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Category: Robert Farley

Taking Democracy for Granted

[ 124 ] November 21, 2016 |

[This is a guest post by Valerie J. Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Chair of International Studies at Cornell University, and Mark R. Beissinger, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics at Princeton University. Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva. ]

How might American democracy end? The United States would not be the first long-lasting government to collapse. Whether they supported communism or not, those who lived under it assumed, in Alexei Yurchak’s words, that communism was forever—until it was no more.   Developments in the United States bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those that fore-shadowed the decline of democracy elsewhere in the world (Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and earlier, Latin America in the 1960s and interwar Europe).

There are three pieces to the puzzle of why and how democracies fail. The first involves public opinion. In Russia, for example, growing public worries about crime and social disorder, economic collapse, and national security paved the way for the rise of a leader who promised political order, economic growth, and strong government—in short, making Russia great again. In many instances of democratic collapse, there was a decline in tolerance, as publics grew more polarized, more locked into their own views and into networks of like-minded people, and more distrustful of and angry at each other and the government. There was a thirst for new styles in politics, flamboyant rhetoric, and a willingness to gamble. Citizens voted for change; they did not vote to end democracy.

The second piece is dysfunctional political institutions. Just as the rise of Victor Orbán in Hungary was preceded by the collapse of the party system, so too was the rise of Hitler and Mussolini foreshadowed by prolonged parliamentary paralysis. In failing democracies, public trust in political institutions declines, and government can no longer fulfill the basic tasks expected of it. In the American case, there is ample evidence of such trends—from the Republican obstruction and gridlock in Congress to repeated attempts to shut the government down. Little wonder that trust in Congress has plummeted to the mid-20 percent level since 2010.  Mistrust of government is contagious, poisoning democratic processes. Echoing Trump’s rants about a “rigged system,” nearly a half of all registered voters believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often in the United States, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The final piece of the puzzle is the role of politicians in terminating democracy. As Nancy Bermeo reminds us, it is political leaders that end democracy, not angry publics or dysfunctional institutions. But how leaders have taken down democracy has changed over time. During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties.

The elections that bring these dangerous leaders to power typically feature an electorate composed of large numbers of alienated, floating voters. All of the candidates have unusually high unfavorability ratings (which depresses voter turnout, skewing the representativeness of the electorate), and the choice confronting voters boils down to supporting experienced but compromised establishment politicians or risky outsiders. Outsider-politicians exploit public disgust with politics, attack their opponents in personal rather than policy terms, make grandiose promises, and talk of a return to the good old days by restoring the culture, society, and status of the past.

Most important is their claim to defend the nation. This is a perfect issue for ambitious amateur politicians because it plays so well to public fears about national security, personal security, and cultural diversity. Being for the nation, like being for economic growth and against crime and polio, is a valence issue—there is only one acceptable position. The costs of nationalist tropes for democracy are many. They give candidates a license to avoid talking about policy. They silence the opposition, since it cannot possibly come out against the nation. They sow divisions among the public. But perhaps their greatest danger is that they give rise to the demand for strong leadership—leaders who will do anything to defend the nation from its enemies.

To those who view American politics as exceptional, Trump is an anomaly that is difficult to explain. To us, his politics are disconcertingly familiar.

Durer Revelation Four Riders.jpg

Revelation: Four Riders. By Albrecht Dürer.




[ 68 ] November 21, 2016 |

Hey all,

There are plenty of rumors floating around regarding SEK’s status.  While everyone probably has a sense of where things are going, we will refrain from posting anything here until we receive definite information.  Please do your best to avoid speculation until we have reliable news.

See also the GoFundMe, which will remain relevant under any eventuality.



The Rest of the NatSec Team…

[ 53 ] November 18, 2016 |

Seal of the United States Department of State.svg

Flynn is NSA, and Pompeo will be at CIA. See Chris Mirasola’s thoughts here; long story short, neither of them are great, and both are probably on the negative side of what we would expect from a “normal” GOP administration. Flynn is paranoid, has major axes to grind with a lot of different people, and has extensive Russian ties; Pompeo is pro-torture and anti-Iran deal.  Major. Ugly. Shit.

