Watching the musical chairs taking place in the first months of Obama's second term reminds me of how fundamentally unserious America's approach to foreign affairs really is. Kerry and Hagel are now in, but apparently Biden's star is ascending too, while all sorts of other folks are rotating to new jobs, unpacking their offices, or heading back to private life to pen memoirs. You might think this was a great opportunity for fresh thinking and renewed energy, but what it really reveals is how our approach to staffing foreign affairs may be the worst of all possible worlds.
For starters, the United States has a relatively small civil service. Compared with other countries, a relatively large percentage of top government jobs are held by presidential appointees. The result: top jobs in the State Department and Pentagon are handled not by career foreign service officers or experienced bureaucrats, but by partisan appointees who rarely last more than a couple of years and then return to private life. Not only does this mean tremendous turnover whenever the White House changes hands, it means we are constantly bringing in people who lack experience or who are not up to speed on current issues.
Next, the appointments process itself has gone completely off the rails. Candidates have to go through elaborate vetting procedures that would daunt a saint, and then they also face a Senate confirmation process that is slow, arbitrary, and leaves lots of positions unfilled for months if not years. And sometimes you get an embarrassing circus like the recent Hagel confirmation hearings, which revealed the GOP members of the Armed Services Committee to be spiteful and factually challenged hacks and no doubt confirmed many foreigners' dubious views of America's overall political competence.
Third, we are so afraid that our career diplomats will "go native" or develop "localitis," that we discourage them from developing deep regional expertise and instead rotate them around the globe on a frequent basis. There is something to be said for gaining a global perspective, of course, but it also means that unlike some of our rivals, we won't have many diplomats with deep linguistic expertise or lots of in-depth experience in the societies in which they are operating. Yet we then expect them to hold their own against their local counterparts, or against diplomats from other countries whose knowledge and training in particular areas is more extensive.
To make matters worse, the United States has a four-year presidential term and a campaign cycle that lasts well over a year. This latter period is far longer than the election periods in any other advanced democracy, and the endless parade of primaries and other forms of electoral hoopla eat up lots of bandwith in our national discourse. The result? The country, the incumbent administration, and the president's various rivals are all distracted for more than 25 percent of each president's term, and less able to make hard political choices.
And then there's the question of resources. When there was a Cold War to win, American taxpayers were willing to devote one percent of GDP to non-military international affairs spending (e.g., on development, diplomacy, and things like that). Today, we spend about only 0.2 percent of GDP in this area, which tells you all you need to know about the real priority that Americans place on non-military tools of international influence.
None of this would matter if the United States had a less ambitious foreign policy. But instead, we're trying to be the "indispensable power" on the cheap. The results, I am sorry to say, speak for themselves.
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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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In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.
The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don't like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we've left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.
The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. The Taliban hasn't been defeated, the Karzai government isn't more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn't stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven't worked very well. The Afghan government can't even afford to pay its troops' salaries, so they'll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don't know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won't be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.
But if pretending that we've won some sort of victory makes it easier for us to do the right thing and get out, then shouldn't commentators like me suspend our judgment and help sell the story? Nope. Because if we tell ourselves a lot of politically expedient untruths about the Afghan campaign, we'll learn the wrong lessons from the experience and we'll be more likely to repeat this sort of debacle in the future.
Specifically, the idea that the 2009 surge led to a significantly different outcome reinforces the idea that counter-insurgency in societies like Afghanistan is something we're good at, once we get the right generals in charge and adopt the right tactical menu. It encourages us to think that if we just keep trying, we'll eventually get really good at social engineering in war-torn societies that we don't understand very well. And the more we think that doing this sort of thing is just a question of mastering the right techniques, the easier it will be to convince ourselves that we've learned how to do it and that next time everything will be different. Except that it won't.
I don't really blame the Obama administration for trying to spin this one as best they can; that's what the politics of the situation demands. But if we want to avoid learning the wrong lessons, it will be up to scholars, journalists and other independent thinkers to give us a more objective appraisal of America's longest war.
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Here's a puzzle for you to ponder. For more than a decade, Americans have been repeatedly told that Iran is a Grave, Imminent, Deadly Serious Threat to us, our allies, and the security of the whole world. Why? Because it is enriching uranium, which it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. intelligence services still maintain that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. Even if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon someday, it couldn't do anything with it without courting its own destruction at the hands of the United States, Israel, or possibly some other countries. Possession of a few bombs wouldn't give Tehran any more leverage than the United States gets from having a vast nuclear arsenal, and we get hardly any. Yet in response to this vastly inflated danger, the U.S. has organized an extensive program of multilateral sanctions, conducted aggressive covert action programs, and repeatedly hinted that it might launch a preventive war if Iran crossed some ill-specified "red line."
Meanwhile, the government of Laos has announced that it has broken ground for a giant dam on the Lower Mekong River, a step that many experts believe will permanently harm the ecology of the Mekong Delta and affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. What Laos is openly doing poses a more immediate and pressing danger to human well-being than the hypothetical possibility that Iran might someday acquire a small nuclear deterrent. So my question is: Why isn't the United States organizing "crippling" sanctions against Laos, conducting cyberattacks on the civil engineering firms who are planning the dam, and threatening to bomb the construction sites if Laos continues the work?
Of course, I don't think the United States should do any of these things. I'm not in favor of war with Iran either. But why do some hypothetical possibilities get enormous (and counterproductive) attention, while some real and tangible problems remain on the backpages?
The remainder of my trip to Turkey sparked some further thoughts, including some qualifications to my last post. To wit:
1. I previously described the conference I attended -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- as an illustration of Turkey's emphasis on "soft power." By creating a Davos-like annual meeting oriented towards issues central to emerging economies, the organizers sought to display Turkey's growing importance as a political player. I still think that's right, but my conversations with other attendees suggest that the IWPF will need to raise its game in the years ahead if they want to reap the full benefits. The panels were interesting and well-attended, and there were a number of informative speakers, but I also heard a lot of complaints about the overall level of organization of the operation. Some speakers didn't know which panels they would appear on until the last minute, and the format of some sessions wasn't clear until you showed up. I also heard complaints about haphazard travel arrangements, although in my own case the bookings worked well after some initial glitches. Putting on an event like this isn't easy, but if the Turkish government and the other sponsors hope to use these forums as a way of demonstrating their efficiency, competence, and managerial ability, they've got a ways to go.
