FP colleague Dan Drezner has a good post up on the recent Council on Foreign Relations/Pew poll of U.S. attitudes toward foreign policy, which shows a wholly unsurprising decline in American enthusiasm for a really active international role. No, Virginia, this isn't a sign of growing "isolationism," because Americans clearly still believe in engaging the rest of the world and aren't advocating a retreat to "Fortress America." But it is a sign of diminished interest in trying to "pay any price and bear any burden," and it marks a (possibly temporary) convergence in elite and public attitudes on this question. After all, this is a year when the president of the highly internationalist CFR published a book calling for the United States to focus more attention at home.
As Dan notes, this shift is the entirely predictable result of the past couple of decades of American global activism, especially the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. If all that activity had achieved consistently positive results or if the results had been mixed but the cost had been low, then most Americans wouldn't have noticed or cared, and the neoconservative/liberal internationalist alliance of Ambitious Policy Wonks could have continued to run around the world pursuing their various pet projects. But by 2013, it has been clear that the costs weren't low and the results weren't great, with the impact on public attitudes that we now see.
One hates to keep dumping on George W. Bush's administration, but facts are facts and it's hard not to see them as mostly responsible for this shift. Bill Clinton had an ambitious global agenda, but he was extremely leery of open-ended overseas commitments and especially wary of sending U.S. ground troops to overthrow or occupy other countries. When he did intervene, he did it with multilateral support and handed the task off to others as quickly as he could. Barack Obama has been pretty reluctant to make big military commitments too. He agonized over the Afghanistan surge (and put a strict time limit on it), refused pressure to attack Iran, and took a back-seat role in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Instead of big, costly invasions, he has used drones and special operations forces in a lot of places, just as Clinton used cruise missiles and air power. And like Clinton, he has placed more emphasis on genuine diplomacy, which may still yield decent results on a least a few issues.
By contrast, Bush made the fateful decisions to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq and ended up in costly quagmires in both countries. He did this partly in a panicked reaction to the 9/11 attacks, partly because he bought the neoconservatives' goofy program for using the U.S. military to spread liberty throughout the Middle East, and partly because the initial success against the Taliban convinced him that the United States now had the recipe for regime change "on the cheap." Unfortunately, removing a regime you don't like doesn't necessarily make things better, and it often creates as many problems as it solves. And his administration was never very enthusiastic about diplomacy, especially during his first term, and for the most part was never very good at it either.
The CFR/Pew poll suggests that both elites and the mass public have learned an important lesson. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale conventional aggression and very good at reversing it when it occurs (as when Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990). It's also still quite good at "commanding the commons" (e.g., oceans and airspace), which is a valuable global public good. But the U.S. government is not good at running other countries, especially when these states are fragile, internally divided, generally opposed to foreign interference, and very different in culture and history from the United States. Nor is the United States likely to get better at it with practice. The American people have little objection to the United States continuing to perform the former set of tasks, and they have little interest in trying to do the latter. If a similar realization encourages ambitious foreign-policy elites to shelve some of their own interventionist instincts, so much the better.
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who've been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you'd think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren't focused on the United States and don't have the capability to do much damage to us.
I raise this question because our leaders don't seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won -- in the sense that we've defanged the most dangerous anti-American types -- and that what's left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don't matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero -- indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future - it is just to say that it's more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.
But now we're being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.
I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn't that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.
Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn't Boston's defiant and resolute reaction to the city's marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn't nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don't go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.
It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?
My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan's frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.
But like I said at the start, mostly I'm frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
A heads-up for regular readers: I will be traveling for the next ten days and blogging will be sparse. I'm off to Cambridge University tomorrow, where I have the honor delivering the 2013 F.H. Hinsley Lecture. My topic will be "Follies and Fiascoes: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Keeps Failing," and the main challenge I face will be sticking to the time limit! (Historical backround: Sir Harry Hinsley was a noted cryptographer in World War II, but also a prominent IR scholar, and you can read more about him here). I'll also be visiting a seminar with IR grad students there, and looking forward to hearing what they have to say. Then into London for a talk at the European Council on Foreign Relations and another lecture at the London School of Economics on Friday. If you're in any of those neighborhoods and have nothing better to do, c'mon by.
And then I fly to Abu Dhabi for a conference of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils. I'm on the council on "geopolitical risks," and we'll be trying to figure out what the most prominent global dangers are this year. Suggestions welcome.
Our council will be shooting at a moving target given all the diplomatic balls that are currently up in the air. As you all know, the P5+1 didn't reach an interim agreement with Iran after all, and the participants are now trying to kick up a bit of fairy dust, trying not to point fingers, and hoping that progress will resume in a week or so. It would be amusing to watch American neocons and hardliners suddenly discover an unfamiliar affection for the French--who played a major role in derailing the interim deal over the weekend -- if the consequences of failure were not so worrisome. Let's not forget that the main alternatives to a successful deal are either a nuclear-armed Iran, another Middle East war, and heightened tensions within the region. But we've got a great track record of reaching diplomatic agreements with Middle Eastern countries, right? Right?
So I'm crossing my fingers and hoping the negotiations succeed, even if an agreement would undercut the central thesis of my Hinsley lecture.
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As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life's too short to spend all one's time on the activities of one particular interest group -- even if it has an awful lot of influence -- and there are many topics at least as important as the special relationship between the United States and one small country in the Middle East. Plus, I'm satisfied with my earlier writings on this topic, in part because subsequent events kept confirming their accuracy and because most of the criticisms we received were remarkably weak and tended to confirm our main points.
But occasionally I do see someone writing about the Israel lobby in a way that merits a response. Case in point: the recent WaPo blog post on this topic by Max Fisher, which inspired a sympathetic exegesis by Michael Koplow here. Fisher is often an astute analyst and Koplow has written some smart things on other topics, so it was somewhat surprising to see such careless reasoning from both of them.
The gist of their argument is two-fold. First, they maintain that there is a widespread belief that AIPAC and other organizations in the Israel lobby are all-powerful, and that the lobby "controls" U.S. Middle East policy. Koplow implies that John Mearsheimer and I hold this view, though Fisher does not. Second, recent events -- most notably the Obama administration's failure to heed AIPAC et al.'s push for military intervention in Syria -- demonstrate that this view is bogus. Together, the two pieces suggest that all this talk about an "Israel lobby" is sort of silly, and that these groups have rather limited influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Like some other attempts to kick up dust on this question, both pieces involve the ritual slaughter of a straw man. No serious person writing on this topic believes the Israel lobby is "all-powerful" or that it controls every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. It is telling that Fisher does not mention or quote any individual or group making such a claim. Mearsheimer and I certainly didn't; in our book we repeatedly state that the lobby does not get its way all the time. We also emphasized that its activities were akin to those of other powerful interest groups, and generally consistent with normal practice in American politics.
Viewed in this light, the lobby's failure to get the United States into a war in Syria is hardly telling evidence of its limited influence. Getting the United States to launch an unprovoked war is a big task -- especially when you consider how America's recent wars in that part of the world have gone -- and no lobbying or interest group can accomplish that by itself. Various elements of the lobby did play an important role in getting the United States to invade Iraq, but as we emphasized in our book, they didn't do it by themselves then either. In particular, the war would not have occurred had Bush and Cheney not gotten on board, and it would almost certainly not have happened absent the 9/11 attacks. As with all interest groups, it matters what they are asking for and when they are asking for it.
Does this mean the lobby's power is on the wane? Maybe, but not by much. Israel continues to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid each year, even though it is now a wealthy country. It gets this aid even as it continues to take actions the United States opposes, most notably building settlements in the Occupied Territories. The United States continues to provide it with diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international organizations, and U.S. officials consistently turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that are making the two-state solution that the U.S. favors impossible. Aspiring officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power still have to perform demeaning acts of self-criticism in order to win Senate confirmation. Do Fisher and Koplow think the lobby's influence has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this?
Or ask yourself this: why has President Obama spent more time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu -- the leader of a small Middle Eastern country whose total population is less than New York City -- than with any other foreign official, and why did Netanyahu recently get a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry? Is it because Obama and Kerry find Bibi's company so engaging that they just can't bear to be apart? I don't think so. One measure of the lobby's impact is simply the amount of time and attention that US officials have to devote to this one small country, while studiously ignoring its nuclear arsenal, illegal settlements, and other deficiencies. (No country is perfect, of course, but Israel is uniquely immune to criticism by prominent U.S. political figures.)
Finally, if you're not wearing blinders, it is impossible to miss the fact that AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, the RJC, the ADL, and a host of other hardline groups in the lobby are now the principal opponents to a diplomatic deal with Iran. Just look at this article from The Forward, or this one from Ha'aretz, which make it clear that these are the principal groups holding Obama's feet to the fire on this issue. And of course it is many of these same groups or individuals who have been insisting for years that the U.S. keep all options "on the table" and use force against Iran if necessary. Absent pressure from these groups, it would be much, much easier for the United States to come to terms with Tehran.
