It's not as though the world came to a halt while the Egyptian drama was keeping us glued to our laptops, and at least one interesting development is worth watching closely for a number of reasons. You all know that the EU has been facing a major crisis over the past several years, triggered by deep economic problems in Greece, and to a slightly lesser extent in Spain and Portugal. These troubles forced the eurozone countries to authorize a major financial rescue package last year and led some observers to question whether the euro itself might be at risk.
Over the past few months, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been negotiating a joint proposal for deepening economic coordination within the EU (and especially the eurozone) in an attempt to solve some of the problems that produced the crisis in the first place. (The basic issue is that the eurozone countries share a currency, but do not have fully integrated tax systems, labor markets, or fiscal systems, thereby making it much harder for them to adjust when one economy gets into trouble).
Not only does this question have obvious implications for politics and economics in Europe itself, but it also raises some fundamental questions about IR theory and might even be a revealing test of "realist" vs. "liberal" perspectives on international relations more generally. Realists, most notably Sebastian Rosato of Notre Dame, have been bearish about the EU and the euro since the financial crisis, arguing that European member states were more likely to pursue their individual national interests and to begin to step back from some of the integrative measures that the EU had adopted in recent years.
By contrast, institutionalists, and EU-philes more generally, have suggested that the only way forward was to deepen political integration within Europe. The basic idea here is that economic integration is central to European economic health and one of the keys to continued amity within Europe. Equally important, any attempt to leave the eurozone or to dismantle the euro itself would cause an immediate collapse of the currency (and plunge several European states into even deeper crisis). In this view, there's no going back; Europe can only plunge ahead toward closer integration.
As you'd expect, I've tended to be among the bears, in part because I don't think greater "policy coordination" between the member states can eliminate occasional fiscal crises and because I think nationalism remains a powerful social force in Europe. European publics won't be willing to keep bailing out insolvent members of the eurozone, and the integrative measures that have been proposed won't be sufficient to eliminate the need. The original Merkel-Sarkozy proposals got a pretty hostile reception when they were rolled out, and Merkel's hopes of pushing them through probably declined when her designated choice to head the European Central Bank (Axel Weber) withdrew from consideration. So it remains to be seen how much of their program will actually get adopted.
But the EU has surprised doomsayers before, and I can't quite convince myself that a collapse of the eurozone is inevitable. So what we have here is a nice test of two rival paradigms, and students of international politics should pay close attention to how this all plays out. But remember: Like all social science theories, no general theory of international politics or foreign policy is right 100 percent of the time. Accordingly, the future evolution of the EU/eurozone won't provide a decisive test that will validate one approach completely and render the other view totally irrelevant and obsolete. Proponents of each perspective will probably try to claim total victory if events turn their way, but that's not really the way that social science operates.
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I'm in New York today, to appear at a symposium at the Open Society Institute. We'll be discussing Evgeny Morozov's new book Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and I'm looking forward to hearing how Evgeny and the other panelists view the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. If you're so inclined, you can watch a live-stream of the event here.
I won't be blogging from the road on this (short) trip, but I would also call your attention to Thanassis Cambanis's piece on the case for a more restrained U.S. grand strategy that appeared in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe. Most of his attention is on the recent writings of Barry Posen, John Mearsheimer, and Andrew Bacevich (deservedly so), though he does drop in a brief reference to yours truly. My only question is: Why does he think I'm "ornery"? Acerbic, maybe; judgmental, perhaps; but "ornery"? :-)
Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself -- I've been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it's still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all be somewhat humble about our ability to forecast where things are headed, or what the future implications might be.
That caveat notwithstanding, I want to offer a realist interpretation of what these events mean for the United States, along with the basic prescription that follows from that analysis. And though it may surprise some of you, I think realism dictates that the United States encourage Mubarak to leave, and openly endorse the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.
Realists are often caricatured as being uninterested in democracy or human rights, and concerned solely with the distribution of power and a narrowly defined national interest. It is true that realists tend to see calculations about power as the most important factor shaping international politics, and they often see sharp tradeoffs between strategic interests and moral preferences. Yet domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one's allies.
To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don't have to worry about their allies' internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.
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I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
Like most residents of New England, I've spent the past day digging out from a major snowstorm. Unlike most of my neighbors, I've also spent many hours grading the take-home final from my course. It occurred to me that some of you might like to know what we asked our students, and what some of them had to say about it.
The exam was in two parts, and the first part consisted of the following hypothetical question:
Q1: "Due to an unexpected movement of tectonic plates, the United States and China have switched geographic locations. The United States is now located in East Asia; sharing borders with Russia, North Korea, India, Mongolia, Vietnam, etc., and is much closer to Japan, while China is now located in North America, in-between Canada and Mexico. Assume that all other features of the two societies are unchanged (i.e., each state faces this new situation with the same populations they have today, along with the same natural resource endowments, military capabilities, economic systems, political institutions, etc.).
The question: how would this development affect contemporary international relations? Your answer should draw upon the theoretical material covered in this course (e.g., realism, liberalism, constructivism, etc.) but feel free to add your own ideas as well."
Students were given 1250 words (5-6 pages) to address this question, and most of them did pretty well with it. The question is obviously designed to get them to think through what different theories tell you about how geography would affect relations between states. For instance: would US relations with India and Japan deteriorate if the US were located nearby, or would shared democratic values dampen potential rivalries? Would China try to establish regional hegemony in the Western hemisphere, and would states like Canada, Mexico or Brazil try to contain it? Or would they "bandwagon" with China as they have done with the United States? Would the United States have to curtail its global ambitions in order to deal with security problems closer to home -- such as Pakistan, North Korea, Burma, or Russia -- or would it feel compelled to use force against a threatening neighbor like North Korea? There's no single "right answer" to this sort of question; what I'm looking for is a clear, logically consistent, and well-argued set of predictions.
Not surprisingly, many of the papers argued that switching places would be a tremendous benefit to China. In particular, students clearly recognized that the United States enjoys some enormous geographic advantages. In addition to being wealthier and more powerful than any of the other major powers, the United States is protected by two enormous oceanic moats and has no great powers in its immediate neighborhood. Moving from East Asia to the Western hemisphere would put China in this same favorable position, and place the United States in a much more problematic location in East Asia.
But what was really interesting was an implication that some (though hardly all) students drew from this line of argument. A number of them argued that China would be so secure in the Western hemisphere that it could focus even more attention on economic development, and not worry very much about military or security developments elsewhere. It would want to defend its own territory, and it would worry about securing energy supplies from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, and elsewhere, but otherwise it would be sitting pretty and could remain aloof from lots of other security issues. The United States, by contrast, would be facing all sorts of challenges over in Asia and would have to try to deal with all of them.
An obvious question, therefore, is: why doesn't this same logic apply to the United States today? Instead of devoting trillions of dollars to transforming the Middle East, trying to bring Afghanistan into the 20th century (or is it the 19th?) and generally interfering all over the world, the United States could almost certainly do a lot less on the world stage and devote some of those resources to balancing budgets and fixing things here at home. It's called nation-building, but we'd be building our nation and our future, not somebody else's.
What some of our students have intuitively grasped (and not because we told them), is that there is in fact a very powerful case for a much more limited U.S. military posture overseas. Indeed, given the existence of nuclear weapons, there is even a cogent case to be made for something approaching isolationism, as laid out by people like the late Eric Nordlinger, by the CATO Institute's Chris Preble, or the team of Gholz, Press, and Sapolsky. I don't go quite that far myself (i.e., I'm an offshore balancer, not an isolationist), but I recognize that there is a serious case for the latter position. And because this view does have a certain appeal, the current foreign-policy establishment has to do a lot of threat-mongering and engage in a lot of ideological oversell in order to get Americans to keep paying for foreign wars and sending their sons and daughters out to garrison the globe. It also helps to portray anybody who advocates doing less as some sort of idealistic pacifist or naive appeaser.