2. One of the more vivid impressions I took from the conference was the prevailing wariness -- if not outright suspicion -- with which the United States was viewed by many of the attendees. Virtually any statement that cast even mild doubt about U.S. policy (on Iran, Middle East peace, past interventions, Iraq, etc.) drew spontaneous approval from the audience, even if the statements weren't especially provocative, penetrating, or anti-American. For example, in the panel on a possible war with Iran, I suggested that if the U.S. wanted to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, it might make sense to stop threatening Tehran with regime change. The audience immediately burst into loud applause. Similar statements by journalist and professor Stephen Kinzer and Juergen Chrobog of the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt elicited much the same response. And most of the questions (or diatribes) from the audience were either explicitly or implicitly critical of the U.S. position. I had a similar experience in my other panel as well.
I wish some U.S. government officials had been there to observe this phenomenon, because it drove home to me the degree to which U.S. policy is regarded by many is inherently myopic, selfish, and illegitimate. (And the positive bump produced by Obama's election in 2008 is long gone). It's not a deep hatred of Americans themselves, but rather a simmering resentment of America's global role. And I think many Americans just don't get this, especially when they spend all their time talking to their counterparts (i.e., the global 1 percent) in other countries.
3. The trip also highlighted for me the ambiguities of Turkey's internal politics under the AKP. I've been trying to figure out where Turkey is headed for a number of years now, and I still don't consider myself anything like an expert on political developments there. But several incidents on this trip underscored the deep tensions that still persist and may be getting worse.
On the one hand, the AKP has done an impressive job of stimulating economic growth, reforming ordinary criminal justice practice, encouraging some forms of democratic participation, and emphasizing higher education. I would also give them high marks for their overall handling of foreign policy. The much-ballyhooed "zero problems" strategy trumpeted by Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davatoglu has hit some rough spots in the past couple of years (most visibly over Syria), but it's still a smart aspiration, even if it has proven more difficult to implement in practice. And I still think the U.S. has an important interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey going forward; to see this, just imagine how much more difficult our dealings with this region would be if Ankara and Washington were really at odds.
But on the other hand, AKP rule has been heavy-handed in a variety of disturbing ways, most notably in the protracted detention of the so-called Ergenekon suspects and in its various efforts to manipulate or intimidate the Turkish press. The AKP hasn't been anywhere near as brutal as some previous military governments (among other things, Turkey's overall human rights record is vastly better than in some earlier eras, but there are still a lot of disturbing elements. While I was at the conference, three different people came up to tell me privately that "things were really bad here," and that the United States had to do more to pressure the AKP. It was clear after a few minutes of conversation that these speakers were secularists from the old order (i.e., they are part of a class that has been losing power), but it was nonetheless striking to hear their concerns. At a minimum, it suggested to me that that AKP has done a much better job of clipping the wings of the old guard than it has of reconciling them to the realities of the new Turkey.
Given Turkey's turbulent past, this lingering animosity is not that surprising. But it does not bode well for the future, especially if the economic prosperity on which the AKP's popularity rests begins to flag. And as I said on one panel, the continued deterioration of domestic freedoms in Turkey is bound to be exploited by groups who are worried about Turkey's foreign policy direction, thereby damaging U.S.-Turkish relations in ways that both countries would soon regret.
4. Adding it all up, I'd argue that we are witnessing an important shift in world politics whose broader implications are worrisome for the United States. Political participation is broadening and deepening in more and more countries, and even if the results fall far short of some ideal vision of democracy (let alone the imperfect U.S. version of that ideal), these states are going to be increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards many parts of the world has depended more on cushy deals with oligarchs, dictators, and plutocrats, and past U.S. actions (most of them undertaken for various Cold War/anti-communist reasons) have left a toxic legacy that most Americans do not fully appreciate. Add to that our frequent resort to military force since the Cold War ended, our enthusiastic use of sanctions despite the human costs to ordinary citizens, and our insistence that there are really two sets of rules in world politics (the U.S. can violate other states' sovereignty whenever we want, but weaker states who object to this get demonized and/or threatened with more of the same). The result is a world where many people would like to take us down several pegs, and where it can be costly for political leaders to be openly supportive of U.S. initiatives (see under: Pakistan).
America is still very powerful, and plenty of governments still understand that some of our strategic interests overlap. But we're entering a world were fewer and fewer governments are going to be reflexively deferential to the United States, for the simple reason that they pay attention to popular sentiment and their own national interests aren't in fact identical to ours. If we expect governments in these countries to be as supine as some of their predecessors, we had better get used to disappointment. What will be needed is a lot more nuance, flexibility, and diplomatic skill, as well as a greater sense of humility and restraint. I only hope that we are better at displaying these qualities in the future than we've been in the recent past.
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What's the most powerful political force in the world? Some of you might say it's the bond market. Others might nominate the resurgence of religion or the advance of democracy or human rights. Or maybe its digital technology, as symbolized by the internet and all that comes with it. Or perhaps you think it's nuclear weapons and the manifold effects they have had on how states think about security and the use of force.
Those are all worthy nominees (no doubt readers here will have their own favorites), but my personal choice for the Strongest Force in the World would be nationalism. The belief that humanity is comprised of many different cultures -- i.e., groups that share a common language, symbols, and a narrative about their past (invariably self-serving and full of myths) -- and that those groups ought to have their own state has been an overwhelming powerful force in the world over the past two centuries.
Read the full article here.
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China's remarkable transformation over the past three decades is obviously an event of major geopolitical proportions, with far-reaching ramifications in both economic and security affairs. It has also led some observers to conclude that the PRC is destined to eclipse the (decadent) United States and its various feckless allies in part because its leaders are more farsighted and disciplined and able to set a course and stick to it despite occasional vicissitudes. This view implies that our own unruly political system needs more executive power and less democracy. (I'll confess to occasional grumpy thoughts along those lines, mostly when I'm bicycling to work and pondering how China can build whole cities or an Olympic Village in a year or two, while the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston can't manage to renovate a single bridge in less than three.)