Will they succeed in derailing a deal? I don't know. As I laid out in detail more than a year ago, the situation vis-à-vis Iran is different than the pre-war situation with Iraq in 2003, and "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States are not as unified on this topic. A reasonable deal with Iran is clearly preferable to another Middle East war, and preferable to making unrealistic demands that make it harder to monitor Iran's nuclear research activities and might eventually convince Iran to pursue actual weapons. Because the United States and its allies have powerful incentives to pursue a diplomatic solution, resistance from hardline groups in the lobby may be insufficient to stop them.
Bu no interest group gets everything it wants. Interest groups and lobbies advance their cause partly by pushing for specific policies (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). But they also succeed when they can limit the options that policymakers are willing to consider or can force policymakers to offer up other concessions to keep these groups happy. AIPAC famously lost the AWACs fight during the Reagan administration, but the battle was so difficult and costly that Reagan never really challenged it again. Similarly, former US Mideast negotiator (and FP colleague) Aaron David Miller has noted that "those of us advising the Secretary of State and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking, and when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn't like, we too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship." Bottom line: powerful interest groups often get their way not by achieving specific goals directly, but by shaping and constraining the options politicians are willing to contemplate.
So the question to ask is not whether AIPAC "wins" any particular issue (particularly when that issue involves a big demand). It is what US policy would be if these groups did not exist, or if they were advocating a different course of action. In other words, if Obama and Kerry didn't have to worry at all about the lobby, or if groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now had as much clout as AIPAC, would the United States have handled relation with Iran in exactly the same way for the past twenty year or more? More tellingly still: would the United States have done a better job of brokering an Israel-Palestinian peace if its negotiators (a number of whom were drawn from the lobby's ranks) had not been acting as "Israel's lawyer" and if the U.S. could have made its aid to Israel conditional on an end to settlement building? If you think the lobby's clout had no impact on our mishandling of these two important problems, I've got a bridge to sell you and then a couple of books for you to read.
One final point. Despite the flaws in their two posts, Fisher and Koplow may in fact be on to something. Two things have changed since Mearsheimer and I wrote our original article and subsequent book: 1) a lot more people are aware of the lobby and understand that its positions are often harmful to U.S. (and Israeli) interests, and 2) a few more people are willing to talk and write about this phenomenon openly, instead of being silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism or the fear of professional retribution. Democracy thrives on free, open, and rational debate, which is why a sensible but frank discussion of the lobby's influence is all to the good. Or as Andrew Sullivan might say: know hope.
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One of the hardest things for a great power to do is reverse course when it's made a strategic blunder, especially when it involves a war. Fred Ikle wrote a whole book about this problem -- the classic Every War Must End -- where he described many of political obstacles that getting in the way of cutting one's losses and either making peace or just getting out. You know some of the reasons: politicians don't like to admit they screwed up, the fallacy of "sunk costs" continues to drive policy, the military doesn't like admitting defeat, etc. And even when the decision to end a war is made, it usually takes longer to get out than it should.
Case in point: Afghanistan. I don't know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn't going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn't going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to "surge" there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave. The corrupt Karzai government has been giving us a hard time about the terms under which the residual force would operate, however, and insisting that we accept their terms if we wanted to stay.
But instead of seizing this free gift and saying "da khoday pa amaan" ("goodbye" in Pashto), Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials have done a full-court press to persuade Karzai & Co. to let us keep pouring resources into this bottomless pit. To do that, reports the New York Times, U.S. officials "are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered."
I have two comments. First, if you've read any of the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), you'd know that vast sums of money have been squandered already. It therefore beggars belief that we're going to do a better job of monitoring Afghan spending of our aid programs with a smaller force. Bottom line: a lot of the money spent in the future is just going to disappear.
Second, this whole enterprise looks like a can-kicking, face-saving operation, precisely the sort of long, drawn-out end that Ikle and others have described. In this regard, it is revealing to read what retired general David Barno, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-05, told the Times we are going to get for this extra effort (my emphasis):
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded - fuel, food, weapons, salaries. . . If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."
That's right: more than ten years of war, and we've managed to create a corrupt central government that cannot defeat the Taliban (who aren't getting $4 billion a year in US aid, by the way). The government can manage a stalemate, but only if Uncle Sucker keeps thousands of troops there and keeps the money flowing. . . presumably forever.
I don't quite know how to describe this policy, but I sure wouldn't use the word "strategy."
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there's no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing's risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz's megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact of Fox News and the perverse effects of gerrymandering are also popular culprits. Yet another strand of thought pins the blame on Rep. John Boehner's spineless desire to cling to his House speaker post even if doing so drives the country off a cliff. And then there are those who see this episode as an inevitable consequence of the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution. In this view, crazy-making moments like this one are hard-wired into the American system of government. They don't happen often -- thank goodness -- but they are bound to occur from time to time.
Any or all of these causes may well be at work, but these explanations all miss a broader structural reason for the current impasse, one whose roots are found not in the nature of American politics but in the nature of the contemporary international system. In brief: All this mishigas is happening in part because the United States is in fact very secure, which leads many people to think it doesn't need a strong central state. They are therefore willing to countenance steps that they would not consider if the country were really facing a serious external danger.
For a prophetic analysis of this basic issue, check out Michael Desch's 1996 article "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" in International Organization. Drawing on Otto Hintze and others, Desch argued that the end of the Cold War was going to undermine and weaken many existing state structures. The logic is straightforward: During periods when international conflict is rife, populations look to the state to protect them, and they are willing to tolerate (even encourage) increases in state capacity. Moreover, they are less willing to tolerate anyone who seems to be threatening national unity. In extreme forms, this tendency leads to abuses -- such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other crimes -- but in milder forms it means punishing politicians who act in an irresponsible or divisive fashion.
But when nations are feeling secure from external dangers, both citizens and politicians are freer to indulge ideological whims or to pursue self-serving agendas of their own, because the body politic won't see these actions as undermining national unity or threatening national security. And that's at least partly why a yahoo like Cruz can get away with what he's doing.
But wait: Doesn't the United States face a serious threat from international terrorism? Isn't that why Congress passed the Patriot Act, why it approved the vast expansion of the National Security Agency and other intelligence capabilities, and why the public supports the use of American drones and special forces all over the world? Don't these dangers create a profound need for national unity and resolve and thus contradict this basic line of argument?
Nope. Despite all the hype about terrorism, the United States is still a remarkably secure country and ordinary Americans get this, which is why presidents and foreign-policy wonks have to work overtime trying to scare us enough to get us to keep policing the world. Sure, foreign-policy experts like me love to talk about the implications of events in far-flung regions, but that's mostly to give ourselves something to do and to remind everyone that We're Really Important. But most people in the United States don't care very much about these things, except on those rare occasions when someone bombs Pearl Harbor or flies a plane into the World Trade Center. Then you get a vigorous response, but it wears off as soon as the problem is gone.
Ironically, the surest cure for the self-indulgent insanity of the current Republican Party would be a serious external threat. Ideally, we'd need an external threat that was just large enough to require us to pull together more and keep fringe groups out on the margins where they belong, but one that was not so large as to pose a genuine danger to our security and way of life here at home. Alas, dangers don't always limit themselves to that convenient "not too hot, not too cold" range.
On the whole, I'd rather live in a world where the United States faced relatively few external challenges, so that it could concentrate more of its energy and wealth on improving the lives of U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, a favorable international environment tends to bring out the crazy here at home and might actually do more damage to the country than Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or Nikita Khrushchev ever managed.
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
By all indications, Iran's new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time.
Given that these are the same people and organizations that have been pushing for military action against Iran for some time, it is hardly surprising that they pooh-pooh the prospect of diplomacy now. But notice that their core position is fundamentally contradictory: They have been saying for years that only sustained outside pressure will get Iran to "say uncle." So the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions and made repeated threats to use force. Surprise, surprise: Iran's new leaders are now saying they want a deal, precisely the response that this pressure was supposed to produce. If the hawks were consistent, they would at a minimum recommend that we explore the possibility carefully. Instead, they are trying to make sure that the United States continues to demand complete Iranian capitulation (or maybe even regime change). This tells you all you need to know about their sincerity and why Barack Obama shouldn't pay them the slightest attention.
In fact, the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between "signals" (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and "indices," which he defined as "statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct."
More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a "costly signal." Unlike "cheap talk," a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn't really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat's 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine.
So should we take Rouhani's overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn't what they are now doing exactly what we've been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show "heroic flexibility," thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran's leaders to reverse course on a whim.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Why does so much of the academic writing on international affairs seem to be of little practical value, mired in a "cult of irrelevance"? Is it because IR scholars are pursuing a misleading model of "science," patterned after physics, chemistry, or biology? Or is it because many prominent academics fear criticism and are deathly afraid of being controversial, and prefer to hide behind arcane vocabulary, abstruse mathematics, or incomprehensible postmodern jargon?