But this debate is beginning to open up. When states and local governments are facing bankruptcy, when military adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan yield not victory but at best only prolonged and costly draws, and when there is in fact no ideologically motivated great power adversary out there trying to "bury us," then continuing to try to manage the whole goddamn planet isn't just foolish, it's unconscionable. It will probably take another decade for this reality to work its way through our hidebound national-security establishment, but the winds of change are already apparent. And not a moment too soon.
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While I've been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I'd be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn't take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.
The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America's recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former's blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power. Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America's core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I'm not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.
I've been in Kuwait since Monday morning, attending a conference celebrating a ten-year collaboration between Harvard and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science. In addition to giving a talk on the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East, I've been listening to various Harvard colleagues give talks on the situation in Iraq, public health in the Gulf region, urban planning in Kuwait, educational development, the future of global energy markets, Kuwaiti politics, and the prospects for democracy in the Arab world. There's an obvious irony here: I flew halfway around the world for the opportunity to find out what my colleagues have been up to.
Despite a sandstorm that made fogbound London seem transparent, it's been an interesting trip. It coincided with an interesting kerfuffle within Kuwaiti politics, revolving around parliamentary opposition criticisms of the current prime minister, the removal of parliamentary immunity for at least one MP, and various charges and counter-charges from the opposition and the government itself. I don't pretend to be an expert on Kuwait's domestic politics, so I won't try to provide a full analysis of the situation. But as others have documented at length, Kuwait's political system is an unusual fusion of a traditional monarchy with various participatory institutions, including a parliament that on certain issues and on some occasions exerts real influence. It is also a traditional Arab society where women occupy increasingly prominent roles, belying the usual stereotypes.
The Kuwaitis with whom I've spoken have been well-informed, eager to discuss a variety of issues, and quite open to talking about just about any subject. I haven't done a random survey and for all I know the views I heard were atypical, but several themes from my conversations were particularly striking.
First, America may be unpopular in much of the Arab and Islamic world, but not in Kuwait. The United States is very popular here, for two obvious reasons. First, we liberated the country from Saddam Hussein in 1991, and then we got rid of Saddam for good in 2003. People can't say enough good things about the elder President Bush, and I even think that Dubya would get reasonably high marks here. Kuwaitis are not happy with how the occupation of Iraq was handled (who is?), and they remain worried about political developments in Iraq, but on the whole, the United States is regarded with favor and even affection here. At least that's the clear impression I got, and I don't think my associates here were just being polite or trying to snow me.
Second, despite what I just said, the Israel-Palestine issue resonates here much as it does elsewhere. As one Kuwaiti official explained to me, it's not due to any deep affinity for the Palestinians themselves -- most of whom were expelled from Kuwait after Yasser Arafat foolishly backed Saddam in the Gulf War -- but rather reflects both a broader Arab concern about what they regard as unjust Western interference in the Arab world and a realistic sense of how that issue fuels extremism and gives states like Iran an issue they can exploit. Everyone I spoke with emphasized the importance of the issue, with no prompting from me.
Third, although Iran was and is a concern, it's not a particularly pressing one. They aren't naive about Iran, and one official expressed support for the current sanctions regime and said he thought it was having a significant impact. In short, I heard nothing from Kuwaitis that would have raised any eyebrows, even if it had appeared on Wikileaks.
Given Kuwait's history and location, in fact, Iraq continues to be a more looming worry. As one Kuwaiti remarked at one of our sessions, the central problem is that Iraq is a large country with long borders and it needs to be militarily strong in order to protect itself. Unfortunately, a strong Iraq is inevitably a potential threat to Kuwait, which is right next door and far smaller. History reminds them of how unpleasant it can be to share a border with a much stronger neighbor. They would like to think that Iraq will stabilize and establish tranquil relations with Kuwait, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.
Let me repeat that these deep and profound insights are based on a relatively small number of conversations; you should regard them as my impressions and not much more than that. But I did find them interesting, and all in all, the trip has been worth the various aggravations that I discussed in my last post.
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I flying to a conference in Kuwait this weekend, and won't be back until the end of the week. Blogging will be relatively light, therefore, but I will try to get online if and when I can. It's a long flight and I'm taking my Kindle, and will be reading Bruce Cumings's new book on the Korean War and Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands. You know: just the sort of cheerful reading that makes somebody a realist.
For years a number of political scientists have been complaining about the propensity for scholars to study topics that are of little real-world value or of interest only to a handful of fellow scholars. We've come to call this the "cult of irrelevance." At the same time, many academics cloud their analyses in obscure jargon or a fog of methodological "sophistication," and rarely bother to offer up translations for the busy policy-maker. To make matters worse, although academics defend the institution of tenure fiercely, most of them do not use the protection it affords to pursue topics that might be politically controversial.
These unfortunate tendencies are not universal, however, and a number of us have tried to address the broader issue in various ways. You can read about the general subject here, here, here, or here. In that spirit, I'm also happy to pass on the news that a group of political scientists have organized a week-long summer institute designed to tackle the problem head-on. Under the guidance of Bruce Jentleson of Duke, Steve Weber of UC-Berkeley, and James Goldgeier of George Washington, a new International Summer Policy Institute will "deliver an intensive curriculum designed to teach participants how to develop and articulate their research for a policy audience, what policymakers are looking for when they look to IR scholarship, whom to target when sharing research, and which tools and avenues of dissemination are appropriate." The Institute is part of a larger effort to "bridge the gap" between academia and policy, and you can find out more about its activities here.
Needless to say, I think this is a worthy enterprise. Together with efforts like the Tobin Project, it may encourage more academics to focus their research efforts on policy-relevant topics and teach them how to communicate their results in ways that policymakers will find more accessible. The point here, by the way, is not to "dumb down" scholarship or to imitate the plethora of partisan think tanks now located inside the Beltway. Academic scholars should be independent researchers first and foremost, and seekers of truth above all. But the topics that they choose to address can be chosen to illuminate important policy issues more directly, and devoting some time to figuring out how to communicate their results more broadly would surely be a good thing.
What is also needed is a change in academic practice, including the criteria that are used to make key hiring and promotion decisions. The standards by which we assess scholarly value are not divinely ordained or established by natural law; they are in fact "socially constructed" by the discipline itself. In other words, we collectively decide what sorts of work to valorize and what sorts of achievement to reward. If university departments placed greater weight on teaching, on contributions to applied public policy, on public outreach, and on a more diverse range of publishing venues -- including journals of opinion, trade publishers and maybe even blogs--then individual scholars would quickly adapt to these new incentives and we would attract a somewhat different group of scholars over time. If university departments routinely stopped the "tenure clock" for younger academics who wanted to do a year of public service, that would enable them to gain valuable real-world experience without short-changing their long-term academic futures. It would also send the message that academia shouldn't cut itself off from the real world. And it probably wouldn't hurt if deans, department chairs, and university presidents welcomed controversy, encouraged intellectual diversity, and defended the slaying of sacred cows. As I've said before, academics really shouldn't count it a great achievement when students have no interest in their classes, and when people outside the ivory tower have no interest in what we have to say.
Americans like to think the United States is different (i.e., "better") than other countries. The idea that the United States is "exceptional," a "shining city on a hill," or destined by Providence to play a special role in world history, is a popular theme among politicians and widely embraced by ordinary U.S. citizens. As Karen Tumulty pointed out in an interesting Washington Post piece last week, the idea of "American exceptionalism" has also become yet another stick that conservatives are using to beat up President Obama, because he supposedly doesn't think we're all that unique. (In fact, like most politicians, Obama has praised America's "exceptional" qualities throughout his career).
