think we ought to be managing the whole world, but we shouldn't have to pay taxes or sacrifice our way of life in order to do it. We use our military machine to kill literally tens of thousands of Muslims in different countries, and then we are surprised when a handful of them get mad and try (usually not every effectively) to hit us back. But then we docilely submit to all sorts of degrading and costly procedures at airports, because we demand to be protected from threats whose origins we've been refusing to talk about honestly for years. We are constantly warned about grave dangers, secret plots, impending confrontations, slow-motion crises, etc., and we are told that these often hypothetical scenarios justify compromising liberties here at home and engaging in practices (torture, targeted assassinations, preventive missile strikes at suspected terrorists, etc.) that we would roundly condemn if anyone else did them. We think it is an outrage when North Korea shells a South Korean island and kills four people, (correct), yet it is just "business as usual" when one of our drones hits some innocent civilians in Pakistan or Yemen. We have disdain for our politics and our politicians, but instead of questioning the institutions and practices that fuel this dysfunction, we indulge in fairy tales about so-called leaders who will somehow lead us out of the darkness.
If I am reading Chris right, the lesson here is that the United States cannot be a republic and an empire, because the latter inevitably ends up corrupting the former. This is the central point raised by the late Chalmers Johnson (who passed away last week), by Andrew Bacevich, and by a number of other thoughtful people. It is an issue that gets raised in various corners of the blogosphere, but hardly ever in the mainstream press and certainly not at most of the think tanks and talk shops inside the Beltway, most of whom are devoted custodians of energetic international activism. And until that debate starts happening in a serious way, we will continue to stumble about, simultaneously bearing the weight of the world and being afraid of our own shadow.
By now you've undoubtedly heard that NPR has fired commentator Juan Williams, for making a bigoted statement about Muslims on Fox News yesterday. William thus becomes the latest in a series of prominent media figures being canned for saying something offensive.
The first was CNN's Octavia Nasr, who was canned for tweeting some words that conveyed a certain degree of respect for an Islamic cleric associated with Hezbollah. Next came Helen Thomas, who lost her job when she was caught on video saying that Jews should "get out of Palestine and go back to Europe." Next came CNN's Rick Sanchez, who made some stupid and offensive remarks about Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, along with some equally ill-chosen words about the privileged position of Jews in America today.
And now there's Williams, who in the midst of a discussion of Muslims in America told Bill O'Reilly:
"I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
I suspect Williams was being honest -- if unwisely -- and I'll bet he's not the only non-Muslim who's had similar thoughts. That doesn't justify what he said in the slightest, however, and I'm glad that his statement was promptly and broadly condemned.
But frankly, this whole business is getting ridiculous. With the exception of Nasr, whose brief tweet was in fact not offensive when properly understood, I think all of these people should be ashamed and embarrassed by what they said. But I wouldn't have fired any of them, particularly if they had been willing to make a prompt and heartfelt apology. None of us is perfect, and anybody who talks for a living is bound to say a few things that they might immediately regret.
And the problem is now snowballing, because if you fire a few people for saying something offensive about one group, then people in other groups will immediately (and correctly) accuse you of a double-standard if you don't mete out a similar punishment when someone says something equally foolish about them. That's precisely what happened to Williams: because Nasr, Thomas, and Sanchez got canned, the only way NPR could avoid accusations of a double-standard was by dumping him.
This hair-trigger sensitivity, which demands that stupid or ill-advised statements are grounds for immediate dismissal, will only encourage commentators to say less and less about important or controversial subjects, lest they mis-speak on some occasion or otherwise become the targets of an organized campaign of intimidation.
And notice where this sort of sensitivity is not taking root. As near as I can tell, Rush Limbaugh's employer isn't contemplating firing him for his numerous hateful remarks, and you don't see Fox News censuring Bill O'Reilly for the inflammatory remarks he recently uttered on The View. If this sort of thing keeps up, conservative commentators will be free to demonize whomever they want, while everyone else is busily walking on eggshells. (Update: in a move that should surprise no one, and confirms the basic point of this paragraph FoxNews has given Juan Williams a brand-new three-year contract.)
Postscript: Some readers may think there is an inconsistency between this post and my earlier criticisms of Harvard's decisions to honor Martin Peretz despite his own racist remarks ("Muslim life is cheap" etc.) on his blog. Not so. For one thing, Peretz's remark was not an isolated incident or a case of ill-chosen words; it was merely the latest in long series of similar statements. Second, Peretz's supposed apology was minimal at best, and he defended his claim about Muslim life as a matter of fact, not opinion. Finally, nobody was talking about firing Peretz; the question was whether Harvard ought to valorize him by accepting a $650,000 gift in his name. For the record, I don't think Harvard should name a scholarship fund after Thomas, Sanchez, or Williams either.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Earlier this summer I mentioned that I was reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and I promised to sum up the insights that I had gleaned from it. The book is well-worth reading -- if not quite on a par with his earlier Guns, Germs, and Steel -- and you'll learn an enormous amount about a diverse set of past societies and the range of scientific knowledge (geology, botany, forensic archaeology, etc.) that is enabling us to understand why they prospered and/or declined.