Both motivations are probably at work to some degree, but I would argue that academics are for the most part just responding to the prevailing incentive structures and metrics that are used to evaluate scholarly merit. This point is made abundantly clear in an important new article by Peter Campbell and Michael Desch of the University of Notre Dame, titled "Rank Irrelevance: How Academia Lost Its Way." Campbell and Desch examine the methodology behind the National Research Council rankings of graduate programs in political science, and argue that the methods used are both "systematically biased" and analytically flawed.
National Research Council (NRC) rankings carry a fair bit of weight in academia. As I know from my own experience, deans, provosts, and presidents pay attention to where departments are ranked. A department chair who presides over a significant improvement in his/her department's ranking will be viewed favorably, while a decline sets off warning bells. Similarly, if a junior faculty member is up for tenure and gets an "outside offer" from a more highly ranked department, that will be taken as a strong signal of that faculty member's perceived value. By contrast, if you're up for tenure and get an offer from a department ranked further down the food chain, it will be a positive sign but not necessarily dispositive. For these and other reasons, these rankings matter.
The problem, as Campbell and Desch show, is that the rankings are seriously flawed. The current NRC methodology emphasizes scholarly publications in "peer-reviewed" journals, for example, because that is what the natural sciences do. That sounds like a sensible approach at first hearing, but this procedures biases the assessment in favor of subfields where scholars tend to publish journal articles (such as American politics) and undervalues subfields where books are more common (such as international relations). It also gives little or no weight to publications in journals such as Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy (i.e., the sort of publication that a policymaker might actually read and that might actually have some impact in the real world). Given how the rankings are calculated, in short, it is inevitable that most political scientists concentrate on writing things that hardly anyone reads.
To drive this point home, Campbell and Desch show how different evaluation schemes would have a dramatic effect on the rankings of various graduate programs. (See here for a compelling chart and here for their full results.) Their point -- and it is a good one -- is that the standards and methods used to evaluate graduate programs are inherently arbitrary, and if you reward only those publications that are least likely to generate policy-relevant research, you are going to get an academic world that tends to be inward-looking and of less practical value.
In other words, most academic scholars -- and especially the younger ones whose careers are still in flux -- are just responding to the set of incentives and standards that currently prevail. But these standards are not cast in stone, and there is no a priori reason why scholars could not employ a broader set of criteria when judging candidates for hiring and promotion and when ranking departments. That is indeed what Campbell and Desch recommend. Money quotation:
Simply put, when you rank political science departments by disciplinary, subfield, and broader relevance criteria, you get very different results. Given that, we believe that broader criteria of scholarly excellence and relevance ought to be part of how all departments are ranked. We are not advocating junking traditional criteria for academic rankings; rather, we urge that such narrow and disciplinarily focused criteria simply be balanced with some consideration of the unique aspects of international relations and also take account of the broader impact of scholarly work.
Good advice. Assuming, of course, that you think academia ought to play an important role in helping society address important social and political problems.
Photo: Flickr/Nayu Kim/nayukim
Now that the flap over Syria has been settled (not really...), I guess it's safe for me to get back on the road. Translated: I'm off to Brazil this evening to give a series of lectures at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. It is my first visit to Brazil, and I'm looking forward to seeing these two cities and hearing what the Brazilians think about Obama, U.S. foreign policy, the NSA (!), and the future of world politics (among other things). Blogging will be sporadic at best until I return next week.
As for Syria, one should not be churlish and cavil about the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough that gets Obama and Kerry out of the corner they painted themselves into. The path by which we got here wasn't pretty, but as Lefty Gomez said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." Or as Bismarck famously noted, there's a special providence that "looks after drunkards, fools, and the United States of America." We've some ways to go before the chemical weapons issue is resolved, of course, and this is at best a first step toward ending the grinding civil war in Syria, but realists take what we can get in this imperfect world. Right now, this deal looks better than bombing Syria to no good purpose or having Congress in visible revolt against Obama's handling of the whole matter.
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Who is this imposter who has the gall to call himself "John Kerry?" The real John Kerry is an intelligent liberal, indeed something of a hero for having the courage to not only vigorously oppose the Vietnam War -- the last U.S. war fought in the name of "credibility" -- but to openly charge that the U.S. was committing "war crimes" there. Surely this can't be the same fellow who is not only leading the charge for the U.S. to plunge into yet another unnecessary and unwise war, but whose rhetoric is increasingly bizarre.
Now he fears that if we don't go to war in Syria, we will lose our "credibility?" Credibility to do what? Stupidly intervene in yet another civil war in a country of little importance to vital U.S. interests, in which we not only lack "vital interests" at stake, but in which, if we had, we wouldn't know which side to support, and in which we have no idea whether our intervention will save innocent lives or put them still further into danger?
If that wasn't bad enough, now "John Kerry" accuses opponents of an attack on Syria of advocating "armchair isolationism." What? First of all, to oppose the war in Syria does not make one "isolationist," or even "anti-war," as opposed to opposing this specific war. The opposite of "isolationism" usually is defined as "internationalism." By such reasoning, then, this must mean that "internationalists" favor going to war with everyone.
Moreover, the United States would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of isolationism to at least partly balance what ought to be called "mindless interventionism." After all, the problem with U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II -- and even more so since the end of the Cold War -- has not exactly been a refusal to get into foreign wars.
Finally, the very concept of an "armchair isolationist" is incoherent. Apparently Kerry has confused the term with that of the common one, "armchair warrior." That is a coherent and, indeed, powerful concept. It refers, of course, to someone who wants other people to go to war while he sits safely at home. Now try making sense of "armchair isolationism."
Jerome Slater is a University Research Scholar and professor of political science (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He blogs at jeromeslater.com, where this article is cross-posted.
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If you're anything like me, you find it hard to keep up with the Niagara of events and information with which you're deluged every day. It used to be a challenge just to keep track of a half-dozen or so professional journals in my field/subfield; now there's that plus online pubs, bloggers, twitter feeds, and the various books I'm reading in the course of my research. Not to mention reviewing manuscripts, writing tenure letters, and other professional responsibilities. And then there are the "events, dear boy, events" in the real world that we all try to comprehend.
So today, a few short takes on things I wish I had time to comment on at greater length.
1. Iran. I've blogged about this a lot over the past five years, but isn't it crashingly obvious that we have a golden opportunity to explore a real rapprochement with Iran? Frankly, if we don't pursue that possibility energetically, creatively and sincerely, it will be the most revealing example of foreign policy incompetence that I can imagine.
2. Putin, Snowden and the aborted summit. I can understand why the Obama administration was annoyed with Russia for not turning over Snowden, but did they really expect Moscow to passively fall in line? Would we have turned over someone who had sent similar secrets about the KGB to the Guardian and then somehow gotten themselves to Dulles Airport? I rather doubt it. The best reason to cancel the summit, however, was the fact that nothing was likely to be achieved there.
3. More good news on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks: Netanyahu gets them off on positive note by expanding government subsidies to settlements in the occupied territories. Next step: John Kerry and Martin Indyk will hint -- ever, ever, so gently -- that this decision was "not helpful."
4. The Ride of the Valkyries: I find it interesting that some of the most hawkish voices on Syria have been women (e.g., Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton). This doesn't necessarily contradict Micah Zenko's observation that women are generally less disposed to using force (or at least drones), but it's still curious. My hypothesis: it has nothing to do with gender, but instead reflects their lack of knowledge about military operations and a tendency to downplay the unintended consequences of military action. (And no: John McCain's support for aggressive action doesn't contradict my point, because McCain's own operational knowledge seems pretty paltry and his past military judgments have been questionable).
5. The sequester: There's no doubt in my mind that the sequester is a terrible way to try to trim defense spending. But given the entrenched interests that fight like tigers to preserve every defense nickel, I'm not sure there was any other way to do it. And I console myself with the thought that the U.S. will still be spending vastly more than any other single country on national security. Now if we could just connect that process to a rethinking of our overseas commitments (cue The Impossible Dream).
6. America the Skittish (Round 2). The terror plot alert that shut down 19 US diplomatic facilities was certainly conveniently timed, wasn't it? Just when Congress was starting to show some backbone on the issue of NSA spying, we get a report of some new "chatter" (or maybe an Al Qaeda "conference call") that justified a vaguely scary new alert. But what really bugs me is the message that this sends: that the mighty United States can be spooked into closing its doors with remarkable ease. We want to run the world, it seems, but we want to be able to do it without taking any risks at all. And it makes me question (once again) the effectiveness of the whole "war on terror." If we've been pursuing the right policies for the past twelve years, why are these guys still so dangerous?
