I've made this point before -- here and here -- and I suspect I'll have to make it again. But whatever you think of the outcome of yesterday's Super Bowl, the unexpected second half power outage was a small blow against U.S. power and influence.
Why? Because one of the reasons states are willing to follow the U.S. lead is their belief that we are competent: that we know what we are doing, have good judgment, and aren't going to screw up. When the power goes out in such a visible and embarrassing fashion, and in a country that still regards itself as technologically sophisticated, the rest of the world is entitled to nod and say: "Hmmm ... maybe those Americans aren't so skillful after all."
Or maybe we've just spent too much money building airbases in far-flung corners of the world, and not enough on infrastructure -- like power grids -- here at home.
P.S. The other lesson of the Super Bowl is that strategy matters. As in: the abysmal play-calling by the 49ers when they had first-and-goal inside the ten yard line, trailing by less than a touchdown. Four dumb plays, and the Ravens were champs. Sigh.
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I was watching some of the America's Cup World Series races going on out in San Francisco, and it occurred to me that the evolution of the Cup is a perfect illustration of globalization at work.
Back in the day, the America's Cup was both a nationalistic and gentlemanly endeavor. The New York Yacht Club controlled the Deed of Gift that governed the competition, and it entertained periodic challengers. For decades the challengers were all from Britain until the Australians got into the act (and eventually won it). The competition took place in several formats, including big J boats and classic 12 meters. A certain mercantilism prevailed, insofar as the rules stipulated that challengers had to be built and equipped entirely in the country from which the challenge originated.
As in any competitive sport, there was gradual but steady progress in yacht design and technique, with occasional breakthroughs, like Intrepid's trim tab design in 1967 and Australia II's revolutionary winged keel in 1983. But it was still a pretty sedate and mostly amateur affair up to the late 1980s.
What has happened since then? Here's where the America's Cup becomes a symptom of globalization. First off, it's no longer really the "America's Cup" in any literal sense, and it isn't being conducted according to some fixed and traditional set of rules. The America's Cup has instead become a brand name for a series of global yachting competitions, with lots of different competitors and formats.
Second, as competition has intensified, the pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically. Today, the winner is likely to be the team that spent the most on a radical design or came up with a clever innovation that gave them a distinct advantage over the others. And that costs money. It used to be said that if you had to ask how much it cost to own a racing yacht, you couldn't afford it, and that much hasn't really changed. The Cup is still a hobby for mega-wealthy people like Oracle's Larry Ellison, but it's also become a big corporate endeavor. All of the boats now have corporate sponsors and their sails and hulls are plastered with more logos than a NASCAR automobile.
Third, it's not really a national endeavor anymore. Like an iPhone, the component parts of the different boats come from all over the world. And like any modern multinational corporation, so do the crews and skippers. Some of the teams still sport "national" names, but they all try to recruit the best talent from all over the world. Like other professional sports, in short, it's a globalized market where "labor" mobility is extremely high.
Fourth, let's not forget the rule of law. Globalization depends on a lot of things, including the emergence of at least a rudimentary system of rules to govern trade investment and other global transactions. Similarly, the America's Cup has been beset with litigation ever since New Zealander Michael Fay sued the San Diego Yacht Club over the terms of competition in 1988. So in addition to hiring clever designers and talented crews, a successful Cup competitor may need a talented legal team that can take advantage of legal technicalities. And just as corporations have become adept at moving quickly to countries where production costs are lower, so have America's Cup competitors. When Oracle's Larry Ellison couldn't get the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco to run the competition the way he wanted, he joined the neighboring Golden Gate Yacht Club and used it as the sponsoring body instead.
Is this a good trend or not? The traditionalist in me mourns to passing of the 12 meter era, in much the same way that I feel nostalgic for the touch game that characterized the wooden racket era in tennis. But the new formats, which now feature large, very fast, unstable and fragile catamarans, have undoubtedly increased the audience appeal of the event. The ways things are going, the next step will be to equip the boats with rams and replay the battle of Lepanto. I'll bet even more people would watch.
In any case, trying to halt the march of "progress" is probably impossible, which is probably true of globalization too. Sail ho!