But I digress. Anyone who is convinced that China is on a relentless march to world domination ought to read today's New York Times article on China's authoritarian response to its water shortage. The basic story is that China is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to redistribute water resources, which involves massive dam and canal construction and has all the signs of a major ecological, social, and maybe even political disaster. Then go read Chapter 12 ("China, Lurching Giant") in Jared Diamond's Collapse, which details the ecological consequences of China's rapid development in greater detail. And then follow that up with a book I've plugged before: James Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott argues that authoritarian regimes inspired by "modernist ideologies" tend to produce major socioeconomic disasters, largely because they can impose grand schemes but lack adequate feedback mechanisms and institutions of accountability to correct errors or deal with unintended consequences. By the time they realize the full consequences of their actions, it is too late to prevent enormous harm.
None of this is to suggest that we are about to see a replay of the Great Leap Forward (Mao Zedong's disastrous attempt at forced-march development, in which at least 20 million people starved) or that China won't continue to rise. But I suspect there's a day of reckoning ahead, when the ecological and social consequences of this unprecedented transformation are fully felt and the political consequences will be profound.
Juan Cole had a nice piece over the weekend on the paltry Western offers of support for the Arab Spring. Helping the Arab economies recover and securing a moderate and democratic outcome in Egypt and Tunisia (and maybe elsewhere) is arguably one of the more significant priorities in contemporary international affairs, yet pledges of outside help have been pretty meager.
This isn't surprising, of course, because the United States is in deep fiscal trouble and some of our European allies are in even worse shape. So we're trying to get the Arab oil exporters to pony up a lot of the money, or we're making vague commitments of support that may not even be implemented.
If you want a comparison that reveals how our recent profligacy has undermined our ability to make bold moves in cases like this, consider that the European Recovery Program (aka the "Marshall Plan") cost about $13 billion in 1948 dollars, which would the equivalent of about $113 billion today. The U.S. economy was only about $270 billion back then, so Marshall Plan aid amounted to roughly 5 percent of U.S. GDP. If Washington were to pledge a similar percentage today, it would be about $700 billion. Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are just two countries, not a whole continent, but even a tenth of that amount would be some $70 billion (which is less than we spend each year fighting in Afghanistan). Yet nobody seems to be thinking in these terms. After all, what did Obama offer Egypt in his speech at the State Department? A couple of billion in loan guarantees and debt relief, and that's all. And I'm not saying he should've have pledged more, because I've no idea where he could find it or how he'd get Congress to authorize it.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why the United States and its allies aren't going to have much influence over how the Arab spring evolves.
P.S. I'll be appearing at a conference session in Washington today (Tuesday), co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. Other speakers include Nathan Brown, Marina Ottaway, Tarek Masoud, Nicholas Burns, Marwan Muasher, and Christopher Boucek. I don't know if it will be live-streamed or not, but you can find out more about it here.
Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya -- and let's not kid ourselves, that's what they are trying to do -- did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?
I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.
The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of "foreign imposed regime change" going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account "selection effects" (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.
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Saturday's New York Times contained an interesting op-ed piece by Charles Blow, titled "American Shame." The main item was a table listing the 33 countries designated as "advanced economies" by the International Monetary Fund and comparing them on various social and educational characteristics. Specifically, Blow charted income inequality, unemployment rates, level of democracy, the "percentage thriving" (according to the Gallup Global Well-Being Index), food insecurity, prison population, and student performance in math and science. The bottom line: The United States is at the bottom of the heap on most of these measures, and at or near the top in none.
It's a sobering collection of data, to be sure, but I wish Blow had added two more columns to his chart: 1) percentage of GDP devoted to defense, and 2) defense spending per capita. According to the 2010 IISS Military Balance, here's what those columns would have looked like (the countries are in the order presented by Blow, which reflected their summary ranking on the various measures, from best to worst):
Country Defense $/GDP (%) Defense $/population (2008)
Australia 2.24 1,056
Canada 1.19 597
Norway 1.49 1,264
Netherlands 1.41 738
Germany 1.28 570
Austria 0.77 389
Switzerland 0.83 542
Denmark 1.94 344
Finland 1.33 693
Belgium 1.10 534
Malta 0.60 122
Japan 0.93 362
Sweden 1.30 736
Hong Kong n.a. n.a.
Iceland 0.27 (200 153 (2006)
New Zealand 1.39 420
Luxembourg 0.43 478
United Kingdom 2.28 998
Ireland 0.60 382
Singapore 4.20 1,663
Cyprus 2.16 503
South Korea 2.60 500
Italy 1.34 532
France 2.35 1,049
Czech Rep. 1.46 310
Slovenia 1.53 415
Taiwan 2.76 458
Slovakia 1.55 271
Israel 7.41 2,077
Spain 1.20 276
Greece 2.85 946
Portugal 1.53 349
United States 4.88 2,290
And just for fun, let's toss in:
P.R. China 1.36 45
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I'm just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China's Rise and America's Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.
My impressions? First, there's clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I'd be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn't been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).
Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I'm hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.
Which was another theme of my visit. The Vietnamese don't appear to have any hard feelings toward the United States (I didn't catch the slightest hint of any lingering resentments from the war), and it's probably noteworthy that virtually all the visitors at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City were Westerners. This lack of resentment isn't all that surprising; as they see it, they beat us fair and square. Instead, the audiences at my talks (which included a fair number of students and intellectuals) and the officials with whom I met all sounded eager for closer ties with the United States. As I noted earlier, they were mostly concerned that the United States might cut some deal with China that would leave them isolated.