7. "The New Newt" (2013 version). Newt Gingrich isn't an important politician anymore, as his lackluster performance in the last GOP primary season proved. But he's still a world-class egomaniac, and like many politicians, he can't stop seeking the spotlight. He grabbed it again this week by suggesting that the neoconservative foreign policy that he used to champion might have been ... well ... stupid, and that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might have some good ideas on that subject. This event is interesting because Gingrich is nothing if not an opportunistic weathervane, and it tells you that he thinks that calls for a more restrained foreign and military policy would find a lot of takers out there in the body politic. As I suggested once before, all it will take to launch a serious debate on this issue is an articulate champion who isn't saddled with a lot of unrelated baggage. Rand Paul may or may not be that person (and I fervently hope Ted Cruz isn't) but he/she is bound to show up eventually.
8. The Death of IR theory: Noah Smith and Paul Krugman had some interesting blog posts up on the "death of theory" in economics. This is as good an excuse as any to remind folks that John Mearsheimer and I have written an article on similar trends in international relations, which will be out in the European Journal of IR next month. Plus, stay tuned for an upcoming symposium on the broader topic of the future of IR theory at Duck of Minerva website.
9. Anarchy, the State, and Dystopia. If nothing else, the events in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remind us all that the only thing worse than a bad state is no effective state at all. For insightful commentary, see Robert Kaplan's reflections on the late Samuel Huntington's best book, Political Order in Changing Societies.
10. I'm off to California tomorrow for a family wedding (congratulations, Lindsay and Bobby!), so blogging will be light-to-nonexistent through the weekend. But you've got the rest of FP (and a zillion other bloggers) to tide you over, and nobody's commentary is indispensable.
According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "looking for a few good ideas." Translated: The Defense Department is under a lot of budget pressure (from the sequester and from broader fiscal realities), so he's looking for smart ways to cut the budget without jeopardizing U.S. security.
If Hagel is really looking for some "outside-the-box" thinking on this important issue, then I've got three suggestions for him. First, he won't make real progress without examining the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy: What America's real interests are, what are the different ways it can advance or protect them, and what are the costs, benefits, and trade-offs among different commitments? Trying to maintain all U.S. present commitments on a shoestring makes it much more likely that the country will in fact defend nothing very well.
Second, in addition to directing the Defense Department bureaucracy and the uniformed services to work hard on it, he ought to convene a "Team B" of outside experts to brainstorm the problem too. And if he needs new ideas, he ought to populate that Team B with knowledgeable people whose views aren't warped by long service inside the Washington bubble or by years spent inside the Pentagon itself. Instead, this group should be composed mostly of people who don't work for defense contractors and who don't depend on Defense Department consulting contracts for their livelihoods. I'd also exclude people at think tanks that receive a lot of defense-industry dollars and anyone who has ever spoken at the Aspen Security Forum. (I'm not dissing any of these organizations, by the way; I'm just saying that it's not where I'd look to find alternatives to the conventional wisdom).
In short, I'd be looking for smart academics and independent thinkers, like MIT's Barry Posen or Cindy Williams, Dartmouth College's Daryl Press, or the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble. Throw in Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives. A creative, thoughtful journalist like James Fallows and an iconoclast like Michael Lind would be good additions too. Hagel should also encourage this group to consult with insiders or seasoned Washington veterans -- such as Brent Scowcroft, Steve Clemons, Colin Powell, Gordon Adams (an FP columnist), etc. -- to make sure that their recommendations aren't just pie in the sky.
The point is not that such people would necessarily come up with the best ideas; the purpose of this sort of exercise is to ensure that a wide range of possibilities gets considered and that well-worn shibboleths get challenged.
Third, Hagel should remind everyone involved in this process who they are working for. The name of the organization in question is the "U.S. Department of Defense." It is not the "Department of Imperial Power Projection," "Department of World Order Maintenance," the "Department of Democracy Promotion," or the "Department of Regime Change and Global Pest Control." My dictionary defines "defense" as "the action of resisting attack," and the focus of its efforts ought to be on that fundamental goal. Weaning the United States away from the belief that its security is enhanced by constantly searching for monsters to destroy in faraway lands (a task the country has been doing rather badly in recent years) would be a major achievement. But it's not one the United States is likely to accomplish if the task is left solely to the usual experts and the existing institutions.
After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. national security establishment started focusing on the various ways that "international terrorism" might pose a threat to U.S. interests or the United States itself. Unsurprisingly, experts began to dream up all sorts of frightening scenarios and worry about all sorts of far-fetched scenarios. I remember this period well, and I recall sitting through seminars and workshops at which lots of very smart and creative people were imagining various nasty things that groups like al Qaeda might try to do. Hijack gas trucks and blow up the Lincoln Tunnel? Take over the Mall of America and create carnage on a big shopping day? Commandeer a supertanker and smash it into the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge? Wait until summer and then set forest fires all over the American West? The list of conceivable dangers was infinitely long, but if you sat in enough of those seminars, you could easily become convinced that it was only a matter of time before somebody did something really nasty to you or your loved ones.
Imagination is one thing, but disciplined risk assessment is another. It's easy to dream up bad things that could conceivably happen, but intelligent public policy should rest on a more careful and sustained appraisal of how likely those various scary things are. And that's why I suggest you read Keir Lieber and Daryl Press's recent article in the journal International Security on "Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists."
The fear that nuclear-armed states would hand weapons to terrorists has been a staple of U.S. threat-mongering ever since 9/11. It was a key part of the justification for invading Iraq in 2003, and it forms part of the constant drumbeat for military action against Iran. But it never made much sense for two reasons. First, a nuclear-armed state has little incentive to give up control over weapons it has labored long and hard to acquire, for what could the state possibly gain from doing so? Second, a state giving nuclear weapons to terrorists could never be sure that those weapons would not be traced back to it and thereby invite devastating retaliation.
Lieber and Press examine the historical record and show that it is almost impossible to conduct a major terrorist operation and not be blamed for it. Here's the abstract for their article:
Many experts consider nuclear terrorism the single greatest threat to U.S. security. The fear that a state might transfer nuclear materials to terrorists was a core justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, for a strike against Iran's nuclear program. The logical basis for this concern is sound: if a state could orchestrate an anonymous nuclear terror attack, it could destroy an enemy yet avoid retaliation. But how likely is it that the perpetrators of nuclear terrorism could remain anonymous?
Data culled from a decade of terrorist incidents reveal that attribution is very likely after high-casualty terror attacks. Attribution rates are even higher for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally -- 97 percent for incidents in which ten or more people were killed. Moreover, tracing a terrorist group that used a nuclear weapon to its state sponsor would not be difficult, because few countries sponsor terror; few terror groups have multiple sponsors; and only one country that sponsors terrorism, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons or enough material to manufacture them. If leaders understand these facts, they will be as reluctant to give weapons to terrorists as they are to use them directly; both actions would invite devastating retaliation.
I might add that this is the kind of important, nonpartisan, policy-relevant work that more social scientists ought to be doing. It is also important to disseminate these findings widely, so that 1) U.S. policymakers won't keep chasing phantom dangers, 2) the leaders of nuclear-armed states understand that their arsenals are good for deterrence and not much else, and 3) said leaders also understand the need to keep whatever weapons they might have under very reliable control.
Note: A couple of weeks ago I posted a short piece noting that realists seem less inclined to co-author than other IR scholars, and I speculated that this might be due in part to a personal affinity. Specifically, those who see international politics as a "self-help" system are also more inclined to see their own work in similar terms. I offered some anecdotal evidence to illustrate the point, but nothing more than that. In this guest post, Lindsay Hundley of the College of William & Mary offers more substantial empirical evidence. --S.W.
Lindsay Hundley writes:
Stephen Walt recently hypothesized that realists may be more likely than liberals to do solo-authored research, in part as a result of their basic personality traits or worldview. He suggests that the part of a scholar's personality that causes him or her to embrace realism may be the same quality that leads him or her to do solo-authored work (or, conversely, to co-author for liberals).
Walt's evidence that realists tend to practice "self-help" when it comes to publishing consists of a list of nine prominent (mostly retired) realist scholars whose research typically appears under a single byline. This is followed by a second list of nine prominent IR scholars who are some combination of liberal and constructivist, but are characterized by Walt as liberals. Since the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project includes systematically collected evidence that includes a larger number (of both prominent and obscure) realist and liberal publications, we thought it might be interesting to see whether Walt's empirical premise holds water. Are realists less likely to co-author than liberals? Some simple hypothesis testing seems to be in order!
It turns out that an overwhelming 82 percent of realist articles published in the top 12 peer-reviewed journals between 1980 and 2011 are solo-authored. Liberal articles, on the other hand, were much more likely to be co-authored, with (a comparatively small) 63 percent being solo-authored. Of course, even if realists are less likely to co-author than liberals (or other isms), other factors might explain this pattern. First, we know that co-authorship has become much more prominent in the IR literature over time. Second, we know that realism has become a less popular theoretical framework over time as seen in surveys of IR scholars and as documented in publication patterns of peer-reviewed research of both books and articles. Third, we know that women are more likely to co-author than men and are less likely to self-identify as realists. Finally, we know that liberals are more likely to study different issue areas and use different methods than realists. Some or all of these factors might shape the propensity to co-author.