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How many of you know what the phrase "rope-a-dope" means? For those who don't, the phrase describes the strategy that Muhammad Ali used to defeat the heavily favored George Foreman in their heavyweight championship fight in Zaire in 1974, the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle." Foreman had demolished former champ Joe Frazier in two rounds in a previous bout, and most observers expected him to make short work of the older and smaller Ali. But Ali had prepared a clever strategy, and he spent the early rounds of the fight covering up and leaning against the ropes. Foreman landed lots of ineffectual blows, punched himself out, and became exhausted. Ali came off the ropes and knocked Foreman out in the 8th round.
What, you ask, does any of this have to do with international politics? I'll tell you. The "rope-a-dope" is a nice metaphor for an effective strategy for great power competition, somewhat analogous to the strategy of "bait and bleed." During the Cold War, for example, it made good sense for the United States to let the Soviet Union waste blood and treasure trying to win meaningless victories in places like Angola, or Afghanistan. By the same logic, Soviet leaders were smart to let us fight for years in Vietnam. In both cases the outcome of these conflicts didn't really matter very much to the overall balance of power, so letting the opponent punch themselves out trying to win was a clever approach.
Today, one could argue that China (and maybe a few others) are employing the "rope-a-dope" against us. And like poor George Foreman, we are falling for it. We get the honor of pouring money and lives into fruitless state-building projects like the current Afghan war, while China concentrates on building a stronger economy, gradually reforming its political order, and cultivating good working relations with other countries. Remaining bogged down in Central Asia or distracted by Iran also diverts us from focusing more attention on China, and makes us less likely to do some over-due "nation-building" here at home.
If we were smarter, of course, we'd be looking to saddle potential rivals with a lot of expensive order-keeping activities, and let them bear the burden in difficult or intractable local conflicts. That would give foreign policy elites less to do, perhaps, but that might not be such a bad thing either. Case in point: Why not let China worry about Pakistan's future, and get itself embroiled trying to manage the various quarrels and blood feuds in Central Asia? They could hardly do a worse job than we have, and we'd probably end up with a better relationship with most of the region. It is astonishing how much more popular we might be if we played hard-to-get more often, so that others would be less resentful of our constant sermonizing and interfering. Heck, if we stood aloof more often, some states would quickly do a lot more to try to make sure we didn't forget about them.
One caveat: The key to the "rope-a-dope" strategy was Ali's ability to prevent Foreman from landing telling blows in places that did matter. To make it work in international politics, the United States would a clear sense of which areas were strategically vital and which didn't matter all that much. And we'd also have to be able to distinguish between areas where it is useful to retain a lot of influence, and places where our main interest is simply to prevent some hostile power from dominating.
This task won't always easy, but it shouldn't be impossible either. It does require a significant mental adjustment, however, back to a focus on U.S. national interest instead of vague and idealist notions about spreading our "values" and creating an American-centered "world order." American leaders have to stop thinking that the whole world is their responsibility and stop deluding themselves into thinking that we can and should "pay any price and bear any burden." From a purely American perspective, letting allies bear more of the burden in key regions and encouraging adversaries to blunder into sinkholes and quagmires, makes a lot more sense.
Here's a question for you: does it make sense for the United States to open its best universities to students from China (or any other potential long-term rival) and to help them to acquire advanced scientific and technical knowledge?
On the plus side, you could argue that all universities ought to admit the best and brightest applicants no matter where they come from, because that will help these universities do better work. Having smart students is a powerful spur to continued progress, no matter where they come from. Moreover, this practice might help the United States cream off some of the best foreign talent by convincing them to remain here after they graduate, where they will be of great benefit to the U.S. economy. And even if some of the best foreign students get trained here and then go back home, they can help their own societies develop, generate economic growth, and create bigger markets for everyone, so that the whole global economy grows and we all benefit.
But the downside is obvious too: if more and more of these well-trained people head back home, then U.S. universities will be transferring knowledge that might reduce America's comparative advantage. Even worse, we might be making it easier for other states to catch up or eventually surpass us in areas of advanced technology that have military implications (including cyber-security). So maybe we ought to be limiting foreign access to U.S. higher education, in order to preserve our own advantages for as long as we can.