And China is a major long-term concern. That's hardly surprising either; all you have to do is look at a map and know a little bit about Sino-Vietnamese history. They have no desire for an open confrontation with Beijing, and Vietnam has a lot of important economic ties with China that could give the Chinese leverage in the future. But they are also under no illusions about the dangers of Chinese dominance (Vietnam was ruled by China for several hundred years), and I didn't sense much danger that Vietnam will bandwagon with Beijing. In that regard, the people with whom I spoke were clearly reassured and pleased by the tougher line the United States has taken regarding territorial issues in places like the South China Sea. So if Sino-American rivalry intensifies (as I expect it will), Vietnam will be an important U.S. ally.
All in all, it was a fascinating trip, and I'll be digesting my impressions for some time to come. And now it's time to catch up on what's been happening in the rest of the world; but first, I have to dig out the driveway.
Tom Friedman has a pretty good column today on the future of Sino-American relations, in effect warning that unruly nationalism in China could spell trouble down the road. Money quotation:
The days when Nixon and Mao could manage this relationship in secret are long gone. There are a lot of unstable chemicals at work out here today, and so many more players with the power to inflame or calm U.S.-China relations.
A Sino-American Cold War is not inevitable, perhaps, and it is easy to think of reasons why the two largest economies (and over time, two most significant military powers) might manage to keep their competition within safe bounds. Optimists invoke the usual liberal antidotes to conflict: the growing economic ties between the two countries, China's "socialization" into existing institutions, and the possibility that China will one day become a democracy. Or one may hope that Beijing will realize that overly assertive behavior will quickly provoke balancing behavior by China's neighbors (moving them to align more closely with each other and with the United States), thereby leaving China isolated and worse off overall. And if the United States manages to extricate itself from its Iraqi and Afghan morasses and devotes more attention on Asia, then there might be even less chance of a Sino-American train wreck down the road.
But here's why I'm less optimistic. Assuming China continues to grow economically, it will also increase its military power and thus its capacity to threaten certain U.S. interests. Like any great power, it will tend to view its own "vital interests" more expansively as its power rises, and it will want to do what it can to ensure that others cannot threaten those interests. For example, a rising China that is increasingly dependent on overseas resources and markets will naturally want to make it harder for others to threaten these vital sea lines of communication. To be concerned by these things is not a sign of aggressive expansionism; it is just typical great power behavior. And given that U.S. leaders think they have "vital interest" in virtually every part of the globe, this sort of behavior ought to be easy for Americans to recognize.
Now, if one also assumes that both the United States and China will always be governed by mature, far-sighted, and sensible politicians who won't succumb to xenophobia or threat-mongering, won't be swayed by narrow interest groups, won't let propaganda from self-interested allies warp their judgment, and who will manage each and every crisis with restraint and aplomb, then one might easily conclude that any future rivalry will remain fairly muted.
But if one assumes that occasionally an impulsive, weak, or rambunctious leader will come to power in one of the two countries, or that either state's foreign policy apparatus might at some point be overly influenced by people with more dangerous agendas, or that at some point one of the two will hit a rough patch and tempt the other to seize an advantage, then you'd obviously be more concerned about trouble down the road. And what if this happened in both countries simultaneously?
Now: based on what you know about these two countries, which assumption do you think is more reasonable? Based on past history, I think its safe to assume that sooner or later one side or the other is going to do something stupid. Friedman is clearly worried about social forces in China that might make conflict more likely; I'm also worried about the judgment of people at the top and some of the social forces here at home. And not just today, but for a long time into the future.
Obligatory IR Theory footnote: the discussion above in effect combines a structural realist analysis with a sensitivity to the impact of domestic politics. Structural theory tells you why a rising China creates greater potential for security competition between Washington and Beijing: in the bipolar world that a rising China is gradually creating, the two most powerful states will naturally eye each other warily. But structure alone doesn't make intense conflict (let alone all-out war) inevitable. That will be determined, at least in part, by how well each country's foreign policy apparatus manages things. But note that "managing" doesn't just mean accommodation: it will also require displays of resolve and a careful drawing of "red lines," which also creates the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation. And don't forget: If this emerging bipolarity lasts a long time, the challenge lies in managing relations not just for a year or two, but for many decades. Based on what I know about each country's foreign policy establishment, it's hard for me to believe that one (or both) won't blow it sooner or later and lead us into a serious security competition.
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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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If you're looking for another realistic counter to the official optimism about Afghanistan, check out Christopher Layne's op-ed from two days ago in the Chicago Tribune. In a handful of sharp, short paragraphs, Layne reminds us that 1) the "surge" in Iraq (the approach now being adapted to Afghanistan) didn't work, 2) the current emphasis on counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare misdiagnoses the origins of our troubles in the Middle East and Central Asia, and 3) our current fascination with COIN "sets exactly the wrong strategic priorities for the United States."
Smart piece. It will take some time before this view become the conventional wisdom, but I'm still betting that it will. Unfortunately, it will be many billions of dollars and thousands of lives too late.
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One of the themes I have harped about on this blog has been the issue of opportunity costs. When a great power gets itself over-committed in a lot of costly and time-consuming commitments (and when it mismanages its economy in various ways), then it won't have the surplus it needs when an unexpected challenge (or an unforeseen opportunity) arises.
Case in point: the current floods that have ravaged Pakistan in recent weeks. The situation is by all accounts horrific, and could have significant long-term consequences for millions of people. It is precisely the sort of event that calls for a vigorous and generous U.S. response.
As everyone knows, the United States is widely despised among broad swathes of Pakistani society. Some of this hostility is unmerited, but some of it is a direct result of misguided U.S. policies going back many decades. As the U.S. experience with Indonesia following the 2004 Asian tsunami demonstrated, however, a prompt and generous relief effort could have a marked positive effects on Pakistani attitudes. Such a shift could undermine support for extremist groups and make it easier for the Pakistani government to crack down on them later on. It is also the right thing to do, and the U.S. military is actually pretty good at organizing such efforts.
The United States has so far pledged some $76 million dollars in relief aid, and has sent 19 helicopters to help ferry relief supplies. That's all well and good, but notice that the U.S. government sent nearly $1 billion in aid in response to the tsunami, and we are currently spending roughly $100 billion annually trying to defeat the Taliban. More to the point, bear in mind that the United States currently has some over 200 helicopters deployed in Afghanistan (and most reports suggest that we could actually use a lot more).