Yet, even when we control for these factors and some others (as reflected in these more extensive regression results), realism retains a significant and inverse relationship with co-authorship. As Walt suggests, realists do appear to solo-author, in part, because they are realists.
We did not, however, find significant correlations between co-authorship and liberalism (or any of the other major IR paradigms, for that matter). Prior to controlling for methodology, it looks like liberal and non-paradigmatic scholars are more likely to co-author (see Model 1), but once we control for methods, the relationship disappears. This suggests that methodological diversity, not personality, is driving co-authorship among liberal and non-paradigmatic scholars. Below, we chart the predicted probability of co-authoring by paradigm after controlling for methods in articles published since 2000.
It is not surprising that type of methods is more strongly related to co-authorship than realism (or any other paradigm). Quantitative or experimental methods are more likely to appear in co-authored articles, whereas qualitative, descriptive, or analytic nonformal methods appear more often in solo-authored pieces. We would guess that these results reflect diversity in or need for specialized skills in order to answer certain types of questions, publish in certain journals, or get past peer reviewers in certain issue areas, rather than an author's personality type. Regardless, the relationship between realism and solo-authorship is striking and worthy of further research, speculative blog posts, and conversations at the ISA bar.
On the more interesting question of why different scholars select different theories to help them explain the world of international politics, our rough and ready empirical analysis tells us very little. It does confirm one aspect of Walt's 1st image hypothesis of theory selection: If a scholar is a realist, he or she is more likely to solo-author. Moreover, the mixed results for the other theoretical approaches suggest that even if personality or worldview is one factor behind the relationship, the exact dynamics are likely complicated as personality interacts with other factors.
Lindsay Hundley is a research associate at the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William & Mary. In the fall she will be studying for her Ph.D. in political science at Stanford University.
We tend to think that scholars embrace particular theoretical orientations simply because they conclude that certain theories fit the empirical evidence better than others do. But if we're honest, we have to admit that almost all social science theories aren't especially powerful and that the available evidence for assessing them is often ambiguous or mixed. If that is the case, other factors are likely to play a role in determining which theories we believe.
In particular, is it possible that theoretical affinities reflect at least in part each individual's basic personality traits or worldview? Consider that the most prominent realist scholars are all intellectual loners, in the sense that the overwhelming majority of their scholarship is sole-authored. I am thinking here of scholars such as E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Krasner (and myself, for that matter). One might add George Kennan or Henry Kissinger to that list, as both are normally thought of as "realists" and virtually all their published work appears with a single byline. Although some of these scholars occasionally wrote with others and were important providers of various collective goods, they generally worked alone. (My joint work with Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby is an exception that does not disprove the rule, as it was not a work of IR theory and working together was essential for withstanding the firestorm of vituperation we knew we would and did receive). In short, realists appear to view the academic enterprise as a "self-help" system, where each scholar toils on his or her own and where scholarly standing is mostly the result of individual achievement. You know: kind of the way realists think about international politics.
By contrast, many of the most prominent liberal scholars have been enthusiastic collaborators. Think of Robert Keohane, who first came to prominence through his joint work with Joseph Nye, but who has subsequently co-authored or co-edited books and articles with a wide array of other scholars. The same is also true of Nye: Although he has written a number of books on his own, he has also collaborated with Keohane and many others over a long, prolific career. Ditto Bruce Russett, Michael Doyle, Martha Finnemore, John Ikenberry, Richard Rosecrance, Thomas Risse, and Kathryn Sikkink. Each has done important solo work, but their CVs are also full of joint publications and collaborative projects.
I can think of a few exceptions to this pattern, but it is striking how few card-carrying realists are prolific collaborators and how few liberal IR scholars are consistent lone wolves.
Let me emphasize that I am not suggesting one way of doing scholarship is superior to the other; rather, my question is whether there is a connection between one's scholarly affinities and one's personality or Weltanschauung. Scholars who emphasize interdependence and institutions in their publications also seem to be more likely to work in interdependent ways, while those who tend to emphasize anarchy, insecurity, and competition approach their own scholarly work in more zero-sum terms, wary of entangling alliances.
I am also not suggesting that personality is the only thing -- or even the main factor -- that shapes someone's theoretical preferences. Our beliefs about how the world works are also shaped by our life experiences, by whom we happened to meet in college or graduate school, by important real-world events, and even by purely instrumental incentives such as the availability of research funding. And yes: Evidence plays an important role; indeed, it can sometimes force us to rethink even our most fundamental theoretical assumptions.
Lastly, I'm not arguing that scholars who work in the liberal tradition are less ambitious, less driven, or less competitive than their realist counterparts. When it comes to professional standing, status, career advancement, etc., everyone seems to be sensitive to relative gains.
As I said a couple of posts ago, I began my trip to Europe at a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." It was a fascinating event, in part because it brought together two tribes that don't interact very often and have relatively few overlapping members.
In one group were various foreign-policy or IR scholars (myself, Dan Drezner, Beth Simmons, Karl Kaiser, John Mearsheimer, Rob Paarlberg, etc.); in the other group was a diverse collection of computer science experts, Internet entrepreneurs, communications scholars, and experts on Internet governance (e.g., Susan Crawford, Adam Bye, Milton Mueller, Zeynep Tufekci, Terry Roberts, Ben Scott, etc.). There were also some journalists, business leaders, and other academics who don't fit neatly in either group
As several people commented at the conference, it was interesting to see how differently the two main groups tended to approach these issues. To oversimplify, the IR/FP types tended to see the Internet as an important but not revolutionary development. In this view, it will affect some of the things that states did (or how they did them), but it isn't a transformative development that is going to alter the balance of power, shift the agenda of world affairs in fundamental ways, or render international politics substantially more benign. By contrast, most of the "Internet experts" seemed to have greater confidence in its revolutionary potential, saw the integration of markets, data, and individual platforms as a game-changer, and emphasized that states really had to get up to speed on its impact and implications. They were also (mostly) in agreement on the need for much better global cooperation on many of these questions.
The conference was planned long before L'affaire Snowden, so the timing was really remarkably fortuitous. As you might expect, there was a lot of discussion about what Edward Snowden's disclosures would mean for the broader question of Internet governance, privacy, social media, and politics more generally. There was a pretty broad consensus that the revelations about NSA surveillance and cyber-espionage had done a lot of damage to the U.S. position on a lot of cybersecurity issues, at least in terms of the United States' ability to lead the world toward some sort of a legal regime. As many people have already noted, how can Washington complain about Chinese hacking, global cybercrime, and all sorts of other bad things when it is clearly spending millions of dollars doing similar things itself?
At the heart of all this discussion is a very profound set of Brave New World-ish issues: Can we trust governments or private corporations to know this much about us, our preferences, our network of friends and associates, and even what we write or say to each other? The potential for abuse is enormous; the dangers of subtle forms of intimidation are real, and we are still in the earliest phase of these global developments. At the same time, the benefits of all this interconnectivity are already vast. To take a trivial example, it's why I can sit in a hotel room in Oslo and type this, and then ship it to FP at the speed of light. Interconnectivity empowers and enriches, but it also can threaten, incriminate, or enslave.
And as one participant observed, perhaps the most likely possibility is that we will see a partial convergence between authoritarian systems like the People's Republic of China and open democracies like Britain and the United States. Instead of empowering individuals and forcing monarchies and dictatorships to liberalize, the connectivity revolution could cause democracies and dictatorships to move somewhat closer together. Dictatorships will be less able to prevent new ideas from circulating and may even be vulnerable to collective action facilitated by social media (see under: Arab Spring). So they will become somewhat more open. But at the same time, previously open societies that privileged privacy and strictly limited government monitoring will be unable to resist the temptation to collect lots of private data, whether from surveillance cameras or from your laptop. Authoritarian states may get somewhat weaker, while liberal governments become somewhat more intrusive and authoritarian.
I'm not saying this development is inevitable, but it hardly seems like a remote possibility given recent events. There's also the possibility that states will start to retreat the vision of one-world united by digital data, with different countries adopting Chinese-style firewalls of various types to keep others from snooping as they do today. Might today's world be the high-water mark of globalized Internet access? I tend to think not, but I can't rule that out either. Somehow, I tend to think the real answer will be determined not by people of my generation, but by all those young people who are a lot more wired than most people my age. So I'm going to ask my kids just as soon as I get home.
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
Privacy under siege here in the USA. Turmoil in Turkey. A grinding civil war in Syria. Obama and Xi making nice out in California. Bond markets queasy. The fate of the eurozone is still anyone's guess.
With so much going on, it's an awkward time to take a break from blogging, but I'm going to drop (mostly) off the grid starting tomorrow. I'm spending the next two weeks in Europe, attending conferences and seminars in France, Britain, Norway, and Crete. Not exactly a restful trip, but I'm looking forward to it anyway. I may post occasionally when connectivity allows, and I'm hoping a few guest bloggers weigh in while I'm away, but no promises.