There, in a nutshell, is a key difference between realists and liberals. Although the latter concede that there is a competitive element to world politics, they tend to downplay it and to focus primarily on the gains to be had from mutual cooperation. This tendency is evident in the emphasis placed on "engaging" China, which has been a hallmark of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. This view stresses the need for cooperation and the benefits that the United States (and others) will gain as China becomes wealthier, and one dimension of that would be opening up U.S. institutions of higher education and collaborating with Chinese universities.
By contrast, realists tend to worry more about long-term shifts in the relative balance of power between the two sides, and warned that enabling Chinese growth could eventually place the United States in a position where its own influence is reduced. If you believe that Sino-American rivalry will be hard to avoid and potentially costly, then you'd want to start think hard about ways to slow China's rise. But nothing is cost-free: taking steps like that could reinforce Chinese suspicions-- duh! -- and at a minimum means consigning millions of Chinese citizens to lower standards of living. And guess what? It would probably also reduce U.S. standards of living too, although perhaps not by as much.
Here's one way to think about these starkly contrasting worldviews. For liberals, world politics is like playing music, and states are just like members of a band or orchestra. Making good music requires teamwork and cooperation, and the quality of the music generally improves the more highly skilled the musicians are. Among other things, this means that helping your fellow players improve is good for the group as a whole; if your bass player or drummer gets better, then the overall group sound gets better too. So members of a band or an orchestra should help each other out, and not worry about whether one player is improving faster than the others are. And while there can be elements of rivalry or jealousy within a band (or between different groups), it's usually not a zero-sum activity. If La Scala improves and makes opera more popular, that's good for the Met; just as the Beatles and other English groups kicked the door open for lots of other bands too. Similarly, if Wynton Marsalis becomes famous and reignites interest in jazz, then other jazz musicians benefit too.
Musicians obviously have to agree on what piece of music to play, and it helps to have rules to guide them, whether it's fully orchestrated score, a lead sheet, or even just a loose arrangement with a list of solos. Even more abstract forms of improvised jazz depend on hours of training and a shared understanding of musical language. Such norms or rules or tacit understandings facilitate cooperation, and make it possible for lots of individuals to play together without a lot of prior rehearsal.
Thus, music is a pretty good metaphor for the liberal view of world politics, which is why liberals emphasize the importance of international law, institutions, and hegemonic leadership. And that's why most American liberals like to talk about the indispensability of the United States: in their view, the world orchestra needs a conductor, and who is better positioned to play that role than Washington DC? But the underlying image is still one where all will be better off if they work together; and where everyone has a common interest in helping others improve. No wonder E.H. Carr famously characterized idealist (i.e., liberal) approaches as emphasizing the "harmony of interests."
By contrast, realists see international politics as less like music and more like sports. We're not talking about exquisite harmonies and seamless group dynamics; we're talking NFL football or World Cup Rugby. There are clear winners and losers, the competitors sometimes cheat, and athletes are fools if they spend any time helping rivals improve. Players have an interest in helping teammates get better, but you wouldn't expect Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals to be giving hitting tips to a member of the Texas Rangers right now, and you wouldn't expect Roger Federer to call up Andy Murray and offer him some advice on how to improve his serve.
Unlike music, the essence of sports is inherently competitive, and the winners normally get a lot more benefits than the also-rans do. Rules exist to define the nature of the competition, but everyone understands that some people might cheat. By comparison, it's not even clear what it would mean to "cheat" when you're trying to play music, or how "cheating" would be of any benefit.
So which view provides a better metaphor for world politics? Although both metaphors can offer some revealing insights, it won't surprise you to learn that I think foreign policy is a lot more like sports than it is like music-making. Even if states can gain from collaboration, the benefits of collaboration are not evenly distributed and relative power still matters. More importantly, the occasional periods of close cooperation are occasionally disrupted by all-out struggles that redistribute power and leave the winners better off and the losers licking their wounds. When that occurs, of course, the rules tend to fall by the wayside. Imagine an NFL game played for high stakes, and with no referees on the field.
And because states now that such struggles can occur at any time, the possibility casts a grim shadow over much of their behavior.