The core of the book is a series of detailed case studies of societies that collapsed and disappeared because they were unable to adapt to demanding and/or deteriorating environmental, economic, or political conditions. He examines the fate of the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi of the Pacific Southwest, the Norse colonies in Western Greenland (among others), and contrasts them with other societies (e.g., the New Guinea highlanders) who managed to develop enduring modes of life in demanding circumstances. He also considers modern phenomenon such as the Rwandan genocide and China and Australia's environmental problems in light of these earlier examples.
I read the book because I am working on a project exploring why states (and groups and individuals) often find it difficult to "cut their losses" and abandon policies that are clearly not working. This topic is a subset of the larger (and to me, endlessly fascinating) question of why smart and well-educated people can nonetheless make disastrous (and with hindsight, obviously boneheaded) decisions. Diamond's work is also potentially relevant to the perennial debate on American decline: Is it occurring, is it inevitable, and how should we respond?
So what lessons does Diamond draw from his case studies, and what insights might we glean for the conduct of foreign policy? Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I finished the book.
First, he argues that sometimes societies fail to anticipate an emerging problem because they lack adequate knowledge or prior experience with the phenomenon at hand. Primitive societies may not have recognized the danger of soil depletion, for example, because they lacked an adequate understanding of basic soil chemistry. A society may also fail to spot trouble if the main problem it is facing recurs only infrequently, because the knowledge of how to detect or deal with the problem may have been forgotten. As he emphasizes, this is especially problematic for primitive societies that lack written records, but historical amnesia can also occur even in highly literate societies like our own.
By analogy, one could argue that some recent failures in U.S. foreign policy were of this sort. Hardly anybody anticipated that U.S. support for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan would eventually lead to the formation of virulent anti-American terrorist groups, in part because the U.S. leaders didn't know very much about that part of the world and because public discourse about U.S. policy in the Middle East is filled with gaping holes. Similarly, the people who led us into Iraq in 2003 were remarkably ignorant about the history and basic character of Iraqi society (as well as the actual nature of Saddam's regime). To make matters worse, the U.S. military had forgotten many of the lessons of Vietnam and had to try to relearn them all over again, with only partial success.
Second, societies may fail to detect a growing problem if their leaders are too far removed from the source of the trouble. Diamond refers to this as the problem of "distant managers," and it may explain why U.S. policymakers often make decisions that seem foolish in hindsight. As I've noted here before, one problem facing U.S. foreign policymakers is the sheer number and scope of the problems they are trying to address, which inevitably forces them to rely on reports from distant subordinates and to address issues that they cannot be expected to understand very well. Barack Obama doesn't get to spend the next few years learning Pashto and immersing himself in the details of Afghan history and culture; instead, he has to make decisions based on what he is being told by people on the ground (who may or may not know more than he does). Unfortunately, the latter have obvious reasons to tell an upbeat story, if only to make their own efforts look good. If things are going badly, therefore, the people at the top back in Washington may be the last to know.
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Apart from a brief post praising New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's forthright stance on the Muslim community center controversy, I haven't said much about this issue. I had naively assumed that Bloomberg's eloquent remarks defending the project -- and reaffirming the indispensable principle of religious freedom -- would pretty much end the controversy, but I underestimated the willingness of various right-wing politicians to exploit our worst xenophobic instincts, and some key Democrats' congenital inability to fight for the principles in which they claim to believe. Silly me.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what is going on here: All you really need to do is look at how the critics of the community center project keep describing it. In their rhetoric it is always the "Mosque at Ground Zero," a label that conjures up mental images of a soaring minaret on the site of the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that the building in question isn't primarily a mosque (it's a community center that will house an array of activities, including a gym, pool, auditorium, and oh yes, a prayer room). Never mind that it isn't at "Ground Zero": it's two blocks away and will not even be visible from the site. (And exactly why does it matter if it was?) You know that someone is engaged in demagoguery when they keep using demonstrably false but alarmist phrases over and over again.
What I don't understand is why critics of this project don't realize where this form of intolerance can lead. As a host of commentators have already noted, critics of the project are in effect holding American Muslims -- and in this particular case, a moderate Muslim cleric who has been a noted advocate of interfaith tolerance -- responsible for a heinous act that they did not commit and that they have repeatedly condemned. It is a view of surpassing ignorance, and precisely the same sort of prejudice that was once practiced against Catholics, against Jews, and against any number of other religious minorities. Virtually all religious traditions have committed violent and unseemly acts in recent memory, and we would not hold Protestants, Catholics, or Jews responsible for the heinous acts of a few of their adherents.
And don't these critics realize that religious intolerance is a monster that, once unleashed, may be impossible to control? If you can rally the mob against any religious minority now, then you may make it easier for someone else to rally a different mob against you should the balance of political power change at some point down the road.
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I'm back from my mini-break and digging out emails and correspondence, so I don't have an extended commentary today.
One piece in my mailbox did catch my eye, however, from the June 2010 issue of Perspectives on Politics. For those of you who aren't political scientists, PoP is a relatively new journal, founded eight years ago by the American Political Science Association. It was created in part in response to a bottom-up protest movement within the discipline known as the "Perestroika" movement ("Perestroika" was the pseudonym of the anonymous list-server who got it started). Although primarily motivated by a desire to defend methodological pluralism, one of the movement's related concerns was the "cult of irrelevance" within academic political science. In my judgment PoP has, been a partial corrective to that tendency, and it often features articles that engage big political issues from an academic perspective.