So imagine what we might be able to do to help stranded Pakistanis if we weren't bogged down in a costly and seemingly open-ended counterinsurgency war, and didn't have all those military assets (and money) already tied up there? It's entirely possible that we could do more to help suffering individuals, and more to advance our own interests in the region, if some of these military assets weren't already committed.
Of course, Obama didn't know that there would be catastrophic flooding in Pakistan when he decided to escalate and prolong the Afghan campaign. But that's just the point: when national leaders make or escalate a particular strategic commitment, they are not just determining what the country is going to do, they are also determining other things that that they won't be able to do (or at least won't be able to do as well).
Thus, another good argument for a more restrained grand strategy is that it might free up the resources that would allow us do some real good in the world, whenever unfortunate surprises occur. As they always will.
Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn't going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have been steadily lowering expectations. We learnt over the weekend that U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption, which means we are getting sucked back into "nation-building" instead of focusing our assets on destroying al Qaeda (which is what President Obama said he'd do when he (foolishly) decided to increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to bomb Afghan President Hamid Karzai's semi-bogus "peace jirga," and Karzai himself is said to be losing faith in our ability to prevail and hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban.
So today -- surprise, surprise -- comes news that Afghanistan isn't a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report -- which comes from "a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists" may well be completely correct, but isn't the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.
As Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, the "El Dorado" myth is a common justification for imperial expansion. Great powers often convince themselves they have to control some far-flung area because it is supposedly rich with gold, diamonds, oil, etc., and that physical control is essentially to preserving access to them. In most cases, however, the cost of trying to control these areas isn't worth the resources they contain, and it usually isn't necessary anyway. Gulf Oil used to pump oil from Marxist Angola, and those pesky Iranians would be happy to sell us oil and gas and give us fat development contracts for their petroleum industry if only we were willing to do business with them.
We don't need to control Afghanistan in order to gain access to whatever minerals do exist, because whoever is in charge is going to have to sell them to someone and won't be able to prevent them from being sold to us (even if indirectly) if we want to buy (that's how markets work). And if we want to make sure that U.S. companies have the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to mine these resources some day, it might be a good idea if we didn't spend the next decade blundering around and angering the local population.
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Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn't required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about the adjustments forced upon Obama by the Bush administration’s errors and the 2008 recession. So I suggested that they try to make the report as boring as possible.
The new National Security Strategy was released yesterday, and the usual parsing of its prose is now underway. (You can find other reactions here, and here, and an inteview with the report's primary author, Ben Rhodes, here.) I doubt Rhodes and his colleagues were trying to take my advice, but they have succeeded in producing a document that could make even the most dedicated foreign policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t done a word count compared to the Clinton or Bush versions, but I’d bet this one is substantially longer. It’s certainly duller. None of the earlier reports deserved prizes for clarity, consistency, or rhetorical achievement, but the new version manages to make the drama of world politics positively enervating. Given my earlier recommendation, I guess congratulations are in order.
So having struggled through it, what are my first impressions? Let me start by saying that it's hard for me not to like a report whose first page says "to succeed, we must face the world as it is." It then goes on to say that "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time." I read that and almost thought that somebody had screwed up and let a realist into the drafting room.
But I kept reading, and soon realized that this was not the case. Although the report reflects certain broad realities, it ignores plenty of others. It offers the usual bromides about NATO’s position as the “cornerstone” of U.S. engagement, for example, but takes no notice of the economic difficulties that will inevitably reduce Europe’s ability to be a substantial partner. It talks about the continued "pursuit" of Middle East peace, but is silent on what the administration has learned after eighteen months of trying. It offers a predictably upbeat view of our strategy in Central Asia without acknowledging the possibility that our efforts won’t succeed. Needless to say, that is not quite "facing the world as it is."
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People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and maybe even about the future. The overall level of global violence is at historic lows (despite some tragic conflicts that still defy solution), the world economy has done very well over the past half-century (despite its recent problems) and life expectancy, public health, and education levels have risen dramatically in many parts of the world (though conditions in a few places have deteriorated badly).
So Cassandra-like pessimism may not be appropriate, even for a realist. Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if our ability to deal with various global problems is decreasing, mostly due to the deterioration of political institutions at both the global and domestic level. Here are some tentative thoughts in that direction.
One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall "problem-solving capacity." When the ratio of "emerging problems" to "problem-solving capacity" rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others. Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.
Human society is not static, which means that new challenges are an inevitable part of the human condition. New problems arise from the growth of societies, from new ideas, from our interactions with the natural world, and even from the unintended consequences of past successes. As a result, policymakers are always going to face new problems, even when the old ones remain unresolved.
Moreover, a key feature of contemporary globalization is that today's problems tend to be more complex and more far-reaching, and tend to spread with greater speed. A volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel in Europe. A failed state in Afghanistan nurtures a terrorist network that eventually strikes on several continents. The Internet doesn't even exist in 1990, but now it empowers democratic forces, facilitates commerce and intellectual exchange, and enable extremists to recruit supporters and transmit tactical advice all around the world. The HIV virus emerges in Africa and eventually infects millions of human beings on every continent. Bankers in America's mortgage industry makes foolish and venal decisions, and a global financial collapse wipes out trillions of dollars of wealth and affects the lives of billions of people, some of them dramatically. Human beings in the developed world burn carbon fuels for a couple of centuries and now poor countries on the other side of the world face the risk of widespread coastal flooding (or worse) in the decades ahead. In short, the numerator of our critical ratio -- i.e., the rate at which big problems are emerging-seems to be rising.
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Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don't have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be even more elusive.
Case in point: our commander-in-chief flew to Afghanistan last week to pay a call on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in part to insist that Karzai do more to root out corruption in his government and in the country more generally. A stern lecture from Obama is unlikely to work, however, because Karzai knows a lot more about incentives and constraints he's facing and the various deals he has to make to stay in power. He's betting that Obama won't be willing to pull the plug and leave him on his own, and I'm sorry to say that Karzai is probably right.