Finally, let's not forget that relative power matters in the supposedly collaborative world of music. Conductors and bandleaders (and sometimes financial backers) get to decide what pieces to feature, and minor players just play what they are told. It was Duke Ellington's orchestra, not Johnny Hodges', and there's a reason why most of the songs on the Beatles' albums are by Lennon or McCartney and not George Harrison or Ringo. Over time, changes in the distribution of power world-wide will determine who gets to call the tune, and we might want to think about that before the set list changes in ways we might not like.
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In the past two years I've done several posts on sports, focusing on how athletic contests can sometimes (improbably) affect world politics. My top ten list of "foreign policy sporting events" is here, and some readers may recall I was rooting for the "Indo-Pak" express (the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan) at the U.S. Open last year.
We might be seeing a new entrant into the list of sports events that helped shape the foreign policy agenda. India and Pakistan played a semi-final match in the cricket World Cup today, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India invited Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani to watch the match with him. Thus, while over a billion people obsessed about spinners, fast bowlers, fielding miscues, and the bumpiness of the pitch, the two leaders had a chance to exchange some friendly words and establish a bit of personal rapport.
The issues dividing India and Pakistan are deep and enduring, and a cricket match obviously won't resolve them. Unlike the U.S. and China in the era of ping-pong diplomacy, there aren't powerful geopolitical forces pushing the two states toward a rapprochement. But it would be highly desirable if relations between the two countries improved, and if their leaders developed a greater sense of trust and mutual regard. So I hope the meeting went well.
In the end, India won by 29 runs. I tried to follow the match online, and I confess that none of it made any sense to me at all. I'm not proud of that fact, however, so I also hope somebody will stop by my office one of these days and explain cricket to me.
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More than a year ago I did a post on sporting events that had a significant impact on world politics, and I wonder if we might be seeing another one at the U.S. Open tennis tournament today. I refer, of course, to the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, who will be playing the favored team of Bob and Mike Bryan of the United States this afternoon. Bopanna and Qureshi view their partnership as symbol of the possibility of improved relations between their two countries -- among other things, they sometimes wear t-shirts reading "Stop War, Start Tennis" -- and their success at this year's tournament even got the two countries' U.N. ambassadors to sit together at one of their recent matches.
This isn't the sort of thing that realists consider all that important, and it is hard to imagine that their example could overcome all the other barriers that have marred relations between India and Pakistan since independence. But who cares? One can only applaud what they are trying to do, and I'll be rooting for them today.
UPDATE: Alas, the "Indo-Pak Express" went off the rails against the Bryan Bros., although the match was in fact pretty close (7-6, 7-6). Not quite the inspirational outcome I was hoping for, but it takes nothing away from their laudable effort to show that Indians and Pakistanis are not fated to be rivals forever. And congrats to the Bryans, who may well be the best doubles team of all time.
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Denmark is a lovely country and Air Force One is a very nice plane, so I hope Barack and Michelle enjoyed their little jaunt to Copenhagen. I said it was a mistake for Obama to go shilling for the City of Chicago even before we knew the results, and now of course I'm sure of it.
What I'd really like to know is which one of his aides told him that this was a good idea, and convinced him that his involvement would seal the deal. Sending the President across the Atlantic to lobby in this fashion might make sense if you knew the vote would be close and were very confident that his intervention would be decisive, but it now looks like it wasn't a near thing at all. Don't these people know how to count noses in advance? Chicago's bid got rejected in the first round, leaving the Leader of the Free World looking ineffectual. And that's just about the last thing you want a president to seem.
It's not a huge deal -- though you can count on the right-wing smear machine to be all over it -- but I hope somebody at the White House gets taken to the woodshed on this one. As I've said repeatedly, they are trying to do way too much, and have been forced to use Obama for too many small things. I hope they learn a lesson from this, and I sure hope the president does better with his next overseas sales pitch.
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I don't know how many people subscribe to both Foreign Policy and Sports Illustrated, but I do know lots of people who take athletics seriously. Human beings seem to be hard-wired into making "in-group/out-group" distinctions, so it's not surprising that the loyalty that sports fans show for their favorite teams looks a lot like the broader phenomenon of nationalism. And I'm not saying that just because I'm a proud member of Red Sox Nation.