In any case, the current issue has a provocative article by Lawrence Mead on "Scholasticism in Political Science." Mead argues that academic writings about politics are increasingly "scholastic," which he defines as being increasingly specialized, preoccupied with methods, non-empirical, and primarily oriented to other academic literature instead of engaging real-world issues. In his words:
Today's political scientists often address very narrow questions and they are often preoccupied with method and past literature ... Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world. ... Research questions are getting smaller and data-gathering is contracting. Inquiry is becoming obscurantist and ingrown."
This sort of complaint is hardly new, of course. Hans Morgenthau offered a similar critique way back in the 1950s, when he warned of a political science "that is neither hated nor respected, but treated with indifference as an innocuous pastime, is likely to have retreated into a sphere that lies beyond the positive or negative interests of society. The retreat into the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical -- in short, the politically irrelevant -- is the unmistakable sign of a 'non-controversial' political science which has neither friends nor enemies because it has no relevance for the great political issues in which society has a stake. History and methodology, in particular, become the protective armor which shields political science from contact with the political reality of the contemporary world. Political science, then, resembles what Tolsoi said modern history has become: 'a deaf many answering questions which no one has asked him.'" (Dilemmas of Politics, 1958, p. 31).
Morgenthau's Olympian denunciation was offered without a lot of supporting evidence, but Mead's warning is accompanied by an analysis of every article published in 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2007 in the American Political Science Review. You might get different results if you looked at different journals (i.e., the "scholasticism" of the APSR was one of the complaints of the original "Perestroikans"), but Mead's complaints are consistent with a lot of my own impressions of how the field is evolving. As Mead shows, the issue isn't method per se; it's the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as "analyses of jewel-like precision that ... generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists." This is accompanied by an aversion to topics that might make a scholar visible outside the academy -- or god forbid, controversial -- because that might screw up your shot at tenure or get your criticized in print.
This tendency is not universally true, of course, and I'd argue that the willingness of younger scholars to take up blogging as a form of public engagement is a prominent counter-tendency. Could it be that younger scholars are just as bored producing "scholasticist" works as many of us are reading them, and that they find blogging far more fulfilling than adding another (largely) unread article to the catalog of academic journals. And if that's the case, what does it tell us about the priorities and values of contemporary academe?
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I'm just back from a quick lecture trip in Paris, and offer here a few quick and unscientific observations.
1. You know all those clichés about how unfriendly Parisians are to Americans? In my experience, totally false. I had a nasty encounter with an ill-tempered concierge in a cheap hotel in 1976, and that's it. Virtually everyone I've ever dealt with there has been friendly and welcoming, and even tolerant of my French, which I daresay is tres imparfait.
2. Contrary to modern mythology, not all Parisians are thin.
4. There are lots of bicyclists in Paris. As a confirmed bike commuter myself, I can only applaud. I didn't see a single one wearing a helmet. Pourquoi?
5. As I've noted before, Europe is far more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural than it was when I first visited, a trend especially evident in Paris. It leads to certain incongruous moments, to say the least. On the Metro one evening, an older man entered the car with an accordion and began serenading the passengers (almost all of whom were non-white) with traditional French songs (think Aznavour or Piaf). The passengers sat there stone-faced and completely unresponsive, and I didn't see him earn any tips. Weird.
6. Lastly, a culinary puzzle I've pondered before: Why is that you can go into just about any modest establishment in any city or town or village in France and be assured of finding wonderful bread? Similarly, you can go into any non-descript café in a tiny Italian village and get an espresso that Starbucks would kill to duplicate. Or wander into any anonymous pizza joint in Manhattan and you can get a slice of thin-crust pizza that is ineffably superior to versions of the same thing found elsewhere.
The point is not that the foods themselves are unique; globalization has spread falafel, sushi, pad thai, rogan josh, borscht, and countless other foods to many corners of the world. (Although, as a fan of the perenakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine of Singapore, I keep waiting for someone to open a perenakan restaurant here in Boston). Instead, the puzzle is why the imitations tend to be inferior to the originals, unless you are dealing with very high-end purveyors. It's not like making a decent baguette or a good thin-crust pizza is a classified secret like stealth technology. Is this simply because consumers of the globalized imitation have lower standards (i.e., they're just happy to have such foods available, even if they're not made particularly well), or is it because some foods require specialized techniques and local ingredients (i.e., the right kind of flour or water) that aren't as widely available or as easily duplicated as we think?
el gran flaco/flickr
I first heard the name "Tony Judt" when I was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s, and I took an immediate dislike to it. It was uttered to me by a female student whom I was (briefly) dating. She was enrolled in one of Judt's classes, and the rapt enthusiasm with which she described his course made it clear that she was a lot more impressed with him than she was with me. Deservedly so, I suspect. So without laying eyes on the man or reading any of his scholarship, I decided I didn't like this Judt fellow very much.
I remained vaguely aware of Judt's work after that, but his scholarly interests didn't overlap with most of mine and he was mostly a name I remembered with a certain vague disregard. The Committee on Social Thought considered him for a position during the years I taught at the University of Chicago, but I was in a different department and didn't devote much attention to the issue at the time.