Here’s the SecState shortlist, in my order of preference:

  • Mitt Romney: Not insane, reasonably well-respected in the international community, sufficient stature to say “no” to some of the worst impulses of Team Trump
  • Zalmay Khalilzad See above, plus real-world diplomatic experience, minus some degree of stature.
  • Bob Corker Less diplomatic experience than Khalilzhad, less stature than Romney
  • Nikki R. Haley Ok, whatever.  Getting to the dregs.
  • Stanley A. McChrystal Smart enough guy in many ways, but no indication that he’ll have any institutional support to draw on, or that he knows much about the foreign service. Colin Powell with less experience and less gravitas
  • Rudolph W. Giuliani Sweet Jeebus, there’s still someone below this line? Apart from all the disastrous bits, he’s a halfway competent administrator, and he is firmly committed to the political survival of Rudy Giuliani, which makes it possible that he won’t completely burn the place down.
  • John R. Bolton Nexon prefers Bolton to Giuliani; I don’t.  State Department rank and file hates Bolton; Bolton hates pretty much everything about the international community; true believer on the anti-Iran stuff; experienced enough to know where the bodies are buried, dig them up, and use them to beat survivors to death with.  

SecDef I’m less worried about, because it tends to have some pretty wonky responsibilities:

  • Stephen J. Hadley Bridge to the traditional GOP foreign policy elite
  • Duncan Hunter Defense industry guy, but sometimes says no
  • Jon Kyl Not quite sure why he’s here
  • Tom Cotton Only one of these who could do some real damage

Foreign Entanglements: Trump World

[ 65 ] November 17, 2016 |

On the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements, Dan Nexon and I talk Trump:

Also, make sure to read Dan’s excellent post on institutions in the era of Trump:

This is a ~3.5k word essay on why the biggest threat posed by a Trump Presidency is to liberal-republican institutions at home and abroad. It suggests placing specific policy debates  on the back burner in favor of forming and maintaining a broad political coalition—one aimed at preserving those two aspects of American liberal order.  In brief, you can always change tax rates, but once democratic institutions and America’s web of international partnerships are gone, they will be monumentally difficult to put back together. Focusing on this kind of action is a matter of prudence; one hopes that it proves unnecessary. The essay does not discuss the fate of democracy in other countries, although that to remains a major concern. The piece collects and synthesizes arguments that I have made in other social media, most notably Twitter.


Signs Point to Retention

[ 65 ] November 17, 2016 |

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Many of the harshest critics of the Iran nuclear deal appear to be advising Trump to proceed cautiously:

But many of the deal’s most ardent critics are now saying: “Slow down.”

As the reality of Donald Trump’s White House win sinks in among nuclear deal opponents, some are insisting that pulling out of the agreement is unwise. Instead, they say, Trump should step up enforcement of the deal, look for ways to renegotiate it, and pursue measures to punish Iran for its non-nuclear misbehavior. Such a multi-pronged, get-tough approach may even give Trump cover to fend off any criticism he may get for keeping the deal.

It’s a remarkable moment for the anti-deal crowd, which includes Israel’s prime minister, Saudi princes and Republican lawmakers. Many tried to keep the deal from ever being reached, accused outgoing President Barack Obama of appeasing an enemy and used the agreement to knock Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Now that they have a shot at scuttling the deal they hate so much, they are urging caution.

The official reason given by critics of the deal is that the key leverage points have already been lost; tearing it up and starting over would leave the US in a much worse negotiating position.  The real reason is that the deal is, in fact, a considerably more significant diplomatic accomplishment than its critics have been willing to acknowledge. People who, in 2014, were howling about an Iranian bomb in eighteen months are now howling about a bomb in eighteen years. Whether the Cheeto follows this advice remains uncertain, but my bet is “yes”; he’ll have enough other stuff on his plate in the short-term that he won’t want to stir things up with Iran.


[ 5 ] November 15, 2016 |

K-159, shortly before scrapping

My latest at the National Interest looked at the loss of K-8, a Soviet November class submarine:

The Bay of Biscay is one of the world’s great submarine graveyards. In late World War II, British and American aircraft sank nearly seventy German U-boats in the Bay, which joined a handful of Allied and German subs sunk in the region during World War I. On April 12, 1970, a Soviet submarine found the same resting place. Unlike the others, however, K-8 was propelled by two nuclear reactors, and carried four torpedoes tipped by nuclear warheads.