Every country has certain unique features and interests, of course, but the idea that any state is truly "exceptional" is sharply at odds with a realist view of international politics. Realism depicts international politics as an anarchic realm, where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other. As a result, states must ultimately rely on their own resources and strategies to survive. It is, in other words, a "self-help" world, and this situation forces all states -- and especially the major powers -- to compete with each other, sometimes ruthlessly. Although realists acknowledge that domestic politics sometimes matters and that there are important differences between different great powers (and different leaders), the most important difference between states is their relative power.
This view obviously over-simplifies a lot, but it also helps us guard against seeing any state as either uniquely virtuous or immune to folly. Because it is a competitive world, even highly principled leaders will end up doing some pretty unprincipled things when they can get away with it, and even cruel despots may be forced to constrain their evil impulses if they are confronted by resolute opposition. In a competitive order, nice people sometimes have to act nasty, and nasty people are sometimes forced to behave better than one might otherwise expect.
This world-view helps insulate realists from the sort of myopic hyperpatriotism that leads others to see their own conduct as moral and justified, yet to see others as evil or aggressive when they do exactly the same thing. To take an obvious example: realists don't think it is all that surprising that Iran might be interested in a nuclear capability, and don't immediately assume that its enrichment program is a sign that Tehran has evil intentions. After all, the United States is vastly wealthier, far more secure, and has a much larger conventional military force than Iran does, yet U.S. leaders still think they need several thousand nuclear weapons in order to be truly safe. Yet we don't think we're evil or aggressive by spending billions on a large nuclear arsenal; we're just being prudent.
This perspective also makes realists inherently skeptical about claims to American exceptionalism: we understand that U.S. leaders aren't always nicer or wiser or more moral than other policymakers. Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, drone strikes, preventive war, etc., may all be regrettable, but realists don't find them surprising, because we know that states will do lots of bad things when they are a) really scared, and b) think they can get away with it.
The real difference between the United States and virtually all other countries is that the United States has been unusually secure for much of its history, and very powerful for six decades or more. Realist theory tells you that when a state is really powerful, it will be less constrained by the power of others and it will be able to indulge all sorts of foreign policy whims. It can decide that it has "vital" interests on every continent; it can declare itself to be "indispensable" to almost every important issue, and it can convince itself that it really knows what is good for everyone else in the world. If you're wrong, it may not matter that much in the short term. If you are really powerful, in short, you can do a lot of stupid things for a long time. Even when those blunders are costly, the damage will add up slowly and demands for reform may be ignored. Look at how long it took General Motors to finally go bankrupt: it was obvious for decades that foreign automakers were eating GM's lunch, yet its management never took the steps that might have keep it competitive.
None of this is to say that the United States doesn't have certain unique and admirable traits. On balance, I'd argue that its role on the world stage has been positive one, and other governments (or leaders) might have acted in far worse ways had they been in a similar position of primacy. But realism is a good antidote to the jingoistic self-congratulation that pervades our political discourse, as well as the powerful tendency to see our own conduct as highly principled, while condemning others when they act in much the same way. Of course, that's not unique to Americans either.
My colleague and friend (and brother-in-law) Christopher Stone sent me an email over the weekend, and I thought I should share it with you. His message read as follows:
I was reading EM Forster's Two Cheers for Democracy on the plane out to LA yesterday, and I came across an extraordinary little essay that seems to me to point to important elements of our politics today.
The essay is called "Post-Munich," and it is a reflection, written in 1939, on the curious political psychology that gripped England after Chamberlain made his deal with Hitler. He describes the country as in a strange double-state: still deeply fearful, and yet simultaneously distractible by the routines of life promised through the deal. Here is what Forster writes:
'This state of being half-frightened and half-thinking about something else at the same time is the state of many English people today. It is worth examining, partly because it is interesting, partly because, like all mixed states, it can be improved by thought.'
Forster goes on to describe why it is so hard to break free and face what needs to be done:
'We are urged. . . to face facts, and we ought to. But we can only face them by being double-faced. The facts lie in opposite directions, and no exhortation will group them into a single field. No slogan works. All is lost if the totalitarians destroy us. But all is equally lost if we have nothing left to lose.'
'Sensitive people are having a particularly humiliating time just now. Looking at the international scene, they see, with a clearness denied to politicians, that if Fascism wins we are done for, and that we must become Fascist to win. There seems no escape from this hideous dilemma and those who face it most honestly often go jumpy.'
Back to Chris:
If you just substitute terrorists for totalitarians and terrorism for fascism, you have a pretty good picture of our politics today. But here's the important question this raises in my mind:
Why, I ask myself, does the United States today seem like England after Munich? The Taliban are not Hitler. I think it is because we have indulged this same appeasement, but with ourselves. We are on both sides of the bargain: we are the world's threatening tyrant, and we are the world's best hope for freedom. And rather than fight out that battle, we have decided we can have it both ways. We have walked up to the fundamental choice that we face about our role in the world, and we have made a Munich pact with ourselves instead of choosing liberty and democracy for all. The point here is that it is as unstable and unholy a pact as Munich. It will come undone, and it should come undone. But then the real choice and the real peril will confront us."
My reaction: I reproduced his email because I think Chris is on to something (just as Forster was back in 1939). Americans think we ought to be managing the whole world, but we shouldn't have to pay taxes or sacrifice our way of life in order to do it. We use our military machine to kill literally tens of thousands of Muslims in different countries, and then we are surprised when a handful of them get mad and try (usually not every effectively) to hit us back. But then we docilely submit to all sorts of degrading and costly procedures at airports, because we demand to be protected from threats whose origins we've been refusing to talk about honestly for years. We are constantly warned about grave dangers, secret plots, impending confrontations, slow-motion crises, etc., and we are told that these often hypothetical scenarios justify compromising liberties here at home and engaging in practices (torture, targeted assassinations, preventive missile strikes at suspected terrorists, etc.) that we would roundly condemn if anyone else did them. We think it is an outrage when North Korea shells a South Korean island and kills four people, (correct), yet it is just "business as usual" when one of our drones hits some innocent civilians in Pakistan or Yemen. We have disdain for our politics and our politicians, but instead of questioning the institutions and practices that fuel this dysfunction, we indulge in fairy tales about so-called leaders who will somehow lead us out of the darkness.
If I am reading Chris right, the lesson here is that the United States cannot be a republic and an empire, because the latter inevitably ends up corrupting the former. This is the central point raised by the late Chalmers Johnson (who passed away last week), by Andrew Bacevich, and by a number of other thoughtful people. It is an issue that gets raised in various corners of the blogosphere, but hardly ever in the mainstream press and certainly not at most of the think tanks and talk shops inside the Beltway, most of whom are devoted custodians of energetic international activism. And until that debate starts happening in a serious way, we will continue to stumble about, simultaneously bearing the weight of the world and being afraid of our own shadow.
In anticipation of the upcoming Lisbon summit, my IR course at the Kennedy School held a mock "Oxford-style" debate on NATO's future yesterday, and the results were sufficiently interesting that I thought I'd share them with you.
The resolution was "Resolved: This House Believes NATO Should be Disbanded." We assigned a team of students to take the pro and con, and then allowed the rest of the class break into small groups to discuss what they had heard from each team. Each small group then offered its own views on the subject, followed by a general discussion.
The class voted on the resolution both before and after the presentations and discussion. If you're a big NATO fan, the good news is that only one student (out of approximately forty) voted in favor of the resolution to dissolve NATO before the discussion, and nobody supported it afterwards. So based on this admittedly non-random sample, I'd say NATO is in very good shape, at least when it comes to public support. (NB: my class is quite diverse, and has students from all over the world).
By the way, this result is not due to the superior performance of the team that argued against the resolution; both teams did a good job of presenting the various pros and cons. Nor was I shilling for NATO as I led the discussion; if anything, I was trying to get them to see the idea of dissolution as a serious option. Yet it was clear that the class was strongly disposed to favor NATO's continued existence even before the discussion began, and that view strengthened the more they talked and listened.