Fast forward to the fall of 2003. John Mearsheimer and I were beginning work on our study of the "Israel lobby," and we read with interest Judt's essay in the New York Review of Books entitled "Israel: the Alternative." In it he portrayed modern Zionism as manifestation of 19th-century ethnic nationalism, a world-view he judged increasingly inappropriate to the post-modern, globalized world of the 21st century. Israel was increasingly an "anachronism," he wrote, and he suggested that a brighter future lay in replacing Zionism's ethno-religious exclusiveness with a more inclusive liberal democracy. In other words, Israel should evolve into a multi-ethnic liberal democracy instead of remaining an explicitly "Jewish state." The illiberal leadership of the New Republic greeted the piece by tossing Judt off their masthead (where he had previously been listed as a "contributing editor"), and he and his family reportedly received several death threats as well. I didn't agree with his conclusions, by the way, but the essay cast the phenomenon of Zionism in a new light.
And then in 2006, our lives intersected on three separate occasions. The first conjunction came after John Mearsheimer and I published "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books in March 2006. The furor was immediate, and my co-author and I were denounced by a wide (and predictable) array of critics. To our surprise, however, the New York Times said nothing about the controversy, and neither did any of its columnists. And then, on April 19, I opened the Times's op-ed page and found an eloquent defense of our article by the same Professor Judt to whom I had taken an unwarranted dislike back in grad school.
Judt's op-ed didn't endorse all of our conclusions, but he agreed that the lobby's influence had become a taboo subject in discussions of U.S. foreign policy and this situation was not healthy for the United States or for Israel. Judt's balanced and supportive intervention opened the door to a more reasoned discussion of the issue, and from that point forward the tide of discourse began to turn.
Via Andrew Sullivan, I learn that Ramesh Ponnaru of NRO's The Corner has never watched American Idol. I can't make the same claim, alas: my teen-age kids were big fans a couple of years ago (they moved on as they matured) and I confess that I watched a couple of episodes with them before my taste-o-meter rebelled.
But I am proud to say that I've never watched an episode of 24 or Lost, and I don't think I missed much. I read enough sky-is-falling, eve-of-destruction propaganda doing my day job, and I don't need to add to it in my off-hours. In addition to encouraging more permissive attitudes toward torture, shows like 24 also feed the mistaken beliefs that 1) the whole damn world is a vast and murky conspiracy, and 2) the United States possesses magical powers to monitor and shape events in real time. If that were really true, would we have marched into such deep quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan? The cruel reality is that political life is messy and unpredictable and most people in government aren't evil geniuses. (Well, OK, maybe Dick Cheney). Instead, they are mostly just ambitious human beings with the normal array of human frailties. We don't need the likes of Jack Bauer to save the day; what we need is a tough-minded recognition that life isn't fair, that bad things are going to happen no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that victory often goes not to the side that is most ambitious but to the side that makes the fewest mistakes.
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Back in the fall of 2003, I was in London for an conference and I took a stroll around the neighborhood near my hotel. At one point I turned a corner and saw a massive, looming building, surrounded with various barriers and fences and looking for all the world like an updated version of a medieval castle. "What's that?" I wondered, and wandered over to investigate. It was the U.S. Embassy, of course, and I was struck by how forbidding and unwelcoming it was. It seemed to me to be a vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay.
I thought of that moment today when I read the Times story on the winning design for a new U.S. embassy in London. Lord knows I'm no architecture critic, and I think my wife was too harsh when she said the winning design looked "like a big ice-cube," but the sketches in the Times don't show a building that invites the world in, or that conveys a sense of openness and confidence. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal security measures with adroit landscaping, the overall image is one where security concerns predominate: a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm's length.
What troubles me is what this tells us about America's place in the contemporary world, and the tensions between its global ambitions and its willingness to accept the consequences of them. On the one hand, the United States defines its own interests in global terms: there are no regions and few policy issues where we don't want to have a significant voice, and there are many places and issues where we insist on having the loudest one. But on the other hand, we don't think we should get our hair mussed while we tell the world what to do. It's tolerable for the United States to fire drones virtually anywhere (provided the states in question can't retaliate, of course), and Americans don't seem to have much of a problem with our running covert programs to destabilize other regimes that we've decided to dislike. We also aid, comfort and diplomatic support to assorted other states whose governments often act in deeply objectionable ways. But then we face the obvious problem that some people are going to object to these policies, hold us responsible, and try to do what they can to hit back.
So we have to build embassies that resemble fortresses, and that convey an image of America that is at odds with our interests and our own self-image, and especially with the image that we would like to convey to foreign peoples. We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we're supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers, and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the "Fortress America" approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia.
Don't get me wrong: states in the modern world do have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it's possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence
My copy of Mein Kampf sits on a shelf in my study, along with a couple of dozen books on World War II. It was the first book ever translated by the late Ralph Manheim (who also translated the works of Gunter Grass and others) and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1943. I've used it to prepare lectures on the Second World War, where I quote a few of Hitler's more lurid and bizarre passages in order to convey to students the dangerous world-view from which Nazism sprang.
I mention this because authorities in Bavaria are reportedly trying to prevent new editions of this book from being published in Germany (where it has been banned), now that the original copyright (which is controlled by the Bavarian government) is about to run out. Their concern, which is understandable but in my view overstated, is that neo-Nazi groups will use the expiration of copyright as an opportunity to disseminate Hitler's hateful ideas anew.