If anyone needs to reach me, just contact the NSA. They'll probably know where I am … (just kidding … I think).
You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
I'm not an expert on Turkey and so I don't have much to add to the chorus of commentary about recent events there. My own view of the AKP era in Turkey is mixed: I've been impressed by its economic achievements and by the energy, creativity and acumen of the various foreign policy officials with whom I've had the pleasure of interacting over the past five years or so. In particular, I've often found their views on regional affairs to be insightful and well-informed, though of course not infallible.
But there's also been a worrisome authoritarian undercurrent to the AKP's rule, including assaults on press freedoms, badly-run prosecutions of political opponents and alleged coup plotters, and PM Erdogan's tendency to think that he knows what's best for Turkey's citizens, even when they disagree. And it's always a worrisome sign when a leader blames internal opposition to his policies on "foreign agents" and Twitter.
But let me offer a few (relatively uniformed) thoughts on recent events. The first is that the current upheaval may -- repeat, may -- turn out to be a salutary development in Turkey's political evolution. Turkey's democracy is still a work-in-progress, and both its formal institutions and the guiding norms are in flux. (Remember: Turkey was a politically moribund, economically stagnant, and sometimes brutal military dictatorship not so very long ago). The current backlash against the Erdogan government is a reminder to the AKP that a Parliamentary majority is not a license to impose whatever the ruling party leadership wants; at least not if those same leaders also want a reasonably tranquil society. And if the current tug of war eventually leads Turkey to develop institutions that limit the "tyranny of the majority," it will be a salutary development in the history of Turkish government. Stay tuned.
Second, Americans ought to recognize that their influence over these developments is limited. President Obama reportedly has a good working relationship with Erdogan and can offer constructive advice if asked, and he should make it clear that a continued drift toward authoritarianism will make it harder to maintain close U.S.-Turkish relations in the future. (Yes, I know the U.S. has close ties with other authoritarian governments, but we already expect more from Turkey and Ankara doesn't have lots of oil). I have tried to make this point in my own conversations with Turkish officials, journalists, and scholars, though I doubt my words carried a great deal of weight. Turkey's leaders are likely to follow their own counsel; the big question is whether they will begin to recognize that no leader or party is infallible and that listening to popular sentiment-including the sentiments of those who didn't vote for you -- is almost always a smart political strategy.
As I tweeted yesterday, if I could assign the AKP leadership one book to read, it would be James Scott's Seeing Like a State: Why Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. It's long been one of my favorite books, because it shows how authoritarian governments get into trouble when they adopt ambitious plans for social engineering (often based on some sort of far-reaching "modernist" ideology) and when there are no political mechanisms available to check their ambitions. The results are uniformly disastrous, as the cases of Stalinist collectivized agriculture or Mao's "Great Leap Forward" attest, largely because overly ambitious schemes inevitably generate unintended consequences and tone-deaf authoritarian leaders won't recognize things are going wrong until it is too late. (That can happen in democracies too, by the way, as the Bush administration's sorry experience in Iraq shows all too well).
Turkey under the AKP is a very long way from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, of course, but the lessons of Scott's book are still useful. Democracy is a messy form of government, and as the current state of American and British politics shows, it has its own forms of gridlock and dysfunction. But healthy democracies do tend to be self-correcting (as the 2008 presidential election showed), and so are less likely to drive themselves completely off a cliff. Does anyone know if Seeing Like a State is available in Turkish?
It's Commencement Day here at Harvard, and we are sending the Class of 2013 out into the world with congratulations, good wishes, and high hopes. My graduate students here at the Kennedy School are a remarkable group, and I look forward to watching them make their way in the complex and often troubling world of foreign policymaking.
At such times I tend to think about how we might have educated them better, and I want to draw an analogy to an interesting op-ed by Jacob Hamblin in today's New York Times. Hamblin's subject is biodiversity, and he traces the origins of our present concern for it to some rather chilling Cold War strategic planning. Specifically, war planners investigating ways to destroy enemy ecosystems gained new appreciation for the dangers of environments that were ecologically one-dimensional (such as vast farmlands sown with a single crop). In particular, loss of diversity leaves whole areas vulnerable to a single pathogen or event that wipes out the dominant species.
I would argue that the same is true of "intellectual ecosystems" as well. When academic disciplines become overly concentrated on one set of questions, one set of theoretical answers, one set of methods, or one body of data, what might seem at first glance to be a powerful engine of scholarly progress can be a source of danger as well. Having everyone working in more or less the same way can generate lots of publications and citations and even help knowledge advance in this particular area, but "normal science" of this sort also means that alternative approaches, questions, methods, or theories get short shrift. The danger is that scholars wake up one day and discover that the reigning method du jour has fatal limitations, or it turns out that some neglected skills (e.g., foreign languages, cultures, etc.) suddenly become very valuable.
In the IR field, for example, contemporary graduate training increasingly involves mastering an enormous arsenal of methodological skills, most of them statistical in nature. Because there are only 24 hours in a day and only five to six years in most Ph.D. programs, most students won't have the time to learn foreign languages, read broadly in history, do more than cursory field research on rather narrow topics, or even acquire a sophisticated understanding of social theory. There are important benefits to this type of training -- though perhaps fewer than is often alleged -- but privileging this particular set of skills comes with a cost as well. If today's graduate students increasingly resemble each other -- varying only in their raw talents or determination -- then we are in effect creating an intellectual monoculture that might leave us badly prepared for new developments. To take an obvious example: After the 9/11 attacks, wouldn't it have been nice to have had a few more people in academia who really understood Islam, the Middle East, the nature of terrorist movements, or even Arabic? Similarly, having a few more people who understood how financial markets and regulations really worked (as opposed to how they worked in theory) might have come in handy both before and after the Great Meltdown.
Of course, the combination of tenure and the abolition of mandatory retirement in the United States compounds this dilemma. Scholars rise to the top of their fields based mostly on their early work, which is bound to reflect the research norms and standards that prevailed at the time. Most academics try to grow and develop over time, and a few exhibit dramatic shifts in their thinking, but for the most part they tend to like scholars whose own work resembles their own. So they hire and promote people who are more or less like them, further diminishing the degree of intellectual diversity within the field.
I don't have an obvious antidote to this tendency. But one of the nice things about teaching at a public policy school is the presence of numerous disciplines within the same faculty (even if economists tend to dominate, or at least they often try to). In addition to being more interesting, such schools may be better equipped to handle new developments in the real world than most academic departments are. And because public policy schools are explicitly supposed to prepare students for careers in the real world (as opposed to the ivory tower), they are more likely to welcome practitioners, public intellectuals, and scholars who don't fit into neat categories. The result is a much richer intellectual environment and one that ought to be more adaptable over time.
If this theory is right, then public policy schools (and other explicitly inter- and multidisciplinary enterprises) should have an especially bright future -- not because they are necessarily better at any one thing, but because they will be less vulnerable to fads, changes of fashion, or shifts in the agenda of relevant problems. Like a diverse investment portfolio or a diverse ecosystem, building a diverse intellectual environment is the smart long-term strategy.
So to the graduates of the Class of 2013, I say: "Congratulations! Your degree is valuable today and is likely to be even more valuable in the future." At least I hope so, for their sake as well as my own.
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In academic research, "rigor" is an especially cherished quality. If you want to praise a scholar's work, you talk about how "rigorous" it is. If you want to dis someone's scholarship politely, you might sniff and say, "Well, it's interesting, but it's not very rigorous."
But what we mean by "rigor" isn't always clear, and the way it is implemented in practice may even be counterproductive. Many academics tend to define "rigor" in narrow technical terms: 1) Did the researcher employ the most advanced methodological practices, 2) did he or she consider and debunk alternative explanations convincingly, 3) was the data-collection procedure especially careful, 4) did he or she examine all the relevant archives or only a few, 5) was the statistical model properly "identified"? Etc., etc. These criteria can be applied to both quantitative and qualitative research, by the way: In this sense, "rigor" is conceived as a measure of technical proficiency, designed to give us confidence that the claims being advanced are in fact valid.
The gold standard for "rigorous" research is publication in a "peer-reviewed" academic journal. By subjecting papers to anonymous peer review, academic fields supposedly weed out less "rigorous" works and publish only the best research. Different scholarly journals acquire reputations over time, and publishing in "top" journals is seen as the primary measure of a scholar's worth. University presses follow similar procedures when deciding which monographs to publish, and they too develop reputations of various sorts. Notice, however, that this is all inherently subjective: A journal or a publisher is regarded as prestigious if scholars in the field believe it is.
There's a lot to be said for this basic approach, which has generated a lot of progress in some fields. I've spent a lot of my own career writing articles for refereed journals, reviewing manuscripts for them, or co-editing a book series for a university press, so I'm hardly hostile to this way of doing business. But if we're really honest with ourselves, academics ought to acknowledge that the system is far from perfect and even encourages some counterproductive tendencies.