I'd attribute this result to several rather obvious factors:
First, NATO has been around for sixty years, and has acquired a nearly iconic status among students and practitioners of foreign policy. Institutionalists often emphasize the "sticky" nature of well-established organizations, and NATO has been such a familiar part of the international landscape that hardly anyone feels comfortable supporting a resolution calling for its dissolution.
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2. Harvard students showed that they have clearer ethical vision than Harvard's leaders.
3. The Obama administration's loss is Just World Books' gain. (Translation: Ambassador Chas Freeman has written a book: America's Misadventures in the Middle East.) Buy it and read it and you'll be really annoyed that he was witch-hunted out of public service.
4. The Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence was short-listed for the Sakharov Prize and right-wingers go bananas. The award eventually went to a prominent Cuban dissident, but anything that drives the WSJ op-ed page crazy is probably a good thing. See the Magnes Zionist here.
5. Britain's defense cuts confirm my view of NATO's future. Like Dorian Gray, the alliance is slowly fading into irrelevance while trying to keep up appearances. No matter how many new "strategic concepts" get written and how many nice meals they serve at the next ministerial meeting, the high-water mark of transatlantic security cooperation is behind us.
6. NYT columnist Tom Friedman had a moment of clarity.
7. NYT reporter Ethan Bronner did too! There are even hints that a few people in the Obama administration may be aware of just how badly they have screwed this one up. I'm not really smiling at this one, of course, but it is gratifying when occasional flashes of insight emerge from the cloud of propaganda and prevarication that normally surrounds this topic.
9. I finished my first Barry Eisler novel, and rejoiced in the fact that there is a whole bunch more that I haven't read it. Combined with the new John Le Carre book, my addiction to espionage fiction will be sated for awhile.
One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It's a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware.
In brief, the book tells the story of the U.S. effort to subdue the Comanche, the most powerful Native American tribe on the Great Plains. It was a bloody and fascinating struggle, in part because the Comanche proved so hard for the far more numerous and technologically superior Anglos to defeat. If you grew up with a John Ford/John Wayne/Randolph Scott view of the Old West, this book will be something of a revelation. And the saga of Quanah Parker himself, a Comanche war chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped in 1836 at the age of nine, and "rescued" many years later (when her son Quanah was twelve years old), is itself a heart-rending tale of cultural conflict and personal tragedy.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn't help but read it with the current war in Afghanistan in mind. In both cases, a numerically superior, wealthier, and more technologically advanced United States confronts a tribal adversary fighting on its home ground. And in both cases, the U.S. government faces an adversary that is cunning, ruthless, and by our standards even backward or barbaric.
But as my late colleague Ernest May used to warn, when you make a historical analogy, it is a good idea to make a list of the ways the two situations differ, instead of just invoking the similarities. So lest you think that the ultimate victory of the U.S. government over the Comanche heralds a similar victory over the Taliban, consider the following differences between the two situations.
First, in the war against the Comanche, total victory was a vital interest for the United States. As the American republic expanded across North America, the United States was hardly going to allow an independent and hostile tribe of semi-nomadic natives to control a large swath of the territory that Americans believed was theirs by virtue of "Manifest Destiny." I am not defending this policy on the grounds of fairness or justice, by the way; just stating an obvious fact. By contrast, Afghanistan is thousands of miles from the U.S. homeland, and what happens there ultimately matters much more to the Afghans than it does to us. All Afghans know that sooner or later the United States and its allies are going to go home, but that was obviously not the case for the European settlers who had created the United States and were now pushing rapidly across the continent.
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Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a breakfast meeting with Tzipi Livni, former Israeli foreign minister and current head of the opposition Kadima Party, along with a group of Boston-area faculty, journalists, and other interested parties. The session was off-the-record, so I can't tell you what any of the participants said. I can report that Livni was well-informed, articulate, direct, and engaging, and it was easy to see why she's done well in political life.
I had a faculty meeting to attend and was unable to stay for the full session, so I didn't get a chance to ask her a question. I had scribbled one down in my notebook, however, and here's what I would have asked:
"I would like to know where you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is headed. I don't mean where you want the conflict to go or what resolution you think is most desirable, but rather what outcome you think is most likely given where we are today and what the prevailing trends are.
At present, most people say they want a "two-state solution." Barack Obama wants that, and so did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Tony Blair, Mahmoud Abbas, Ehud Olmert, and you do too. So do I. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has endorsed that idea at least once.
Yet if current trends continue, a two-state solution will eventually be impossible and we will all have to acknowledge that reality. Indeed, a growing number of people are convinced that this is already the case, either because Israel's political system is too dysfunctional to change course, because the Palestinians are too divided to make a deal, or because there are too many settlers to remove.
Former Prime Minister Olmert has warned that if the two-state solution fails, then Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state is imperiled. I think he's right, and what I can't understand is why more Israelis -- and their supporters in other countries -- aren't deeply worried about this situation, and aren't doing everything in their power to get a two-state deal done before it is too late.
So my question is: where is this conflict headed, and what should be done today to avoid the one-state future that many now see as inevitable?"
Like I said, I didn't get to ask this question so I don't know how she would have responded. But it still strikes me as the central issue, and one that overshadows the current haggling over a two-month extension of the (partial) settlement freeze, or whatever Iran may or may not be up to at the moment.
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Assuming China continues to grow economically (which seems like a fairly safe bet), how will this trend affect strategic alignments in Asia? I've posted on this topic before (see here), but I've been thinking about it again in light of some recent developments and after reading some recent scholarship on the topic.
Structural realism gives a straightforward answer to the question: As China becomes more powerful, other Asian states will move to balance it by devoting more of their own wealth to national security and by forging closer security ties with each other and with powerful external actors like the United States.
This is essentially a pure "balance-of power" explanation, but as some of you probably know, I think that is not the best way to explain why alliances form. In the near-to-medium term, the extent to which Asian states balance against China will depend not just on Chinese power, but on the level of threat that these states perceive. The level of threat, in turn will be affected not just by China's aggregate capabilities (i.e., its GDP, defense spending, etc.) but also by 1) Geography, 2) Offensive military capabilities, and 3) Its perceived intentions.
To be more specific, states that are closer to China are likely to be more worried than states that lie some distance away. In particular, states that border directly on China -- such as Vietnam -- have to fear China's rising power more than states who are separated by water (such as Indonesia) because it is inherently more difficult to project power over oceans. (Taiwan is something of a special case, given the tangled history of cross-strait relations and its relative proximity).
Furthermore, the level of threat that China poses will depend in part of how it chooses to mobilize its growing economic might. If it builds military capabilities that are primarily designed to defend its own territory, China's neighbors will feel less threatened and be less inclined to balance against it. By contrast, if China develops the power projection capabilities that are typical of most great powers (i.e., large naval and air forces, long-range missiles, amphibious capabilities, etc.), then others in the region will worry about what those capabilities might be used for and they will be more likely to join forces with each other (and the United States) to protect their own interests and autonomy.
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It is perhaps not surprising that Ruth Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, has written a piece in the Wall Street Journal defending -- you guessed it -- Martin Peretz. She is entitled to her views about her benefactor, of course, but her piece also contains a blatant misrepresentation of my own work, one that she has made before. Indeed, her statement is so at odds with what John Mearsheimer and I actually wrote that it makes me think that Ms. Wisse did not bother to read our book before passing judgment on it.
Specifically, she writes:
The first at Harvard to exploit the Peretz case was Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government, who co-authored a book, "The Israel Lobby," which argues that a conspiracy skews American policy in the Middle East in favor of Israel" (emphasis added).