I think this is a mistake. In addition to being filled with a lot of appalling racist claptrap, Mein Kampf is an awful book-turgid, tedious, badly organized, and mostly boring. So the danger that a German edition it will win a lot of new converts seems remote. Second, it's widely available in pirated versions on the Internet and in plenty of other countries (including the Untied States), so anybody with neo-Nazi sympathies can get a copy already.
I see from today's news that the Obama administration is apparently going to reverse the "don't ask don't tell" policy that has prevented openly gay Americans from serving their country in the armed forces. I can only applaud this decision; not only does it eliminate an obvious source of discrimination, but it makes it easier for the military to get the best people to fill the ranks. Realists should support this move, because the name of the game in international politics is to maintain national power at the least cost and risk. Anytime you restrict the pool from which you are recruiting on arbitrary grounds that are unrelated to the task at hand (i.e., on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) you end up excluding some outstanding people whose presence would improve an organization's performance. Baseball got better after it integrated, the Ivy League improved once it dropped barriers to Jews and other minorities, and the same basic principle applies to gays in the military. As I wrote earlier this year:
The point is that in any competitive endeavor, you want to be able to recruit and employ the most talented and highly motivated people you can find, and you don't want to limit the talent pool from which you can draw unless there is something about them (such as a physical disability) that makes them obviously unfit for military service. By not allowing gay Americans to serve openly, we are imposing an artificial limit on the number of loyal Americans that our military can draw upon to fill its ranks. Some gay Americans would undoubtedly not be very good soldiers or sailors, but the same is true of plenty of straight people too. Many others undoubtedly would serve with distinction, however, and we know that because many already have, like Dan Choi.
For realists who appreciate the international politics is a rough business, therefore, the only possible argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the armed services is to claim that this policy would have a detrimental effect on actual military performance. The problem with this line of argument is that there is no good evidence to support that claim, and considerable evidence against it. For an excellent examination of the issue, see Elizabeth Kier's "Homosexuals in the American Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness," from the Fall 1998 issue of International Security. Or check out a series of recent reports from the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which offer survey evidence from the U.S. military and comparative studies of foreign armies (including Britain and Israel), where gay people serve openly, bravely, and effectively."
This is not to say that abandoning this policy won't create a few temporary disruptions, but the U.S. military has generally been quite successful at managing this sort of change in the past. As a senior officer commented during my visit to the Truman last week, it is a good thing for the U.S. military to be a fairly accurate reflection of American society rather than an artificial caste, and repealing "don't ask, don't tell" is a positive step in that direction. And contrary to what narrow-minded bigots might think, we'll get a better fighting force out of it too.
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The other news from Massachusetts yesterday was the death of mystery writer Robert B. Parker, who suffered a fatal heart attack while at his writing desk in his Cambridge home. He was 77.
I’m a big fan of crime and espionage novels (my favorites being Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, John Le Carre, Alan Furst, Dorothy Sayers, and (of course) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and I got a lot of pleasure out of Parker’s work too. Partly it was the Boston setting, but also the trademark repartee of his characters, the blend of grit and sophistication, and the code of loyalty that bound (some of) them together. In addition to the trademark Spenser series, he also invented several other leading characters, along with children's books and (recently) a series of Westerns.
Parker had a Ph.D. in English from Boston University and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Chandler. He liked to lampoon the pomposity of the academic world -- a fat target to be sure -- but he also provided graduate students and academics with some really valuable words to live by. An interviewer once asked him what advice he would give to a young author, and his response was at least as useful as most of the other guidance you’re likely to get from advisors and colleagues. (Confession: I’ve used it with my own grad students from time to time.)
What was his magic formula? Simple. “Keep your butt in the chair.”
He produced over 60 books, so there’s a lot to be said for those wise words.
Lester Public Library/flickr
My colleague Joe Nye has made many contributions to scholarship and policy, but his most lasting contribution to the political lexicon is the idea of “soft power.” It’s a concept that is simultaneously seductive and slippery: It captures something that most of us intuitively recognize -- the capacity to influence others without twisting arms, threatening, or compelling -- but it’s also hard to measure or define with a lot of precision. And for a realist like me, “soft power” has also seemed like a bit of an epiphenomenon, because you need a lot of hard power to produce much of the soft variety.
Nonetheless, I’d be remiss in not telling you about a recent article that provides systematic empirical support for the “soft power” concept. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Analysis, Carol Atkinson of Vanderbilt University presents results on the impact that student exchange programs (a classic instrument of “soft power”) have on the diffusion of liberal values. She finds that there is a strong positive effect, and offers the following provocative conclusion:
. . . the U.S. government often uses educational exchanges as a negative sanction; prohibiting or limiting attendance by countries with poor human rights records. However, my findings show that when the United States allows only “well behaved” countries to participate, it restricts its ability to build its own soft power across the international system. Over the long term, engaging potential political elites from authoritarian states, rather than excluding them from programs, provides an opportunity to channel liberal ideas into some of the most democratically austere regions of the world.”
