I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.
Along the way I've been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik's worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.
There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe -- it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I'll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.
Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden's desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.
In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.
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A few recent items that I thought I'd call your attention to, mostly about the Middle East.
1. Jerome Slater -- a distinguished professor emeritus from SUNY-Buffalo -- has started a new blog at www.jeromeslater.com. I've been reading Jerry's excellent scholarship for years, and have learned a great deal from him on a number of subjects, Israel-Palestine included. His opening entry is a sober discussion of the Goldstone Report, in which he demolishes the recent piece of hasbara by Prof. Moshe Halbertal in (surprise, surprise) The New Republic. Halbertal's analysis was sufficiently slanted to earn a "Sidney" award from the Times' David Brooks, but Slater's critique is quietly devastating. (For another telling critique of Halbertal's dust-kicking operation, see Jeremiah Haber's response at The Magnes Zionist, here and here.)
2. Tony Karon ("Rootless Cosmopolitan") has an excellent short analysis of Obama's foreign policy out at Time. His opening metaphor is dead on the mark: "the presidency is more like taking over the controls of a train than getting behind the wheel of a car. That's because you can't steer a train; you can only determine its speed." One might add that when most of the train's crew are enthusiastic liberal imperialists -- ooops, I mean "liberal internationalists" -- and when political operators are as important to your decisions as people with genuine foreign policy expertise, then you're not going to get much help if you try to switch to another track.
3. Over at Truthout.org, Tom Englehart and Nick Turse ask a lot of good questions about the direction of U.S. national security policy.
4. Gershom Gorenberg has a fine article in The American Prospect on the bogus "settlement freeze." Highly recommended for those who still believe the Netanyahu government wants peace more than it wants land.
5. My interview with The Browser on "five books on U.S.-Israeli relations" is available here. I couldn't resist plugging our own, but I do feel a bit sheepish about it. Frankly, I could easily have added five or ten more -- including a few books I have some disagreements with -- so don't view my list as even close to comprehensive.
6. Foreign Affairs is not the first place I look for analysis that breaks a lot of new ground, but the latest issue has a fine article by sociologist Jack A. Goldstone on the demographic changes that are going to remake global politics over the next several decades. Money quote:
"Four historic shifts . . . will fundamentally alter the world's population over the next four decades: the relative demographic weight of the world's developed countries will drop by nearly 25 percent, shifting economic power to the developing nations; the developed countries' labor forces will substantially age and decline, constraining economic growth in the developed world and raising the demand for immigrant workers; most of the world's expected population growth will increasingly be concentrated in today's poorest, youngest, and most heavily Muslim countries, which have a dangerous lack of quality education, capital, and employment opportunities; and, for the first time in history, most of the world's population will become urbanized, with the largest urban centers being in the world's poorest countries, where policing, sanitation, and health care are often scarce. . . . Coping with them will require nothing less than a major reconsideration of the world's basic global governance structures."
Goldstone is not the first person to discover these trends and one can quibble with some of his arguments, but his summary is rich and insightful and some of his prescriptions -- such as encouraging out-migration to the developing world by retirees in the developed world -- are intriguingly outside-the-box. Well worth a read.
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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.