This statement is demonstrably false, as the following quotations from our book will show (emphasis added in each case):
In short, Wisse has accused us of saying the exact opposite of what we actually wrote, even though we said it numerous times and in several different ways. I might add that my co-author and I reiterated these points in virtually every public presentation that we have made about our book, and nowhere have we even hinted that the lobby is a conspiracy or a cabal, simply because it is not.
Given the obvious contradiction between what Wisse says we wrote and what we actually wrote, one wonders what is going on here. It seems to me that there are two possibilities. She either has not read the book and does not know what we wrote, or she has in fact read the book but has deliberately chosen to misrepresent its contents.
I don't know which of these explanations is correct, but neither reflects well on Ms. Wisse's scholarly integrity. She is obviously welcome to disagree with our arguments, but she is not entitled to make up her own facts.
Back on Sept. 16, I gave a lecture at Cornell University's Einaudi Center for International Studies. The title was "Doomed to Fail: The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama," and in it I elaborated a number of themes that I've also addressed in several blog posts, including this one and this one. The audience was attentive, the questions were excellent, and I especially enjoyed my conversations with Cornell students afterward.
One member of the audience took issue with my central theme during the Q and A, and offered a perceptive alternative analysis. He argued that I hadn't given Obama sufficient credit for staving off an even deeper collapse of the U.S. and world economy, and he reminded me and the audience that Obama inherited an economy in free-fall. Back then, a lot of people were genuinely worried that we were headed toward a 1930s-style global depression. We seem to have avoided that fate -- knock wood-at least so far.
The questioner also pointed out (correctly) that a further melt-down would have caused great human misery and had poisonous effects on politics at home and abroad, fueling even more xenophobia, conspiracy theorizing, and nativism than we have already seen. And if that had happened, then the failures that I had focused on in my talk (Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Iran, China, etc.) would have seemed like minor problems by comparison.
On the whole, I thought he made a very good point. Although I had begun my talk by describing the mess the Obama inherited -- including the economic downturn -- I hadn't given him enough credit for the economic measures undertaken at the very outset of the administration. Critics may be right that he should have done more to rein in Wall Street, pushed for a bigger and less pork-driven stimulus, etc., but the fact remains that we didn't tumble totally into the abyss, and we've already forgotten how worried everyone was back then.
The problem Obama faces, alas, is that you don't get much political credit for preventing non-events. He'd be blamed if the 2008-09 depression had gotten worse, but he gets no applause for preventing any number of Very-Bad-Things-That-Might-Have-Occurred-But-Didn't. In addition to the Even-Greater Depression of 2009, other non-events include the 2009 Israeli attack on Iran, the Venezuelan-Colombian border war of 2010, and al Qaeda's successful attack on Yankee Stadium last week. I could go on but presumably you get the point: we're not very good at giving our leaders credit for the bad things that don't happen on their watch. And to be fair, that goes for Obama's predecessor too.
I've been perfectly happy to criticize Obama & Co. when I thought they were making mistakes, but my critic's question reminded me that we ought to give them credit where's it due. Hence this post.
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I won't be posting anything today, because I'll be speaking at a conference at the Palestine Center in Washington. The topic is "Blogging Israel-Palestine," and my fellow panelists are Jerome Slater of SUNY-Buffalo, Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss, and M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. The event goes from 11 to 2:15 EDT, and I'm told you can watch it here.
I hadn't intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard's current leadership. But seriously: You'd think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the principles of academic freedom and free speech really mean -- and also what they don't mean. But judging from the official university response to the furor, the people I work for appear to be somewhat confused about these issues.
To recap: A couple of weeks ago, Peretz made some offensive and racist statements about Muslims on his blog. Specifically, he wrote that "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims," and then went on to say that he didn't think American Muslims deserved the protections of the First Amendment, because he suspected they would only abuse them.
These statements were not an isolated incident or just a lamentably poor choice of words. On the contrary, they were the latest in a long series of statements displaying hatred and contempt for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities. Peretz retracted part of his latest remarks after they were exposed and challenged by Nicholas Kristof (Harvard '82) in his column in the New York Times, but in his "apology," Peretz nonetheless reaffirmed his belief that "Muslim life is cheap." Indeed, he declared that "this is a statement of fact, not value."
A number of people then began to question whether it was appropriate for Harvard to establish an undergraduate research fund in Peretz's name and to give him a prominent role in the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of its storied Social Studies program. A University spokesman defended the decision to accept the money for the research fund and to have Peretz speak at a luncheon by saying:
As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so. It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views."
In a masterful display of understatement, the Atlantic's James Fallows (Harvard '70) termed this response "not one of the university's better efforts." As he (and others) pointed out, nobody was questioning Peretz's right to write or say whatever he wants. For that matter, nobody has even questioned whether Harvard ought to give him a platform to expound his views on this or any other subject. (For my own part, if the Kennedy School invited him to speak on any subject he chose, I wouldn't object.
As should be obvious, this issue isn't a question of free speech or academic freedom. Rather, the issue is whether it is appropriate or desirable for a great university to honor someone who has repeatedly uttered or written despicable words about a community of people numbering in the hundreds of millions. And isn't it obvious that if Peretz had said something similar about African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, or gays, the outcry would have been loud, fierce, and relentless and some of his current defenders would have distanced themselves from him with alacrity.
And let's also not lose sight of the double standards at work here. After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology. By contrast, Peretz makes offensive remarks over many years, reaffirms some of them when challenged, and gets a luncheon in his honor and his name on a research fund at Harvard.
And why? Because Peretz has a lot of wealthy and well-connected friends. Bear in mind that in 2003 Harvard suspended and eventually returned a $2.5 million dollar gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after it learned that he was connected to a think tank that had sponsored talks featuring anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. As the Harvard Crimson said at the time, "no donation is worth indebting the university to practitioners of hate and bigotry." So the University clearly has some standards, it just doesn't apply them consistently.
For more on this unequivocally depressing business, you can read:
2. James Fallows' summary of recent developments.
3. A powerful statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, examining Peretz's achievements as an editor and questioning his liberal bona fides.
4. A comment by Alan Gilbert of the University of Denver, a former tutor in the same Social Studies program.
5. And while you're at it, you might read the Boston Globe's editorial whitewashing Peretz, and compare it with their reaction to the Helen Thomas affair.
And no, this isn't just a matter of Ivy League academic politics, unrelated to issues of foreign policy. As everyone knows, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world are especially delicate these days. You can read this or this to understand why, but it certainly doesn't help when one of the nation's premier academic institutions decides to honor someone with such deplorable views, even after they have been widely exposed. This is obviously not the main reason why the America's image in the Arab and Muslim world is so negative, but it surely adds fuel to the fires of bigotry.
To take this matter a step further, Islamophobia is on the rise here in the United States. Efforts to combat this pernicious and dangerous trend would be furthered if institutions like Harvard took a principled stand on this issue, and declined to honor anyone who has made bigoted remarks about Muslims (or any other group). This has not happened with Peretz, and history will not treat Harvard well for its behavior in this case.
Update: As I write this, I've received a couple of emails suggesting that Peretz was not going to be speaking at the Social Studies event after all. I don't know if that's true or not, but to me the issue is less about his being one of the speakers, and more about having his name permanently attached to an undergraduate research fund.
Update 2: James Fallows reports on the reported resolution of the dispute (i.e., Peretz won't have a speaking role at the event), and suggests that Harvard could address the controversy by creating a scholarship fund for students of Muslim background.
I had dinner a couple of weeks ago with a group of Harvard colleagues (and a visiting speaker), and we got into an interesting discussion about America's future as a world power. Nobody at the table questioned whether the United States was going to remain a very powerful and influential state for many years/decades to come. Instead, the main issues were whether it would retain its current position of primacy, whether China might one day supplant it as the dominant global power, and whether U.S. standards of living would be significantly compromised in the future.