At the risk of appearing to be pleading on behalf of my own line of work, I would just add that the United States is currently home to 17 of the top 20 universities in the world (Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo are the other three), according to the annual survey by China’s Jiao Tong University. In addition to being engines of innovation, those universities are also powerful magnets for talented and ambitious people from all over the world. Not only does the United States benefit from their presence, but exposure to American ideals appears to have positive long-term effects on political attitudes among most of them, and perhaps especially for those who come from authoritarian societies. The lesson: If we let our universities decline -- as California is now doing to the once-vaunted UC system -- we are guaranteeing a much less influential future for subsequent generations.
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No profound thoughts to offer today;
instead, ten rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip impressions -- some of them snarky -- from
my current road trip. Readers who want to discount what follows can chalk
it up to some serious jet lag.
1. British Airways has mastered the art of predatory pricing. First, they canceled my initial flight to London, which meant I couldn't make my connection to Paris in time for my first commitment. So I had to buy a separate one way ticket on Air France to preserve my schedule. But did BA offer to refund the unused portion of my itinerary (which was unused because they canceled the flight)? But nooooooooo! If I wanted a refund, I had to cancel my entire itinerary (which involved four more flights) and then rebook all four of the remaining legs under a new reservation number, but at a new, higher price that cost more than the original ticket. Heads they win, tails you lose. Resolved: avoid BA whenever possible in the future.
2. Alas, Air France is not an appealing alternative; it's no longer a great airline but instead is merely adequate. I still have vivid and glowing memories of flying first class to Paris on my honeymoon (a gift from my mother-in-law, who had a gazillion frequent flyer miles back then). I wasn't in first class this time, but even taking that into account, it was a pretty mediocre experience. And the "tournedos" they served for dinner would have made Escoffier tear his hair. Some poor vache died for no good reason.
3. Public transportation. On the other hand, there were a few experience on the road that put les États-Unis to shame. In Paris, there's a direct train from the airport into Paris, or you can take an Air France bus that leaves frequently, is cheap, and gets you to one of several convenient Metro stops. In London, the "Heathrow Express" rail line is equally convenient, and a virtually seamless way to get from the airport to central London. As you leave customs, there's a guy standing there with a credit card swiper. Thirty seconds later, you have your ticket, the trains leave every 15 mins., and they get you to Paddington in about 20 mins.. Consider that you can't take a train to Dulles or JFK and it reminds how bad most public transport and infrastructure is in the Land of the Free(way).
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
I've posted on Valentine's, Father's Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and Halloween, so at this point I assume a few readers are expecting me to offer up some thoughts on Thanksgiving. I'm happy to oblige, because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not only do I enjoy helping produce a feast and welcoming friends and family, but I like the idea of a day to reflect on whatever blessings we may have received. In my own case, I've been blessed with a wonderful family and a lot of undeserved good luck, and I probably ought to be even more grateful than I am.
So in that spirit, here are the Top Ten things I'm thankful for this year. (For the "official" FP version, check out Josh Keating's list here). I've limited myself to items that relate in some way to foreign policy or international affairs.
1. The Foreign Policy team. First off, I'm grateful for the invitation to write this blog, and especially for the terrific backup we get from the editorial and production team at FP. Special thanks to Rebecca Frankel (who finds all those great photos), to Susan Glasser, who keeps the whole operation running, and of course, the boundlessly inventive and fearless Moises Naim.
2. Free Speech. Every writer lucky enough to live in a country that protects free speech ought to give thanks for that good fortune every single day. Compared to the millions of people who risk persecution (or worse) if they dare to express their own ideas, intellectuals in the United States have it pretty soft. We should never take that luxury for granted.
3. Great Power Peace: Throughout history, wars between great powers have been one of the most potent causes of human misery. Just think about World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, which together killed over 85 million people and impoverished millions more. Yet today, great power rivalries are quite muted and the danger of a true great power war seems remote. There are plenty of other problems still remaining, of course, but I'm grateful that one of the big ones isn't troubling us right now. Let's try to keep it that way, ok?
4. Nuclear Deterrence. Unlike some writers whose work I nonetheless admire, I think nuclear weapons did contribute to peace during the Cold War and remain a stabilizing force today. As Churchill put it, safety has become the "sturdy child of terror." So despite some lingering reservations, I'm glad that nuclear weapons exist. But I'm not giving thanks for the number that we have, which is far in excess of what is needed for deterrence.
5. Critics. Some of my recent work attracted a lot of criticism, and I'm genuinely grateful for it. First of all, my co-author and I have been fortunate that our most vehement critics chose to misrepresent our work and to smear us with various baseless charges, thereby confirming some of our central arguments and helping us win over a lot of readers. At the same time, scholars who have challenged my various writings over the years in more serious ways helped me refine my ideas and gain a fuller understanding of numerous topics. And I'm always thankful for students who don't accept ideas at face value and push back, because we need more independent thinkers and vigorous discussion helps us all learn.
6. Supporters. The controversy over The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy also brought me a legion of new friends, some of whom I would never have met otherwise. My thanks to inspired writers and activists like Phil Weiss, Tony Judt, M.J. Rosenberg, Jerome Slater, Avi Shlaim, Uri Avnery, Sydney Levy, and many, many more. I'm also grateful to the various people who faced pressure to cancel speaking engagements and didn't succumb to it, as well as the many friends who offered their support privately, in countless small ways. You know who you are, and I won't forget.