For starters, peer review doesn't guarantee that false results don't get published; academic journals are filled with articles that are subsequently shown to have contained significant errors. That's inevitable in the research enterprise, of course, but it is a reminder that peer review alone is not a guarantee of quality. And it certainly doesn't guarantee that a particular work of scholarship will be useful or important, because most published academic articles are read by very few people and essentially disappear without a trace.
Second, peer review isn't a mechanical process that automatically winnows the good from the bad. In my experience, journal editors play key independent roles in the evaluation process, and their autonomy can have a huge impact on which works actually get published. Editors don't have to blindly follow reviewers' advice if they think a particular manuscript has potential that the reviewers didn't see, and they can nurture a piece that they think makes a contribution. In this way, editors with a particular vision can guide journals in one direction or another. By the same token, lazy or narrow-minded editors can harm a journal (or a subfield) either by mindlessly following reviewers' advice or by relying too much on an intellectually narrow set of reviewers.
Third, peer review is probably overvalued because reviewers' comments are often less than helpful and rarely decisive. By the time most articles are submitted for publication, they've usually been presented at academic seminars and have gone through multiple drafts in response to suggestions from the authors' friends and colleagues. I've occasionally gotten useful suggestions from an anonymous reviewer's report, but I'd say that more than half the comments I've received over the years were of no value at all and I simply ignored them. Indeed, a dirty little secret is that a lot of "peer reviews" are no more than a couple of cursory paragraphs along with a recommendation to publish, reject, or revise and resubmit. If that's the reality of the review process, then why do we fetishize publication in "peer-reviewed" journals as much as we do? In other words, knowing that something got published in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, International Organization, or International Security doesn't tell you very much about its real value. You have to read it for yourself to make a firm judgment.
Fourth, fetishizing refereed journals (and their supposed rankings) encourages universities to make personnel decisions on the basis of supposedly "objective" indicators such as citation counts, number of "peer-reviewed" articles, and the like. These measures can be useful when used with caution, but they are at best an indirect measure of a scholar's real contribution. A high citation count may simply indicate that one is working in a faddish subfield and doing "normal science" that other scholars find acceptable but not necessarily pathbreaking. It may also be a sign that you've written something that got a lot of attention even though (or because) it was dead wrong. Again, the danger is that departments and university administrators will judge research output not by actually reading the work and making an informed assessment, but by looking at these various indirect indicators.
Fifth, this notion of rigor that is imbedded in these practices may actually make it easier for incorrect or trivial scholarship to survive. If the desire to be seen as "rigorous" leads scholars to produce works that are difficult to understand (either because they use lots of rarified techniques, specialized data, obscure historical sources, or arcane and confusing language), then it is going to be harder for anyone reading the work to evaluate their claims.
By contrast, a scholarly argument that is simple, straightforward, and fairly easy to grasp is inherently easier to evaluate. Accordingly, scholarship that is accessible -- i.e., that is easily read and understood -- will face a larger audience of potential critics than a piece of scholarship that can only be understood by a small, rarified group of readers, many of whom may share a lot of the presuppositions of the study's author(s).
In short, publications whose clarity widens the circle of potential challengers can actually contribute to scholarly advancement, because the larger the audience that can understand and evaluate an argument, the likelier it is that errors will be exposed and corrected and the better the argument will have to be to win or retain approval. By contrast, a dubious argument that is presented in an opaque or impenetrable way may survive simply because potential critics cannot figure out what the argument is or because it is too time-consuming and difficult to try to replicate the published results. As mathematician Melvyn Nathanson observes, "The more elementary the proof, the easier it is to check and the more reliable is its verification."
Please note: I am not suggesting that academia discard peer review and discourage scholars from publishing in prestigious journals. Rather, I'm suggesting that the social sciences would be more useful and more rigorous if members of these disciplines adopted a less hidebound approach to the merits of different types of publication. "Should it really be the case," Bruce Jentleson correctly asks, "that a book with a major university press and an article or two in [a refereed journal] ... can almost seal the deal on tenure, but books with even major commercial houses count so much less and articles in journals such as Foreign Affairs often count little if at all?"
Instead of privileging one sort of publication over others, based on a narrow notion of "rigor," we ought to recognize that different types of scholarly writing reach different audiences and are exposed to different forms of outside scrutiny. In most cases, an article published in a prominent economics, history, or political science journal will be read by relatively few people, one or two of whom may then take issue with the work and challenge its findings. By contrast, if that same author presented the results in an article or report intended for a broader audience, so that it was read by a much larger number of informed citizens and by well-informed practitioners in the real world, then this larger population of readers might be quick either to hail its contribution or to identify obvious mistakes. This capacity may be even more pronounced in the Internet age, which allows readers on every continent to challenge an author's claims -- assuming, of course, that they are not published in obscure venues or written in ways that make it harder for all but a few people to understand them.
Finally, fetishizing "peer review" is a good way to ensure that fewer and fewer people pay attention to what academics have to say about important world issues. This is especially true in fields like IR and public policy, whose main social value lies in what we (supposedly) can contribute to public and elite understanding of a complex world. But if universities only reward the things that scholars write solely for each other, we will be encouraging a narrow professionalism and contributing to the cult of irrelevance that rules many academic departments. And over time, we shouldn't be surprised if the outside world places less and less value on what we have to say and eventually decides to invest society's finite resources in other activities.
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Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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I learned this morning that Kenneth N. Waltz, who was arguably the preeminent theorist of international relations of the postwar period, had passed away at the age of 88. Ken was the author of several enduring classics of the field, including Man, the State, and War (1959), Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics (1967), and Theory of International Politics (1979). His 1980 Adelphi Paper on nuclear proliferation ("The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better"), was also a classic, albeit a controversial one. One of his lesser achievements was chairing my dissertation committee, and he was a source of inspiration throughout my career.
I've written a tribute to Waltz's scholarship before, in the preface to a festschrift for Ken edited by Andrew Hanami. But today I want to celebrate his role as a teacher, based on some remarks I made at the 2010 meeting of the International Studies Association, where Waltz received an award for lifetime achievement. With a few edits, here's what I said back then:
Ken Waltz is widely recognized as one of the preeminent IR scholars of the postwar period, but he was also responsible for training an impressive number of graduate students, including Barry Posen, Stephen Van Evera, Bob Powell, Avery Goldstein, Christopher Layne, Benny Miller, Karen Adams, Shibley Telhami, Jim Fearon, William Rose, Robert Gallucci, Andrew Hanami, and many others. I want to say a few words about what it was like to have him as a teacher and advisor, and why I think he was so effective at it.
First, Ken was trained in political theory and renowned as a theorist of international relations, but he was deeply interested in real-world issues and his example showed us how theory could be used to illuminate crucial policy issues. In addition to his own theoretical work, Ken wrote about Vietnam, nuclear strategy, economic interdependence and globalization, nuclear proliferation, the U.S. defense budget, and even the Rapid Deployment Force. For those of us who were interested in international security affairs, his model was wonderfully liberating. Ken showed that you could be a theorist and a social scientist without joining the "cult of irrelevance" that afflicts so much of academia.
Indeed, Ken's work on these topics underscored why theory is so important. Having lots of facts at one's disposal didn't help if you were thinking about those facts in the wrong way. In a world where most people think theory and practice have little in common, Ken was teaching us that they were inextricably intertwined. That's why he got a lot of things right that others got wrong. He was right about Vietnam, right about which side was winning the Cold War, right about the basic principles of nuclear deterrence, and right about the continued relevance of politics, even in the era of economic "globalization." A little theory can go a long way, and his case, it led in the right direction.
Second, Ken encouraged his students to ask big questions, largely by the force of his own example. Man, the State, and War organizes and critiques several centuries of writing on the causes of war. Theory of International Politics presents a powerful general theory explaining the behavior of self-regarding actors in anarchy. His essay on proliferation attacks the conventional wisdom with ruthless logic, just as his earlier essays on interdependence showed where liberal theories had gone off-course and why power was still central. Ken encouraged us to tackle puzzles whose answers were not immediately available and to be fearless about challenging entrenched orthodoxies.
Third, and perhaps most important, Ken held the bar high and encouraged his students to have equally high standards. The first time I laid eyes on Ken was the orientation meeting for new grad students at Berkeley in 1977. Ken was director of graduate studies that year and had to give the welcoming speech. I don't remember most of what he said, except that he emphasized that grad school took too damn long and that we should all plan on finishing in four years ... or at most five. His message was simple: "Get your coursework done, write your MA paper, pass your qualifying exams ... then write the thesis ... four years! Why wait?" The average at Berkeley in those days was more like seven or eight years, so he was raising the bar from the very start.