One participant (a distinguished economist), was especially bullish. He argued that the United States enjoyed a considerable demographic advantage over Europe, Russia, and Japan, largely due a higher birth rate and greater openness to immigration. These societies will be shrinking and getting much older on average, while the United States will continue to grow for some time to come. He also argued that the United States remained far more entrepreneurial than most other societies, and a better incubator of technological innovation. Despite our current difficulties, therefore, he was optimistic about the longer-term prospects for the U.S. economy and for America's position as a global power.
But then came the crucial caveat. After reciting this long list of American advantages, my colleague remarked: "of course, our political system could screw it all up." And everyone around the table nodded in agreement.
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Writing in yesterday's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called attention to a recent blog post by New Republic editor Martin Peretz. Here's what Peretz had to say about American Muslims, in the context of the current debate over the Park 51 project and the rising tide of Islamophobia here in the United States:
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
As Kristof rightly observes: "Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews?" And as Salon's Glenn Greenwald shows here, Peretz' bigotry was not a careless choice of words or an isolated incident. On the contrary, he has a long history of similarly racist or bigoted remarks about Arabs, Muslims, and especially Palestinians.
Here's where it gets interesting. As M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America reported last week, on September 25th Peretz is due to be honored by a group of long-time friends -- including a number of Harvard faculty -- who have raised funds to endow an undergraduate research fund in his name. (The event is apparently tied to the 50th anniversary of Harvard's social studies program, where Peretz used to teach).
Does Harvard University really want to have an undergraduate research fund named after someone who would espouse such hateful views? Would all those people who contributed money and who will presumably show up for the event have done so if Peretz made a similarly grotesque statement about blacks or Catholics?
Please note that this isn't an issue of academic freedom or free speech, as nobody is questioning Peretz's right to say whatever hateful things he wants. But at a moment in our nation's history when religious tolerance is being openly challenged, one would hope that premier academic institutions would be setting a positive example. It will be a sad day for Harvard if it turns a blind eye to Peretz' reprehensible attitudes and pockets the money. And in the absence of a heartfelt public apology by Peretz himself, you'd think all those admirers would be having second thoughts.
Update: No doubt stung by the publicity, Peretz has now issued an apology here. He says he doesn't actually believe the sentence he wrote about American Muslims being ineligible for Constitutional protections, but repeats his belief that "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." Readers can judge for themselves how "heartfelt" this apology is.
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When great powers intervene in minor countries, sometimes they win quick and fairly decisive victories. (Think U.S. in Grenada). When this happens, the only short-term problem is where to hold the victory parade and how many medals to give out. But when a war of choice goes badly, then national leaders have to decide either to cut their losses and get out or to "stay the course." If the opponent is an insatiable great power like the Third Reich, there may be little choice in the matter. But if the enemy is an insurgency in a relatively weak and unimportant state, and the challenge is nation-building in a society that you don't understand very well, it's a much trickier decision.
As we've seen in Iraq and are seeing again in Afghanistan, getting out of a quagmire is a whole lot harder than getting into one. Indeed, I'd argue that this is a general tendency in most wars of choice: they usually last longer than the people who launch them expect, and they usually cost a lot more. I'm hardly the first person to notice this phenomenon, which does make you wonder why it keeps happening.
In any case, now that we are (supposedly) leaving Iraq, here are my Top Ten Reasons why wars of choice last too long, and why it's so hard for politicians to wake up, smell the coffee, and just get out.
1. Political leaders get trapped by their own beliefs. All human beings tend to interpret new information in light of their pre-existing beliefs, and therefore tend to revise strongly-held views more slowly than they should. Having made the difficult decision to go to war (or to escalate a war that is already under way) it will be hard for any leader to rethink the merits of that decision, even if lots of information piles up suggesting that it was a blunder.
2. Information in war is often ambiguous. Another reason wars of choice last too long is that the case for cutting one's losses is rarely crystal-clear. Even if there is lots of evidence that the war is going badly, there are bound to be some positive signs too. Remember all those "benchmarks" the Bush administration developed for measuring progress in Iraq? If you have enough of them, you can always find a few items on the list where things are looking better. When the evidence is mixed (as it usually is), leaders are even less likely to rethink their beliefs that the war is worth fighting.
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Earlier this summer I mentioned that I was reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and I promised to sum up the insights that I had gleaned from it. The book is well-worth reading -- if not quite on a par with his earlier Guns, Germs, and Steel -- and you'll learn an enormous amount about a diverse set of past societies and the range of scientific knowledge (geology, botany, forensic archaeology, etc.) that is enabling us to understand why they prospered and/or declined.
The core of the book is a series of detailed case studies of societies that collapsed and disappeared because they were unable to adapt to demanding and/or deteriorating environmental, economic, or political conditions. He examines the fate of the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi of the Pacific Southwest, the Norse colonies in Western Greenland (among others), and contrasts them with other societies (e.g., the New Guinea highlanders) who managed to develop enduring modes of life in demanding circumstances. He also considers modern phenomenon such as the Rwandan genocide and China and Australia's environmental problems in light of these earlier examples.
I read the book because I am working on a project exploring why states (and groups and individuals) often find it difficult to "cut their losses" and abandon policies that are clearly not working. This topic is a subset of the larger (and to me, endlessly fascinating) question of why smart and well-educated people can nonetheless make disastrous (and with hindsight, obviously boneheaded) decisions. Diamond's work is also potentially relevant to the perennial debate on American decline: Is it occurring, is it inevitable, and how should we respond?
So what lessons does Diamond draw from his case studies, and what insights might we glean for the conduct of foreign policy? Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I finished the book.
First, he argues that sometimes societies fail to anticipate an emerging problem because they lack adequate knowledge or prior experience with the phenomenon at hand. Primitive societies may not have recognized the danger of soil depletion, for example, because they lacked an adequate understanding of basic soil chemistry. A society may also fail to spot trouble if the main problem it is facing recurs only infrequently, because the knowledge of how to detect or deal with the problem may have been forgotten. As he emphasizes, this is especially problematic for primitive societies that lack written records, but historical amnesia can also occur even in highly literate societies like our own.
By analogy, one could argue that some recent failures in U.S. foreign policy were of this sort. Hardly anybody anticipated that U.S. support for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan would eventually lead to the formation of virulent anti-American terrorist groups, in part because the U.S. leaders didn't know very much about that part of the world and because public discourse about U.S. policy in the Middle East is filled with gaping holes. Similarly, the people who led us into Iraq in 2003 were remarkably ignorant about the history and basic character of Iraqi society (as well as the actual nature of Saddam's regime). To make matters worse, the U.S. military had forgotten many of the lessons of Vietnam and had to try to relearn them all over again, with only partial success.
Second, societies may fail to detect a growing problem if their leaders are too far removed from the source of the trouble. Diamond refers to this as the problem of "distant managers," and it may explain why U.S. policymakers often make decisions that seem foolish in hindsight. As I've noted here before, one problem facing U.S. foreign policymakers is the sheer number and scope of the problems they are trying to address, which inevitably forces them to rely on reports from distant subordinates and to address issues that they cannot be expected to understand very well. Barack Obama doesn't get to spend the next few years learning Pashto and immersing himself in the details of Afghan history and culture; instead, he has to make decisions based on what he is being told by people on the ground (who may or may not know more than he does). Unfortunately, the latter have obvious reasons to tell an upbeat story, if only to make their own efforts look good. If things are going badly, therefore, the people at the top back in Washington may be the last to know.
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If you're looking for another realistic counter to the official optimism about Afghanistan, check out Christopher Layne's op-ed from two days ago in the Chicago Tribune. In a handful of sharp, short paragraphs, Layne reminds us that 1) the "surge" in Iraq (the approach now being adapted to Afghanistan) didn't work, 2) the current emphasis on counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare misdiagnoses the origins of our troubles in the Middle East and Central Asia, and 3) our current fascination with COIN "sets exactly the wrong strategic priorities for the United States."