7. The Fruits of Globalization. I don't know about you, but I'm grateful to live in a world that is increasingly interconnected. Indeed, this aspect of the modern world still strikes me as nearly miraculous, and I feel enormously lucky to be able to enjoy it. I've eaten hummus in Tel Aviv, camel in Abu Dhabi, fish head curry in Singapore, and tapas in Barcelona. My iPod contains music from all over the world, and the last two novels I read were by Orhan Parmuk (Turkey) and Haruki Murakami (Japan). My children attend a public high school where students speak over fifty different languages at home, and there are students from over 80 different countries where I teach. Cultural differences often create awkward tensions (or worse), but I'd feel terribly impoverished if I lived in an isolated mono-culture.
8. Bullets Dodged. I am also thankful that we have thus far avoided some even more dire events in recent years. The world economy may have tanked in 2007-08, but we seem -- knock wood -- to have avoided a complete replay of the Great Depression. Swine flu has been a serious problem but is not a true global pandemic. Terrorists still conspire and sometimes succeed, but another 9/11 (or worse) has not occurred And we have not been so foolish as to attack Iran (at least so far). We should not forget that many are suffering in today's economy, roughly 5000 people have died from H1N1, both soldiers and civilians are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are still influential voices clamoring for more war. But things could be much worse and for that we should all be grateful.
9. The Internet. Boy, am I glad that Al Gore invented this! After all, this blog wouldn't exist without it. Not only has it revolutionized how many of us do research (and in a good way), but it is becoming the main engine of accountability in a world where it is often lacking. Bloggers are exposing the flabby fatuousness of mainstream media and politicians everywhere live in fear of their own "YouTube moment." And whether it is a brutal crackdown in Tehran, torture at Abu Ghraib, or possible war crimes in Gaza, the Internet is helping bring misconduct to light in ways that governments cannot easily suppress. I say: let the sunshine in!
10. Readers. Finally, a heartfelt thanks to all of you who've been reading this blog since its inception, and especially those who've taken the time to offer words of support. I've learned a lot in the process-including some of the more constructive comments that readers provide -- and I intend to keep going until the tank is empty. Tomorrow is a holiday, however, and I'm going to take the day off. You should too, and don't forget to give thanks.
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In Going Rogue Ms. Palin talks perfunctorily about fiscal responsibility and a muscular foreign policy, and more passionately about the importance of energy independence, but she is quite up front about the fact that much of her appeal lies in her just-folks "hockey mom" ordinariness. She pretends no particular familiarity with the Middle East, the Iraq war or Islamic politics -- "I knew the history of the conflict," she writes, "to the extent that most Americans did." And she argues that "there's no better training ground for politics than motherhood."
Yet Mr. McCain's astonishing decision to pick someone with so little experience (less than two years as the governor of Alaska, and before that, two terms as mayor of Wasilla, an Alaskan town with fewer than 7,000 residents) as his running mate underscores just how alarmingly expertise is discounted -- or equated with elitism -- in our increasingly democratized era, and just how thoroughly colorful personal narratives overshadow policy arguments and actual knowledge.
I think Kakutani is right, but I wonder why so many people -- including Senator McCain, Ms. Palin herself, and the other folks who supported her -- seem to think you don't need to know anything to be good at running foreign policy. I doubt if Ms. Palin would let someone perform surgery on one of her children (or even repair her car) simply because they had parenting experience or an entertaining life story. No, she'd want to make sure that the person in question actually knew what they were doing. Virtually all of us normally insist on genuine expertise when we hire anyone to do an important job -- whether it's carpentry or a cardiac bypass -- yet millions of people in this country seem to think that the most momentous decisions about our collective future can be entrusted to people who are sublimely comfortable in their own ignorance.
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I'm in the UK at a conference, but I came across the following video, courtesy of Newsweek. If you've been doing a Rip Van Winkle or otherwise engaged for the past ten years, here's a quick way to catch up on the first decade of the 21st Century. My thought: "no wonder I'm tired ... it's been a busy ten years."
Veterans Day is the only official U.S. holiday that honors a specific subset of American citizens -- those who have served in the armed forces. It began with Woodrow Wilson's proclaimation of Armistice Day in 1919, which celebrated the end of World War I, but a grass roots campaign to honor all veterans led to its redesignation as "Veterans Day" in 1954.
It is revealing that we honor veterans of the armed forces but not other members of society who run similar risks and make similar sacrifices -- rescue workers, firemen, police officers, etc. It reflects our awareness that we still live in an insecure world, and it echoes the origin of the modern state as an instrument for the conduct of organized violence. "War made the state, and the state made war," wrote sociologist Charles Tilly, and we still look to national governments to provide protection against external dangers. Americans didn't turn to Microsoft, Amnesty International or the Ford Foundation after 9/11, and while they may have gone to church, mosque or synagogue to find comfort, they looked to the federal government -- and especially the national security establishment -- to provide protection.
Nonetheless, I can't help but think that "Armistice Day" was a better concept. Not merely to commemorate the end of a particular war, but rather to commemorate the end of any war. Those who served in our armed forces deserve a day in their honor, but the real celebration should be the moment when the fighting is over and they come home. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog today, the best way to honor our veterans is to make sure they aren't asked to fight and die to no good purpose.