But even as we are telling the Afghans to stop corruption, we are contributing to it by pumping vast sums of cold hard cash into Afghan society. According to yesterday's New York Times, part of our strategy in southern Afghanistan consists of flooding places like Marjah with "hundreds of thousands of dollars a week," in an effort to buy the loyalty of the local population.
There are three problems here.
First, as Times reporter Richard Oppel pointed out in his piece, we can't easily discriminate between Taliban sympathizers and other members of the local population, so some of the money we are disbursing is almost certainly going to our enemies.
Second, other recipients of U.S. cash are quickly targeted by the Taliban, which continues to enjoy signifcant support among the local population. If Oppel's account is accurate, we are basically reminding the local population that cooperating with us is really, really dangerous. Moreover, as William Polk argues here, many local Pashtuns actually oppose these various cash-based "aid programs," because they perceive them (correctly) as designed to aid a foreign occupier's campaign against them, and to strengthen the despised central government.
Third, how can we credibly tell Karzai to "end corruption" (i.e., patronage, drug-dealing, payments to warlords, the exchange of cabinet positions for support, etc.), when we're relying on some of the same tactics ourselves? If our approach is to buy political support by doling out money or other benefits, why are we surprised when Karzai and his henchmen employ more-or-less that same approach back in Kabul? Pumping piles of cash into the local economy (no doubt with little or no accounting) is precisely the sort of policy that itself encourages very corruption that we claim to be opposing.
Even though I don't regard Afghanistan as a vital interest (for reasons I've explained before), I would like to think that our overall strategy was working. Remaining bogged down there is costly, and a significant distraction from other policy problems. So it would be nice if we were making genuine progress in weakening the Taliban, encouraging a political process of reconciliation, and fostering a more effective Afghan government. But it sure sounds like our efforts are at cross-purposes right now, which may be one reason why relations with the Karzai government are deteriorating.
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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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If memory serves, it was the distinguished political scientist Sidney Verba who once wryly advised that "one should never write about a country that you haven't flown over." It's a sardonic comment on the tendency for social scientists to pontificate about countries they barely know, and it sprang to mind during the last leg of my trip last week.
The final item on my itinerary was thirty-six hours in Tripoli, Libya. I was invited to give a lecture to its Economic Development Board, following in the footsteps of a number of other recent American visitors, including Frank Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Perle (!). I'd never been to Libya before, and was looking forward to hearing what the audience had to say.
Unfortunately, my plane from London was five hours late (thanks again, British Airways!), so the scheduled lecture never took place. But I did get to meet with several Libyan officials and spent a few hours touring Tripoli itself. Mindful of Verba's warning, however, I can't offer anything like an informed assessment, so what follows are just a few quick and provisional impressions.
First, although Libya is far from a democracy, it also doesn't feel like other police states that I have visited. I caught no whiff of an omnipresent security service -- which is not to say that they aren't there -- and there were fewer police or military personnel on the streets than one saw in Franco's Spain. The Libyans with whom I spoke were open and candid and gave no sign of being worried about being overheard or reported or anything like that. The TV in my hotel room featured 50+ channels, including all the normal news services (BBC World Service, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, etc.) along with contemporary U.S. sitcoms like "2-1/2 Men," shows like "Desperate Housewives," assorted movies, and one of the various "CSI" clones. A colleague on the trip told me that many ordinary Libyans have satellite dishes and that the government doesn't interfere with transmissions. I tried visiting various political websites from my hotel room and had no problems, although other human rights groups report that Libya does engage in selective filtering of some political websites critical of the regime. It is also a crime to criticize Qaddafihimself, the government's past human rights record is disturbing at best, and the press in Libya is almost entirely government-controlled. Nonetheless, Libya appears to be more open than contemporary Iran or China and the overall atmosphere seemed far less oppressive than most places I visited in the old Warsaw Pact.
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I'm still on the road (about which more later), but have been trying to keep up with the news, most notably the tragic events in Haiti. As Yglesias says, Haiti has been "one of the unluckiest countries on earth," and it's especially heartbreaking that this earthquake occurred after several years of genuine progress. That progress, one might add, was facilitated by the U.N. peacekeeping mission, one of those unheralded episodes that habitual critics of the U.N. ought to reflect upon. I don't think the U.N. is the answer to all the world's problems or an institution that can prevent major powers from pursuing their interests, but it does do a lot of good around the world and shouldn't be bashed just for sport, or because of cockamamie fears about mythical black helicopters, alleged threats to U.S. sovereignty, or other staples of rightwing paranoia.
The obvious thing for the United States (and the world community) to do is respond quickly, effectively, and generously. The Bush administration's initial response to the Indian Ocean tsunami was initially quite niggardly (our first pledge of aid was a paltry $15 million or so), but Bush & Co. eventually got its act together and the U.S. Navy in particular performed very effective relief operations in Indonesia. Some accounts credit the Navy's effort with helping reverse the slide in America's image in that country, which had fallen to very low numbers before the disaster struck. So this is a case where we can do good for beleaguered Haitians and for ourselves by responding rapidly and generously, and it appears that the Obama administration is trying to do the right thing from the start this time.
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I'm still swamped with grading papers and with preparations for our annual New Year's Eve potluck (about which more in a day or two), but I hope everyone takes a look at the Times piece on China's commercial activities in Afghanistan. While we've been running around playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and "investing" billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government," China has been investing in things that might actually be of some value, like a big copper mine.
As the article suggest, it's not like U.S. troops are "guarding" China's investments. Rather, there's a tacit division of labor going on, where "American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment."
The rest of the article makes depressing reading, however. Here's what one Afghan contractor had to say:
"The Chinese are much wiser. When we went to talk to the local people, they wore civilian clothing, and they were very friendly," he said recently during a long chat in his Kabul apartment. "The Americans - not as good. When they come there, they have their uniforms, their rifles and such, and they are not as friendly."
The result? According to the Times:
"the Chinese have already positioned themselves as generous, eager partners of the Afghan government and long-term players in the country's future. All without firing a shot."