Success in sports can be the first step toward a successful political career (e.g., Bill Bradley, Sebastian Coe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Kemp, etc.) and athletes like Pele, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods have become genuine global icons. Of course, using sports to demonstrate national prowess or as a source of national pride is a common practice. The revival of the Olympic games in the 1890s was at least partly intended to promote international cooperation and understanding, but as a good realist would expect, the Games eventually became yet another arena where states could try to demonstrate the superiority of their own system and enhance their global influence.
Anyway, as summer winds down and the fall term looms, I found myself wondering about various episodes where sporting events actually had an effect on world politics, or told us something about how the world was changing. Here's my list of ten key moments, in no particular order.
1. The Berlin Olympics, 1936.
Adolf Hitler uses the Olympic Games to highlight the superiority of the Nazi regime, but his efforts are at least partly undermined when a black American, Jesse Owens, wins four gold medals.
2. La Guerra de futbol (aka “Soccer War”): El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969.
Here’s a case where sports may have helped cause a war: a hard-fought match between El Salvador and Honduras in a preliminary round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup exacerbated the existing tensions between the two states and helped spark a brief four-day war in which over 1000 people died. The war ended inconclusively and El Salvador eventually won the actual match, but was ousted in a subsequent round and did not make the finals.
3. "Ping Pong Diplomacy:" U.S. Table Tennis Team Visits China, 1971.
During the world championships in Japan, the U.S. table tennis team received an unexpected invitation to visit China, and shortly thereafter became the first group of Americans to visit China since the communist takeover in 1949. The "ping heard 'round the world" was the first tangible sign of normalization between the United States and China (even though the Chinese teams reportedly had to throw a few matches to the Americans). The visit was obviously not the cause of the subsequent rapprochement, but it shows how sporting events can be an effective diplomatic tool.
4. U.S. Women Win Soccer World Cup, 1999.
I see this as significant for two main reasons. First, it underscores the growing importance and legitimacy of women’s sports, which has been an important element in modern feminism. Second, it shows the United States finally demonstrating real prowess in the world's most popular sport. Plus, the final game was against China, which makes it a nice harbinger of 21st century geopolitics.
5. Black September at the Munich Olympics, 1972:
Palestinian terrorists seized and eventually killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. The heinous act sets back Palestinian national aspirations and triggers a protracted Israeli reprisal campaign that assassinated a number of Palestinian leaders and at least one innocent victim.
6. South Africa Wins Rugby World Cup, 1995.
South African teams were barred from most international competitions during the apartheid era, a step that highlighted the regime’s pariah status and helped undermine popular support for the policy. The post-apartheid team’s victory in 1995 was a vivid symbol of South Africa’s new beginning, symbolized when President Nelson Mandela awarded the victor’s trophy to team captain Francois Pinear, a white Afrikaner.
7. Australia II Wins America’s Cup, 1983.
The Aussie victory broke what was probably the longest winning streak in the history of sports -- 132 years of dominance that began when the schooner America outpaced a British flotilla in a race around the Isle of Wight in 1851. (When she asked who had finished second, Queen Victoria was reportedly told "Your Majesty, there is no second.”). In retrospect, one could see the Australian victory as a symptom of globalization: cutting-edge yacht design wasn’t an American monopoly any longer. Since then, alas, the competition has been driven by another American export: gamesmanship and ceaseless litigation over the rules of the competition.
8. The "Miracle on Ice": the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team Defeats the Soviet National Team, 1980.
Labeled the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the improbable defeat of a heavily-favored Soviet team by a group of U.S. college players arrived at a moment when many Americans mistakenly felt the Soviet Union was pulling ahead. In fact, the USSR was on its last legs, though its hockey establishment remained a powerhouse and eventually sent a lot of players to the NHL.
9. “Das Wunder von Berne:” Germany Wins World Cup, 1954.
An underdog German team defeated Hungary in the final in Berne, a win that set off a wave of euphoria in Germany and is seen by some historians as a key event that restored a sense of national pride after the shame of the Nazi era and helped signal Germany’s re-integration in the world community.