The Bloomberg Gambit

[ 134 ] November 14, 2016 |

Michael Bloomberg speech cropped (2).jpg

Generally speaking, I think the “would Bernie have won?” debate is kind of interesting as a thought experiment, without being terribly productive in practical terms. .  We know that Clinton lost, and we have very good reasons to believe that her defeat was not structurally inevitable; we’re not debating how many Gary Hart’s could dance on the head of a pin. Clinton might have won if she had avoided foreseeable and unforeseeable mistakes (and there is justifiable debate on which might be which), and another candidate might have won if s/he had different characteristics than Clinton.

Would Bernie have been that candidate?  Sure, maybe.  The early cycle polling advantage over Trump doesn’t seem to me to be very compelling evidence that Bernie would definitely have won, but it’s a data point in his favor. Then again, the fact that Clinton won the Democratic primary by a substantial margin, while running a more centrist campaign, is a data point in her favor.  We can go state by state, but it’s certainly possible that there would have been systematic differences between Bernie and Clinton that would have had an impact (positive or negative) across several states at once.

Along these lines, it was interesting to read Tomasky’s take on a Bernie campaign, particularly the bit about Michael Bloomberg:

The main point is that if Sanders and Trump had secured their respective nominations, Mike Bloomberg vowed that he would have gotten in the race, and that would have split the center-left vote.

Bloomberg, first of all, would have spent the money to ensure that he qualified for most state ballots. He also would have had the money to campaign nonstop and buy ads and set up field operations. The mainstream media would have loved him, hailed him as the sensible choice. A number of Democrats, not bound to Sanders due to his lack of party affiliation, would have endorsed Bloomberg if they felt doing so wouldn’t hurt them in their districts or states. Turnout among blacks and Latinos, whom Sanders never caught on with beyond the youngest voters, would have been lower.

Given all this, Bloomberg would almost surely have hit the 15 percent threshold that would have landed him on the stage of the three debates.

I’m not quite convinced. Granting that Bloomberg would have run (vow notwithstanding, it’s not a certainty), to cost Bernie the election, Bloomberg would have had to peel away more centrist Dems from Sanders than he took squishy suburbanite Republicans from Trump.  And even if he didn’t impact Trump all that much, a fair amount of his support would have been carved out of Johnson and McMuffin.  Centrist Dems might have deserted Bernie (there were, believe it or not, people in the Dem primary who genuinely disliked Bernie), but they haven’t historically displayed much proclivity for third parties.  Finally, the greatest portion of Bloomberg’s support would likely have come in states (California, New York, New Jersey) that Bernie would have dominated anyway.




If Schadenfreude Is the Only Freude You Got Left…

[ 55 ] November 11, 2016 |
RMS Titanic 3.jpg

RMS Titanic. By F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923)

Watching this administration put a foreign policy staff together is gonna be fun (for values of “fun” that equal “watching a horrific tragedy unfold”)

Like no other part of the Republican establishment, the party’s foreign policy luminaries joined in opposition to the idea of a Donald J. Trump presidency.

Loyal Republicans who served in the two Bush administrations, they appeared on television and wrote op-eds blasting him. They aligned under a “Never Trump” banner and signed a letter saying they were “convinced that he would be a dangerous president and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

For his part, President-elect Trump has maligned them as bumbling and myopic, architects of “a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”

The coming weeks will determine whether both sides decide they need each other.

At risk of appearing empathetic, the dilemma here is genuine.  The vast majority of Republicans I know, professionally and personally, work in the national security sector, and they were overwhelmingly NeverTrumpers. The content of this NeverTrumpery varied along a scale from “won’t endorse Trump or talk about the election,” to “will vigorously endorse Hillary and try to convince others to do the same,” but the foundation was the same; a belief that Donald Trump represented a serious threat to how they conceived of American national security.

But now Donald Trump will be President, and folks across this spectrum may (in the short or long term) be faced with a choice of whether or not to work in the administration.  Reconsidering opposition to Trump is partially about careerism, but only partially; it’s not at all unreasonable for these folks to conclude that Trump’s foreign policy will likely be much worse if foreign policy experts refuse to join his government. But it is a quandary of representation; rather to work to try to mitigate a disastrous administration, or to simply wash hands and wait.  It’s even more complicated for this particular group, because while Democratic foreign policy apparatchiks can hope that Dems will eventually win another election, NeverTrumpers have only the Devil and the Slightly Less Problematic Devil.