The point is not that somehow those wily Chinese have fooled us into squandering a lot of money and lives and annoying lots of people in Central Asia, while they make profitable investments. Rather, the broader lesson is that the entire thrust of U.S. policy towards a large part of the world has been fundamentally misplaced for a long time. If we think we are somehow trapped in an endless cycle of intervention in the Muslim world-Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, now Yemen-it is because our policies towards the entire region have generated enormous animosity and to little good purpose. And when that animosity leads to direct attacks on the United States, we respond in ways that guarantee such attacks will be repeated.
To be sure, some of this situation is due to America's position as the sole superpower, which means that it gets blamed for things that aren't always its fault. Plus, a dominant power does tend to end up with a disproportionate role in providing certain collective goods while others free-ride. (If China ever does supplant the U.S as the dominant world power, the same thing will undoubtedly happen to them.) But it also reflects specific decisions that we've been taking for a long time, in the mistaken belief that they would never blow back and affect us here at home. That's why we ought to thinking very strategically about our overseas involvements, and trying to shift those burdens onto locals whenever we can. Unfortunately, the predominant view in Washington still favors an "America First" approach to solving most global problems, even when it's not clear we have any idea how to do that.
Don't forget: we are fighting in Afghanistan because a radical anti-American terrorist movement-Al Qaeda-located there in the 1990s and then attacked us on September 11. Al Qaeda attacked the United States for a number of different reasons, including its support for various Arab monarchies and dictatorships, its military presence in the Persian Gulf, and its "special relationship" with Israel (which is oppressing millions of Palestinians and consolidating control of Jerusalem). Al Qaeda also wanted to strike at the world's strongest power, in the vain hope that a dramatic act like that would win them lots of new supporters. They also hoped that they could goad us into doing a lot of stupid things in response, and that achievement may be their only real success to date. We are also bogged down in Central Asia because our earlier support for anti-Soviet mujaheddin there helped create a bunch of well-armed warlords and religious extremists who proved impossible to control later on.
But the key lesson is that the current situation is not immutable. We don't have to keep implementing the same policies that led us to this situation; instead, we need to start working on strategic approaches that will minimize our involvement in these regions without sacrificing our vital interests (mostly oil) or endangering the security of key allies. One step would be to do what President Obama promised to do in his Cairo speech and then abandoned: namely, get serious about a two-state solution. A second step would be to stop trying to reorganize vast chunks of the Arab and Islamic world, and focus our efforts solely on helping local governments capture or neutralizing violent anti-American terrorists. A related step is to move back to an "offshore balancing" strategy in the region, and rely more on naval and air forces and less on on-shore intervention.
And maybe a fourth element of a new approach would be to remember that the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world's biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries. For the most part, we also kept our fiscal house in order, which gave us the resources to maintain and expand productive infrastructure here at home and made it possible to act overseas when we really had to. This isn't the 19th century and we can't just rewind the clock, but there's still a lot of wisdom in much more selective approach to the use of American power. You know, sorta the way that Beijing seems to doing it.
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I was struck by Louis Uchitelle's article in the Sunday NY Times on the dearth of big public works projects here in the United States. "For the first time in memory, the nation has no outsize public works project under way," he says, and then reports that:
Some economists argue that the continual construction of new megaprojects adds a quarter of a percentage point or more, on average, to the gross domestic product over the long term. Again, cause and effect aren't clear, but the strongest periods of economic growth in America have generally coincided with big outlays for new public works and the transformations they bring once completed."
One might add that we aren't spending enough to maintain our existing public infrastructure, and state and local governments across the country are facing deep budget deficits (and in some cases, a very real risk of bankruptcy).
But it's not as though the United States hasn't started some big public works projects over the past decade or so; it just hasn't been doing them here at home. We've spent billions constructing military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, and another billion or more on a giant embassy in Baghdad and another one in Pakistan. Needless to say, those "public works" projects are a drain on the U.S. economy rather than a source of additional productivity.
As I've said before, Americans have come to believe that spending government revenues on U.S. citizens here at home is usually a bad thing and should be viewed with suspicion, but spending billions on vast social engineering projects overseas is the hallmark of patriotism and should never be questioned. This position makes no sense, but it is hard to think of a prominent U.S. leader who is making an explicit case for doing somewhat less abroad so that we can afford to build a better future here at home. Debates about foreign policy, grand strategy, and military engagement -- including the current debate over Obama's decision to add another 30,000-plus troops in Afghanistan -- tend to occur in isolation from a discussion of other priorities, as if there were no tradeoffs between what we do for others and what we are able to do for Americans here at home.
And no, I'm not suggesting a return to isolationism, a retreat to "Fortress America" or any of the other labels that hawks use to try to discredit those who want a more restrained foreign policy. Rather, I'm suggesting that national security spending should not be considered sacrosanct and that a nation's leaders can hurt the country just as easily by under-investing at home as by neglecting its defenses. And given that we currently spend more on national security than the rest of the world put together, have several thousand nuclear weapons, face no great power rivals, and don't have any serious enemies nearby, it's kind of hard to argue that we're "neglecting" our defenses. We are using them unwisely (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan) and Obama is about to make his own contribution to this bipartisan blunder, but we're not exactly scrimping.
While visiting Geneva last week, I was reminded of how well many aspects of public infrastructure work in Europe. Geneva is beautiful, clean, and the transport system seemed to be a model of efficiency and convenience. I took a public bus to the airport, which entailed walking one block from my hotel to the bus stop and then riding a clean and inexpensive bus for about 20 minutes, ending up right at the terminal. The Geneva and Zurich airports are gleaming, uncrowded, and comfortable. To get from my home to the airport via public transit in Boston, I'd have to walk 12 minutes to a T stop, ride a slow, crowded, and erratic trolley line (the dreaded "Green Line") into downtown, change twice, and then take an airport shuttle bus to reach the terminal. And Boston's Logan Airport, though better than it used to be, isn’t going to win any prizes. Let's not even talk about rail service or health care.