I also remember my first day in Poli Sci 223, his graduate seminar in IR theory. I was already convinced that everyone else in the room knew more than I did, and Ken began by setting out his basic ideas about the field and about theory. At one point he made some critical remarks about two professors I had studied with as an undergraduate -- nothing overly disparaging, just some critical comments on their conception of theory -- which immediately made me think that not only did I know less than every one else in the room, everything I had learned up till then was wrong. The real lesson, however, was that grad school was not about learning what other people thought, it was about learning to think for yourself. And Ken gave us the freedom to do that. He never tried to force his students to agree with his views or to write books and articles designed to reinforce his own work or burnish his own reputation.
Fourth, Ken placed great value on writing well. His students are a diverse group -- and certainly none of them are clones of Waltz himself -- but all of them are very clear writers, regardless of which methods or approaches they use. Ken used to tell us to read Fowler's Modern English Usage and Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and he'd give little mini-lectures on his linguisic pet peeves in the middle of a seminar. In Waltz's view, a scholar's first duty is to make it easy for the reader to figure out what you were saying. If the reader is confused, that's probably your fault.
This leads me to my most important encounter with him, which occurred as I was nearing the end of my dissertation. Writing a dissertation for Ken Waltz was intimidating from the start -- remember, his dissertation was Man, the State, and War -- and if you'd read that book and then read Theory of International Politics you knew you were dealing with someone with a razor-sharp ability to cut through a bloated argument and find the jugular. After two years of work I sent Ken the main analytical chapters of my thesis, and all I had left -- or so I thought -- was a short conclusion. Thinking I was nearly done, I accepted a post-doc for the following year.
And then I got a letter back from Ken, giving his comments on the chapters I had sent him earlier that month. His letter began by declaring that he had read the first twenty-five pages with "increasing dismay." "They are terrible," he wrote, and then went on: "Ask yourself why this is so. Were you trying to write too fast, or did you just not know what you were trying to say?" He continued in this vein for a few more paragraphs, making it clear that what I had sent was -- to quote the letter again -- "nowhere near ready to be an acceptable dissertation." His bracing conclusion: "You have to face this squarely, and you are the only one who can fix these problems. So enjoy a busy summer." By the way, there was little P.S. at the end, telling me that he thought it would be an excellent thesis once I had worked out the kinks.
I was basically curled up in a ball under my desk by the time I was finished reading this missive, and it was too early in the day to go for a stiff drink. I didn't enjoy the experience very much at the time, and you might think he was being harsh or even cruel. In fact, Ken had done me an enormous service. He was telling me that there were no short-cuts if I wanted to make a serious scholarly contribution and reminding me that hasty or poorly thought-out work deserved to be treated harshly.
Looking back, I'm grateful that he didn't spare my feelings, and there's a lesson there for all of us. Professors aren't really helping our students when we go easy on them, and students should in fact be grateful when their advisors occasionally take them to the woodshed.
So apart from his extraordinary scholarly achievements, Ken Waltz was also an inspiring and accomplished teacher. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him, and the study of international politics is much the richer for his remarkable contributions.
Addendum: All I would add to this today is the reminder of Waltz's deep aversion to foolish military excesses. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was a realist rather than a pacifist. But like Hans Morgenthau, he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and deeply skeptical of the paranoid threat-inflation that has informed so much of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Like many other realists, he also opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The field of international relations would be better off with more people like Ken, and the world would be better off if more great powers -- especially the United States -- paid more attention to his insights.
Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.
Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.
What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.
On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."
There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.
In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.
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Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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I'll be flying to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, and I'm looking forward to our panel on "Powers in History and Contemporary World Politics." The general theme of the papers on this panel is how status quo or declining powers can deal with rising or revisionist powers, and each seeks to identify circumstances that can make shifting power relations easier or harder to manage. Hmmm ... I wonder if this topic is of any contemporary relevance?
Among other things, this also means that blogging will be sparse to non-existent for the next few days. I leave it to the People in Charge to keep matters with North Korea, Pakistan, Mali, Cyprus, Iran, etc. etc., under control until next week. You wouldn't want to have a big international crisis while all the IR scholars are busy with all of this, would you?
I didn't realize this at first, but what Barack Obama was really doing in the Middle East last week was setting up a test of competing IR theories.
As we've come to expect, the centerpiece of Obama's trip was a beautifully crafted speech to a select group of Israeli students. It's really what he does best: offer a cloud of rhetoric designed to seduce, cajole, and convince. Remember back in 2009, when he gave great speeches in Istanbul, Prague, Cairo, and Oslo, and then failed to follow through on any of them? Having been reelected, it's back to the 2009 playbook.
This time around, he went to great lengths to convey his deep affection and regard for Israel and his commitment to Zionism. He told Israelis that the U.S.-Israel relationship was "eternal" (a pledge no mortal can actually make), and offered up the usual bromides about keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. A lot of that stuff was just pandering to the Israel lobby, but he played his part effectively, and the Israeli reaction has been quite positive.
Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their "right to self-determination and justice" and invited his Israeli listeners "to look at the world through their eyes." He also told them "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer" and said "Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." He reiterated his call for direct negotiations -- though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements -- and he called upon his youthful audience to "create the change that you want to see."
But that's all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an "Obama plan." In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of "two states for two peoples" that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.
And therein lies the test of competing theories. There is a broad school of thought in international relations -- often labeled "social constructivism" -- which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states. In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible.
It is this view of the world that President Obama was channeling during his trip. By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them -- through logic and reason -- to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."
Discourse does matter in some circumstances, of course, and perhaps Obama's words will prompt some deep soul-searching within the Israeli political establishment. But there is another broad family of IR theories -- the realist family -- and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don't really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly. From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.
For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel's creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama's eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.
Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won't take long before Obama's visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama's successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility. What will he or she say then?
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Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.
This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined "coercive diplomacy" as the use of military force or military threats "to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it." The book examined three cases of this approach -- the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam -- and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.
I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you're curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I'd go back and look at George's eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:
1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It's clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran's nuclear enrichment program doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it's not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a "breakout" capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn't entirely clear, despite the tough talk we've heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let's be conservative and score this in the plus column.
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can't be blackmailed, because they don't want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case.
3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you'd probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical "weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a "finite time limit" for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent "red line" (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he's cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren't the same as Obama's in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran's nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let's be conservative here too and say that it is.
5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don't object to our squeezing Iran, don't mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that's the rub: There's hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn't pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.
In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the "strong form" of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the "try-and-see" approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That's why you haven't seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.
Bottom line: There's "adequate" support here, but barely.
6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won't work if there aren't genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I'd score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran's nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has "usable options." But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have "usable" options, but they're aren't especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.
7. Opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called "compellence") works primarily by playing on the target's fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.
One might argue that Iran's infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement -- made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran's leaders know we aren't going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can't bring down their regime. I'm sure they don't want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the "minus" side.
8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don't know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an "agreement" that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.
This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven't had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don't have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran's negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama's hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can't be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won't be a deal.
So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George's conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran's interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
I had planned to write about something else today, but instead I want to acknowledge the recent passing of Glenn Snyder, an important international relations theorist. I didn't know him well -- indeed, I think we met on only one occasion -- but I read a lot of his work over the years and admired both his intellectual ambition and the clarity of his thinking.
Snyder's scholarly career spanned more than four decades and he made contributions in several areas. He was a co-author of Strategy, Politics and Defense Budgets (1962) an important account of U.S. national security policymaking in the 1950s, contributing a lengthy study of Eisenhower's "New Look" in nuclear strategy. His 1961 book Deterrence or Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security was an early refinement of classical deterrence theory and one of the first applications of game theory to international affairs. In the 1970s, he and co-author Paul Diesing published Conflict among Nations: Bargaining, Decisionmaking and System Structure in International Crises, an ambitious attempt to integrate structural realism, game theory, and theories of decision-making to understand crisis outcomes. I pored over this book in graduate school and learned an enormous amount from Snyder's careful analysis; I must have read chapter 6 of that book ("Crises and International Systems") dozens of times. His 1984 World Politics article "The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics" was another classic, and especially his elaboration of the reciprocal risks of "abandonment" versus "entrapment" (concepts first proposed by Michael Mandelbaum). This last line of work culminated in his magisterial book Alliance Politics, which combined careful deductive analysis with a series of deeply research case studies.
Snyder was primarily a theorist, although he was also clearly comfortable doing careful qualitative/historical research. And, like John Herz, he strikes me as someone who deserved a higher reputation in the field than he had. I think this may be due to the nature of his later work: Instead of picking a single big idea and promoting it incessantly, both Conflict among Nations and Alliance Politics contained a lot of different ideas and came at their subjects from several angles at once. This comprehensive approach had a great deal of scholarly integrity to it, but it also made his works harder to pigeonhole. They were also too long to put on most graduate course syllabi, which meant that over time fewer graduate students were exposed to his work.
In this way, the practical sociology of the IR business may have cost Snyder some recognition. Nonetheless, he was the author of not one but several classic books and articles, works that still reward a careful reading today. How many IR scholars can say the same?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.