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One of the pleasant frustrations of modern life is that there are far more good books out there than any of us have time to read. Browsing the Brookline Booksmith -- the wonderful local bookstore in my hometown -- is simultaneously delightful and depressing: I get intrigued and excited by all sorts of titles, but then I have trouble deciding which to buy and which to read first.
I'm know I'm not the only person with that problem -- which is why book reviews exist -- so I thought I'd help out by suggesting a few books I've recently read that got my own synapses humming.
The first is John Mueller's Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al Qaeda, which relentlessly punctures the various ways that analysts of all persuasions have overstated the dangers and the importance of nuclear weapons. (For a preview of Mueller's argument, see the FP excerpt here). It is an equal-opportunity critique, as Mueller goes after hawks, doves, realists, and other Cassandras with equal relish and a playful but pungent wit. He emphasizes that nuclear weapons are in fact highly destructive and need to be handled with great care, but convincingly shows that policymakers and pundits have 1) routinely exaggerated their destructive power (i.e., by suggesting they can "destroy the world"), 2) inflated their importance in deterring war, imparting influence, or enhancing status, and 3) overstated the risk of nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, or other very low-probability events. And instead of encouraging a useful prudence, Mueller argues that our "atomic obsession" has led us to adopt various policies that wasted a lot of money and may have actually made the situation more dangerous rather than less. Not everyone will be convinced by Mueller's arguments, but the book will certainly make you think. Added bonus: It's immensely fun to read.
My second recommendation is Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall's America's Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity. This is a creative, carefully researched, and incisive analysis of U.S. strategy during the long struggle against the Soviet Union. There are plenty of good books on this topic already, but Craig and Logevall's is one of the best, and their interpretation has important implications for contemporary strategic debates. In brief, they argue that America's initial response to the Soviet threat in Europe was both necessary and successful, but overselling by early Cold Warriors also put in place a worldview and a set of domestic institutions that consistently exaggerated U.S. insecurity and led to costly and counterproductive excesses over the next 40 years. The Soviet Union is now gone, but that worldview and those institutions remain in place today. Which is why the United States spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined, why we find ourselves bogged down in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, and why we panic over countries like Iran (whose defense spending in 2007 was a whopping $7.5 billion, or about 1 percent of America's).
My third suggestion is Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, which I read on my recent trip to Norway. Based on a series of invited lectures, it is a set of pointed reflections on history, historians, and the ways in which the past is employed (and distorted) for both noble and ignoble purposes. If not quite the intellectual tour de force of a book like David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies, her reflections nonetheless provide a smart and eminently sensible set of warnings for citizens and leaders alike. History is essential to our identities, but it can also a dangerous weapon in the hands of anyone with a political agenda.
And speaking of history, my last recommendation is Eugene Rogan's The Arabs, which I acquired last week. I haven't finished it, but so far it's an entertaining, gracefully written, and eye-opening look at a diverse people whose history, culture and character are often badly misunderstood (if not actively distorted) here in the United States. Read it. You'll learn a lot.
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The debate about the strategically myopic policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has resurfaced again, sparked by a revealing article in the October issue of Joint Force Quarterly. President Obama told the Human Rights Campaign meeting on October 11 that he would end DADT, but he didn't say when. National Security Advisor James Jones clarified matters by saying Obama would end the policy "at the right time." Oh good. What a relief that must be to gay men and women who are already serving, or those that would like to. It's nice to know that ending an unfair and counterproductive policy is on a strict timetable. I just hope Obama doesn't start talking about a "roadmap," because then we know nothing will change.
I have nothing to add to my earlier comments on this issue, but I'm pleased that the author of the JFQ article apparently agrees.
My class at the Kennedy School is examining liberal theories of international politics this week, and the policy issue we'll be discussing is the question of democracy promotion. One of the assigned readings is former President George W. Bush's 2nd Inaugural Address. As you'll probably remember, the address was a soaring anthem to virtues of liberty and America's commitment to promoting it around the world. Some of the its choicer lines included:
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.""The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations."
It would be easy to pick the speech apart, of course, or to point out that Bush's lofty declarations about "America's belief in human dignity" were at odds with the torture regime that he oversaw as president. It was also the kind of speech that tends to make even America's friends overseas nervous, as they wonder what new crusades the United States might contemplating.
But that's not the point I want to make today. As I read it over preparing for class, I had an odd thought: what if Barack Obama gave the same speech? How would Americans react, and how would foreign audiences perceive it? I read it again, and imagined Obama's voice and cadences uttering the same lines. And you know what? It read a lot better that way. Try it yourself and see. (If you want to make this hypothetical easier to imagine, throw in the phrase "Make no mistake" once or twice).
I draw three rather obvious conclusions from this exercise. First, when you like a political leader, you'll tend to like what he or she says no matter what the actual words are. Conversely, if you've already decided you don't like someone, there's little they could do to convince you. Second, liberal values are deeply infused into American political culture, which is why either Bush or Obama could use a lot of the same phrases and invoke the same sweeping language and get a lot of heads to nod in assent. Third, as long as the United States is very, very powerful, there will be a strong outward thrust to its foreign policy, even when vital interests aren't at stake and even when meddling abroad could make things worse rather than better.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.