Maybe the differences in public infrastructure between Western Europe and the United States have something to do with the amount of money we spend constructing a different sort of "public infrastructure" in Iraq, Afghanistan, and lots of other places around the world.
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At the New Yorker blog, Steve Coll reports that the U.S. Congress is preparing a five-year $1.5 billion per annum non-military aid package for Pakistan, with full support from the Obama administration. (You can read the text of the legislation, entitled the "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act," here.)
This step sounds impressive, until one remembers that Pakistan's population is nearly 180 million and its GDP in 2006 was about $144 billion. So the aid package amounts to around a 1 percent increase in Pakistani GDP, which works out to about $8 for each Pakistani. In other words, the U.S. Congress is going to increase their per capita income from $850 per year to about $858. (It's actually less than that, because some of the money goes to administrative expenses, auditing, and the like.)
This act might have some symbolic value, and I'm willing to assume that a few good things might get done with the money. But let's not forget that Pakistan has already received about $45 billion of U.S. economic and military aid since 1946 (measured in constant 2007 dollars), so it’s not like $1.5 billion today is going to work miracles. Moreover, because money is fungible, even careful accounting can't prevent Pakistan from shifting some of its own resources to other areas, which means the areas we are trying to help (such as education and public health) may not get that much better.
Overall, it's hard for me to believe it will have much effect on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis or do much to erode the endemic anti-Americanism there. Pakistan actually got a big influx of money after 9/11 (due in part to increased U.S. aid and also to a lot of reverse capital flight), yet the increased cash either went to the army or tended to fuel financial and real estate speculation instead of genuine economic growth. Moreover, even with the best of intentions, big aid initiatives like this one are bound to reinforce perceptions that the United States is perennially interfering in Pakistani society, which probably reinforces hostility and suspicion.
Instead of another aid package, we could probably do more to help Pakistan by removing U.S. tariffs on Pakistani exports (e.g., textiles), which would benefit Pakistani producers and American consumers alike. But that would trigger opposition from domestic interests here, so Congress will just adopt the politically convenient but less helpful step of appropriating more money.
In my last post, I argued that the U.S. policy of "don't ask don't tell" is contrary to a realist view of world politics, because it excludes qualified people from military service and thus makes it harder for the United States to field the most effective forces in a competitive international environment. I think there are other objections to the policy as well, but I was primarily concerned in that post with the strategic implications. The policy obviously doesn't prevent the United States from producing highly capable fighting forces, but restricting the talent pool in this way means our forces will cost more than they have to and/or be less effective than they could be.
This got me thinking: might a similar logic be at work at a more global level? Specifically, does the competitive nature of international politics give some states an advantage because their political systems and social values make it relatively easy to attract and assimilate talented citizens from other countries, thereby enabling them to draw more-or-less selectively on the entire global talent pool? If so, then these states will be able to improve their relative position over time, and to the extent that globalization now facilitates people moving from place to place, that tendency should be increasing. By contrast, states that make assimilation difficult or that discriminate on other areas will tend to be less attractive destinations for highly educated and/or entrepreneurial individuals, and these states will for the most part have to work with the citizenry they've got or pay a very high premium to attract talent from abroad.
One can see this dynamic by comparing Japan and the United States. Japan is an ethnically homogeneous society, with small minority populations who remain objects of discrimination. It is possible for foreigners to become naturalized citizens after five years of continuous residence, but this practice is not widespread. Japan also has a rapidly aging and declining population, which will have significant long-term effects on its power and influence. Yet given Japan's current policies discourage talented foreigners from immigrating and assimilating, thereby making it harder for Japan to attract the best and brightest from around the world and reverse its demographic slide.
The United States, by contrast, is the very model of a melting-pot society. People automatically qualify for citizenship if either parent is a citizen or if they are born on American soil, and naturalization is quite common (about one million people became naturalized citizens last year). Although support for immigration has waxed and waned throughout U.S. history and remains a contested issue today (mostly due to issues pertaining to illegal immigration), the United States has had remarkable success attracting and assimilating some of the best and brightest from all over the world. All I have to do is look at my colleagues, whose ranks include an impressive number of scholars born outside the United States. Each of them was hired as a result of a global talent search, and we'd have a less distinguished faculty if we had looked only at U.S. citizens. Some of my colleagues eventually returned to their countries of origin (such as Andres Velasco, currently Minister of Finance in Chile), but others are likely to spend most if not all of their careers here in the United States.
The success of the American melting pot, as many scholars have commented, is due partly to good fortune (North America was rich in natural resources, arable land, etc.) but also to the particular nature of American civic nationalism (or what Anatol Lieven calls the American Creed): faith in liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, the rule of law, individualism, and political and cultural (but not economic) egalitarianism. Although the United States has hardly been free of racial or ethnic conflicts during its history, these features have made it possible for every new group to integrate itself as full citizens. The United States is an attractive destination not just because it is a wealthy society, but also because many different groups and individuals can become integral parts of that society instead of facing permanent second-class status.
If I'm right, then the pressures of international competition give an advantage to any society that can "cream" some of the smartest and/or hardest working people from all over the world. How? By making that society an attractive place to live and work, mostly by creating an atmosphere of equality and toleration. By contrast, societies that limit their de facto talent pool by defining citizenship narrowly, by treating minorities badly, by discriminating on the basis of race, religion, or other characteristics are placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Over time, therefore, we should expect a growing gap between "cosmopolitan" societies that develop institutions and cultures in which diversity and tolerance are prized and where potential conflicts between them are managed well, and more restrictive societies that are either attractive only to a fixed population of particular ethnic identity, or who are face recurring internal conflicts between various contending groups. My bet would be that, other things being equal, the former do better over time.
And note that this argument isn't just about ethnic assimilation. In effect, what I'm suggesting is that from a realist perspective, there is a strong case for "small-l" liberal toleration. All else equal, societies that establish strong norms and institutions that protect individual rights and freedoms (including those governing sexual preference, I might add) will become attractive destinations for a wider array of potential citizens than societies that try to maintain a high degree of uniformity. And when you can choose from a bigger talent pool, over time you're going to do better.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.