10. Pentathlete Boris Onischenko Disqualified at Montreal Olympics, 1976.
I was on the fencing team in college, so I can’t resist adding this to my list. Onischenko was a member of the Soviet modern pentathlon team who was disqualified after referees discovered that his sword had been modified to enable him to register “hits” on the electronic scoring machine by pressing a switch concealed in his grip. Together with the East German steroid scandal, such episodes helped undermine the image of the Soviet empire. Plenty of other athletes have cheated, of course -- think of sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, bicyclist Floyd Landis, and subway-riding “marathoner” Rosie Ruiz -- but their transgressions had less impact absent the Cold War atmosphere.
There are other examples one might add: Budge versus von Cramm at Wimbledon, the controversial Soviet "defeat" of the U.S. men's basketball team at Munich, or the notorious Soviet-Hungary water polo match at the 1956 Olympics (played in the shadow of the Hungarian Revolution, the game was so violent the water reportedly turned pink). So please feel free to contribute your own suggestions.
IOC Olympic Museum /Allsport
A number of readers wrote in regarding my last post, which described French Open champion Roger Federer as having delivered most/all of his acceptance speech in English (even though he speaks French fluently). They report that I was dead wrong, and that most of his remarks were in French, save for the comments he directed at runner-up Robin Soderling (who spoke in English), and Andre Agassi (who was there to present the award).
Except for the announcer, I didn’t hear any French in the broadcast I watched, but NBC may skipped that portion of the coverage. It's also possible that I was refilling my coffee cup and returned to catch the English portion of his remarks. Mea culpa, and apologies to all for missing this one.
Speaking of French, I will be trying to resurrect my own rusty skills in that language over the next week. I'm visiting the The Graduate Institute in Geneva to participate in a thesis defense and give a colloquium, and then attending a conference on "Rising Powers Amidst International Turmoil: The United States and Europe Facing China and Russia" in Talloires, France. I'm told the hotels all have WiFi, so I'll be posting from the road as time permits.
I watched the Men's final at the French Open tennis tournament yesterday, and I was struck by the dominance of: 1) Roger Federer, who won his 14th Grand Slam tournament handily, and 2) the English language. The announcer at *Roland Garros* Stadium reported the scores en francais and French TV apparently got the first courtside interview with Federer after the match (while NBC took a commercial break), but Federer and Swedish runner-up Robin Soderling gave their acceptance speeches in English (with a French translation for the crowd). One imagines the spirit of Charles de Gaulle whirring rapidly in his tomb, not to mention the "Immortals" in L'Academie francaise.
It’s possible that Robin Soderling (the Swedish runner-up) spoke to the crowd in English because he doesn't speak French. But Federer reportedly speaks fluent French, German, and Swiss-German, as well as English, so why wasn’t he addressing the local crowd in their native tongue?
My guess is that this was dictated by the global TV market, and by the growing position of English as the lingua franca of contemporary globalization. The tournament was being watched all over the world, and English is the language that would be understood by the greatest number of potential viewers world-wide.
Americans sometimes view the dominant position of English as another component of America's "soft power," but that view is simplistic chauvinism. With English becoming a "universal" language, no single country will own it or be able to regulate its content. Instead, it will continue to evolve as most languages do, incorporating new words, spellings, and grammatical practices from an wide variety of sources. If they haven't started already, American xenophobes are going to start complaining soon about the corruption of "standard English" by all these foreign influences. For an interesting collection of views on this topic, check out the "Freakonomics" discussion here.
Of course, this whole discussion may be moot, given the damage that email, text-messaging, and Twitter feeds are already doing to civilized discourse. Or does that comment make me sound like a technophobe?
*P.S.: Bonus points for anyone who knows who Roland Garros was without looking up the link. Answer: Garros was a French aeronautical pioneer, who developed an armored propeller that allowed the use of a forward-firing machine gun for aerial combat during World War I. His system predated the more effective synchronization device later perfected by the Dutch/German Anthony Fokker. Garros was captured by the Germans in 1915, later escaped, and eventually shot down and killed in 1918. The stadium for which he is named occupies the site of a tennis academy that he attended.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.