Smart piece. It will take some time before this view become the conventional wisdom, but I'm still betting that it will. Unfortunately, it will be many billions of dollars and thousands of lives too late.
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As my vacation comes to an end, I want to thank Columbia's Jack Snyder and Georgetown's David Edelstein for their thoughtful guest posts. Last week David had an excellent entry on the war-aversion of most contemporary realists and I wanted to offer a brief reaction. I've always found it odd that many academics see realism as a hawkish view of world politics and think that realists are big fans of using military power, even though most contemporary realists -- with a few exceptions like Henry Kissinger -- have generally been prudent about the use of force and skeptical about most overseas military adventures. As Edelstein points out, realists like Waltz, Morgenthau, and Kennan were opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam -- on strategic rather than moral grounds -- and younger realists (including me) opposed the Iraq War in 2003, were ambivalent about our intervention in Balkans or Africa in the 1990s, and think attacking Iran would be major strategic blunder today.
Edelstein's discussion of this issue is excellent and I don't have any major disagreements with his post, but I would add a few additional points.
To start with a minor correction: the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 is not the only post-Cold War military operation that realists supported. As I recall, most realists also supported Desert Storm, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Moreover, it was two realists -- John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Barry Posen of MIT -- who offered the most optimistic (and as it turned out, accurate) pre-war forecasts of how easy that war was likely to be. (By contrast, both doves and a surprising number of hawks seemed to think ousting Saddam from Kuwait was going to be very difficult).
As one might expect, realists supported Desert Storm for good balance-of-power reasons. If Saddam's Iraq had absorbed Kuwait permanently, its GDP would have increased by about 40 percent and it could have translated that additional wealth into additional military power. Although Saddam's military machine was never very impressive by U.S. standards, a somewhat stronger Iraq might have posed a more serious long-term threat to the regional balance in the Gulf and presented a more serious threat to Saudi Arabia in particular. Given that the United States has always sought to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, it made good strategic sense to expel Iraq from Kuwait and to degrade its military power in the process. Most of the rest of the world agreed, by the way, which is why they helped us do it and why that operation did not tarnish our national image.
It was also the right decision not to go to Baghdad back then, because toppling Saddam in 1991 would have dragged us into precisely the same quagmire we have been dealing with since we foolishly invaded in 2003.
The other reason why contemporary realists have been skeptical about many recent military adventures is essentially structural. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position. Realists care primarily (thought not exclusively) about the balance of material power, and there just isn't a lot of additional power out there to be won via military action. Instead, the main arenas of American military activity have been conflict-ridden backwaters of little or no strategic importance. They are hard to get to, difficult-to-impossible to pacify, and don't have a lot of economic potential or military power of their own. Getting bogged down in places like Iraq or Afghanistan just strengthens jihadi narratives about America's alleged antipathy to Islam, and as with Vietnam, it ultimately won't matter very much whether we win or lose. On simple cost-benefit grounds, therefore, realists don't think these wars are worth the effort.
In short, because realists understand that military power is a crude instrument and that governing alien societies is a costly business, they have argued against such foolishness. Instead, the main advocates of military involvement have been a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationationalists, driven by a a variety of agendas and infused with a remarkable degree of hubris. The results -- first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan -- have not been pretty.
Realists have lost these debates, however, for somewhat similar structural reasons. When a state is as big and powerful as the United States is, it is hard for its leaders to believe that they can't do the impossible in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. And when you are geographically distant from the places you are meddling, it's hard to believe that it will have any serious consequences back here at home (9/11 notwithstanding). Also, as I've noted before, the Cold War got the United States in the habit of going everywhere and doing everything, and led to the emergence of a large set of domestic institutions whose cumulative impact is to to keep the United States engaged in as many places as possible.
So long as there are no great power rivals out there, it is hard to argue that attacking some country we have taken a disliking too (whether for valid or bogus reasons) is going to be costly or difficult. Even worse, there will always be various propagandists and clever briefers out there to explain why this time the intended target is really dangerous and this time the war really will pay for itself, and this time failure to act will have catastrophic consequences, and oh yes, this time other states really want us to do it, etc., etc., etc. And no matter how many times the hawks have been wrong in the past, plenty of people will take them seriously. For an 800-lb gorilla like the USA, amnesia seems to be a congenital condition.
One last point. Contrary to what some critics think, realists don't want a weaker America. But they do understand that a robust economy is the foundation of all national power and that wasting money or lives on foolish foreign adventures, excessive military spending, or a large, secretive, redundant, and dysfunctional "intelligence" apparatus does not make the country stronger or more secure.
As the realist Kenneth Waltz put it back in the early 1980s, "more is not better if less is enough." Those wise words apply to the entire national security establishment, and to the costly misadventures that civilians have been asking it to do in recent years. So in addition to the reasons that Professor Edelstein emphasized, that's why realists have been wary of using force in recent years.
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My nominee for the "most callous statement recently uttered by a prominent U.S. diplomat" goes to George Shultz, who was interviewed by New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon a couple of weeks ago. Solomon asked Shultz a few questions about his role "stumping for the war" and serving as chairman of the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq." Shultz reveals that the committee never actually met and that he didn't even know who all the members were, which seems like a pretty cavalier approach to a major foreign policy decision. Solomon asks him if he has any regrets about the invasion (he doesn't, though he wishes it had gone quicker). And then, after some not-very insightful questions about whether the Bechtel Corporation (which Shultz used to head) made money from the war, there is the following exchange:
Solomon: 'It's been seven years since we invaded Iraq, and there is so much sorrow in the world. I don't see things getting a lot better.'
Shultz: 'You ought to come out to California. We have problems out here; but the sun is shining, and it's pleasant here on the Stanford campus.'
I grew up about 4 miles from Stanford and did my undergraduate studies there. Shultz is absolutely right: It's a very pleasant place, and I'm sure it's even nicer when you're a multi-millionaire. But to dismiss the death and destruction that the United States wreaked on Iraq -- as well as all the other suffering that occurs elsewhere in the world -- with a blithe reference to California sunshine strikes me as emblematic of the indifference that underpins a lot of American meddling around the world. So long as the sun is shining where we are, we don't care all that much about what our foreign policy decisions are doing to other people. And then we get surprised and irate when some people in some far-flung part of the world resent what we are doing, and when a few of them try to do what they can to pay us back.
The United States continues to interfere in lots of places around the world in part because most Americans -- and especially privileged individuals like Mr. Shultz -- are immune from the immediate consequences of these actions. We borrow the money to pay for foreign wars, and we rely on sacrifices by an all-volunteer force. We fail to see the connection between our heavy-handed diplomacy and penchant for using force and the persistent anti-Americanism that occurs in the places where we've interfered most often. And when you're the 800-lb gorilla in the international system, you can allow your foreign policy to be swayed by well-connected "letterhead" committees that never actually meet and whose funders and motives remain hidden. Great power allows states to behave irresponsibly, in short, because others suffer the consequences and future generations get stuck with the bill.
What's most striking about Shultz's offhand comment is that it came from someone with a long record of public service and generally sensible views on a lot of foreign policy issues. He was hardly a "chicken-hawk," having served in the Marines in World War II, and his tenure as secretary of state helped rescue the Reagan administration from some of its worse excesses and internal divisions. But for men (and women) like him, the world is a stage on which to operate, and the consequences for others are just "collateral damage."
Needless to say, statements like that are why I tend to look at the world through a realist lens. However much we may deplore it, most leaders worry primarily about their own positions and their own country's narrow self-interest, and they don't spend much time or attention thinking about whether what we are doing is good for others. There isn't a lot of altruism in the conduct of foreign policy, even though great powers always tell themselves that their motives are pure and that they are really acting for the greater good. It would be nice if things were different, but that ain't the world we live in.
I've been thinking about U.S. grand strategy again, and pondering some big questions that ought to be central to the debate on America's global role. Some of these big questions are researchable, others are by their very nature more speculative. How you answer some of them also depends on the theories you think are most powerful or applicable (i.e., realist theory suggests one set of answers, liberal approaches offer a different set, etc.), and the answers your get should have profound implications for what you think U.S. grand strategy ought to be.
So here are Five Big Questions about contemporary world politics.
1. Where is the EU project headed? The construction of the European Union was a major innovation in global politics, but new doubts have arisen about its long-term future. Pessimists such as Notre Dame's Sebastian Rosato believe the highwater mark of European unity has already been passed, while optimists like Princeton's Andrew Moravcsik think that Europe's current difficulties are likely to encourage further steps towards integration. The answer matters, because the re-emergence of genuine power politics within Europe could force the United States to devote more attention to a continent that some argue is "primed for peace" and no longer of much strategic concern.
2. If China's power continues to rise, how easy will it be to get Asian states to balance against it? Balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) theory predicts that weaker states will try to limit the influence of rising powers by forming defensive alliances against them. China's rise is already provoking alarm in many of its neighbors, who look first to the United States and possibly to each other for assistance. But how strong will this tendency to balance be? If China gets really powerful, and the United States disengages entirely, some of China's neighbors might be tempted to bandwagon with Beijing, thereby facilitating the emergence of a Chinese "sphere of influence" in Asia. But if China's neighbors get support from each other and from the United States, then they'll probably prefer to balance.
But here's the question: Just how much support does the United States have to provide, given that this issue ought to matter more to the Asian states than it does to us? If you think balancing is the dominant tendency (as I do), then the United States can pass a lot of the burden to Japan, India, Vietnam, etc. It can "free-ride" to some degree on them, instead of the other way around. But if you think these states will be reluctant to balance, then the United States might have to do a lot of the heavy lifting itself.
To make matters more complicated still, both the United States and its Asian allies may be tempted to do some bluffing with each other, to try to get their allies to pay a larger share of the burden. Asian states will quietly threaten to realign or go neutral if they don't get more backing from the United States, and U.S. leaders may drop hints about disengagement if they don't get what they want from the allies they are helping protect. And this means figuring out just how large and iron-clad the U.S. commitment needs to be in order to sustain a future balancing coalition is a tricky business, and there will be lots of room for disagreement.
I'm back from my mini-break and digging out emails and correspondence, so I don't have an extended commentary today.
One piece in my mailbox did catch my eye, however, from the June 2010 issue of Perspectives on Politics. For those of you who aren't political scientists, PoP is a relatively new journal, founded eight years ago by the American Political Science Association. It was created in part in response to a bottom-up protest movement within the discipline known as the "Perestroika" movement ("Perestroika" was the pseudonym of the anonymous list-server who got it started). Although primarily motivated by a desire to defend methodological pluralism, one of the movement's related concerns was the "cult of irrelevance" within academic political science. In my judgment PoP has, been a partial corrective to that tendency, and it often features articles that engage big political issues from an academic perspective.
In any case, the current issue has a provocative article by Lawrence Mead on "Scholasticism in Political Science." Mead argues that academic writings about politics are increasingly "scholastic," which he defines as being increasingly specialized, preoccupied with methods, non-empirical, and primarily oriented to other academic literature instead of engaging real-world issues. In his words:
Today's political scientists often address very narrow questions and they are often preoccupied with method and past literature ... Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world. ... Research questions are getting smaller and data-gathering is contracting. Inquiry is becoming obscurantist and ingrown."
This sort of complaint is hardly new, of course. Hans Morgenthau offered a similar critique way back in the 1950s, when he warned of a political science "that is neither hated nor respected, but treated with indifference as an innocuous pastime, is likely to have retreated into a sphere that lies beyond the positive or negative interests of society. The retreat into the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical -- in short, the politically irrelevant -- is the unmistakable sign of a 'non-controversial' political science which has neither friends nor enemies because it has no relevance for the great political issues in which society has a stake. History and methodology, in particular, become the protective armor which shields political science from contact with the political reality of the contemporary world. Political science, then, resembles what Tolsoi said modern history has become: 'a deaf many answering questions which no one has asked him.'" (Dilemmas of Politics, 1958, p. 31).
Morgenthau's Olympian denunciation was offered without a lot of supporting evidence, but Mead's warning is accompanied by an analysis of every article published in 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2007 in the American Political Science Review. You might get different results if you looked at different journals (i.e., the "scholasticism" of the APSR was one of the complaints of the original "Perestroikans"), but Mead's complaints are consistent with a lot of my own impressions of how the field is evolving. As Mead shows, the issue isn't method per se; it's the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as "analyses of jewel-like precision that ... generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists." This is accompanied by an aversion to topics that might make a scholar visible outside the academy -- or god forbid, controversial -- because that might screw up your shot at tenure or get your criticized in print.
This tendency is not universally true, of course, and I'd argue that the willingness of younger scholars to take up blogging as a form of public engagement is a prominent counter-tendency. Could it be that younger scholars are just as bored producing "scholasticist" works as many of us are reading them, and that they find blogging far more fulfilling than adding another (largely) unread article to the catalog of academic journals. And if that's the case, what does it tell us about the priorities and values of contemporary academe?
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While I was traveling, Charli Carpenter and Matt Yglesias both picked up on a recent NYT commentary on the relative lack of attention that traffic fatalities receive. The basic issue is simple: Why do we get so exercised when nearly 3,000 Americans die on 9/11, but remain relatively indifferent to the nearly 40,000 Americans who die every year in traffic accidents? Presidents don't organize their governments around a "war on speeding," even though an effective campaign against it would save more lives and cost a lot less than our current "war on terror. And we wouldn't lose any lives improving highway safety or have to invade any other countries to do it.
There are some basic psychological dynamics that help explain the disproportionate attention that terrorist attacks and other vivid events receive, and no doubt the economic incentives that drive news coverage play a big role too. But I suspect another reason for the different reactions is that there are relatively few special interests in favor of better highway safety and a lot of powerful interests in favor of costly and ambitious foreign policy crusades. Highway fatalities are randomly distributed (except for teen-age males, they don't affect any particular social or ethnic group more than another). So with the exception of groups like MADD, whose members are often motivated by tragic personal losses, there aren't a lot of powerful and well-organized political forces pushing for doing more. Meanwhile, there are concentrated interests (such as car manufacturers) who'd like to do as little as possible because making cars safer costs money). It took a lonely crusader like Ralph Nader to get the U.S. government to get serious about highway safety back in the 1960s, and Nader is a pretty unusual guy.
The result is that highway safety is treated like an ordinary part of public policy; it's just one of the many things that state, federal, and local agencies are expected to deal with in the normal course of doing business. Governments do encourage improvements by regulating crash standards, by passing seat belt laws, and by making highways safer, which is why the number of traffic fatalities is going down. But nobody is ever up in arms about the issue and few politicians bother to make it a crusade.
By contrast, a foreign terrorist threat immediately becomes a big money-maker for lots of well-organized groups (including defense contractors, think tanks, beltway bandits, and yes, more than a few universities), so the danger it poses gets blown out of all proportion. This may also explain why we worry more about foreign-based terrorism than we do about the purely domestic variety, even in periods when the actual danger from the latter is greater. This isn't the only reason why the public tends to view foreign-based terrorism with alarm and traffic safety with a certain blasé, business-as-usual attitude, but I do think it's part of the problem. Ironically, if the situation were reversed, we'd be safer here at home and we'd be doing fewer stupid things abroad.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.