From an outsider perspective (which is where we’re all sitting right now, folks), the situation is also problematic, although since we don’t have much agency there’s less of a quandary.  On the one hand, we have a Presidential administration that’s promising to ineptly do a lot of terrible stuff.  On the other, we have the potential that it might do stuff that’s arguably even more terrible, just somewhat more competently.  I don’t know that I can fully join Dan…


… because while it’s too flip to say “competent neocons got us into this damn mess,” it’s also not entirely wrong to note that “competent” neocons got us into this mess. My strong first preference is for the Trump administration to staff America’s foreign policy organs with competent professionals who don’t hold egregiously destructive substantive views on foreign policy. I’m not quite sure whether my next ordinally ranked preference is “competent professional with egregious views” or “incompetent amateurs with slightly different egregious views.” The former can, as we have seen, do extensive damage. The latter can also do extensive damage, perhaps even more than the former.

Foreign Service

[ 61 ] November 10, 2016 |

Arrival of the English Ambassadors, By Vittore Carpaccio

Some more thoughts on one of the points I made this morning, specific to the diplomatic corps (broadly conceived):

What will the foreign service look like under President Donald J. Trump?

Over the past few months, rumors have emerged of the potential for mass resignations in the professional foreign policy bureaucracy in the event of a Trump victory. As Trump’s chances appeared to fade, these discussions melted into the background. Now, after his stunning electoral college victory, concerns have re-emerged about an explosive split between the incoming Trump administration and the corps of foreign affairs officials that work on the front lines of American foreign policy.

A Hundred Days of Trump: Foreign Policy Edition

[ 101 ] November 10, 2016 |


More on the way, but here’s a quick rundown of where I see Trump going on some big foreign policy issues:


I am very mildly optimistic on Iran, mostly because I suspect that Trump does not want to open up a giant mess of worms by aggressively upending the deal. Perhaps as important, the anti-Iran dealers were heavily represented in the NeverTrump movement. It also doesn’t seem that Trump has any specific ideological axe to grind with Tehran; Iranians no longer emigrate to the United States in great numbers, Trump is unbothered by the mixed-authoritarian nature of Iranian governance, and Iran can hardly be termed a “free rider” ally. But then who the hell knows?

East Asia

For folks hoping that a de-escalation with Russia would lead to a broader evaluation of US defense posture, tough luck.  For one, Russia and the “new Cold War” has never been that big of a deal for the Pentagon.  People in DoD know Russia and they use Russia rhetorically (at least in the Army) to argue for certain priorities.  The medium- and long-range foci of DoD, and of the defense industry writ large, have been firmly on China for quite some time.  The reason is simple; China represents a far more compelling military threat than Russia, which remains hemmed in by an alliance structure, and faces tremendous economic and industrial obstacles.

And broadly speaking, the Trump campaign has been making very hawkish noises on Asia. Jeff Sessions and Randy Forbes are both Navy supporters, are both China hawks, and either one is completely plausible as the next SecDef.  I’d mildly prefer Forbes because he seems to be smarter than Sessions, but pick your poison; either one of them is going to push a more militarized version of the Pacific Pivot, and is going to ask for more resources from the Trump administration. But then who the hell knows?


Russia may have bought itself some serious trouble in President Donald Trump. Trump did manage to stay on message for most of the campaign regarding Moscow, consistently signaling de-escalation and cooperation. But then Obama made the same argument in 2012; and Obama made the same argument in 2008; and Bush made the same argument in 2004; and Bush made the same argument in 2000. Point being, everybody seems to think that it’ll be easy to “reset” relations with Russia, and it never really is. Trump may be different because he doesn’t share with Bush, Obama, and Clinton many of the same priors with regard to Russia and Eastern Europe. It’s also true that both Putin and Trump have very personalistic political styles, and so that may help. I would not be at all surprised, however, to see Putin miscalculate just how far he can push in Ukraine (and less likely, Syria), and find that Trump pushes back in an unpredictable way. On the other hand, if Trump tries anything particularly sketchy (say, recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea) he may get a lot of resistance from the professional foreign policy bureaucracy. But then who the hell knows?


NATO isn’t going away, but it may change. At the very least, I don’t see Trump making the kind of rhetorical and procedural nods to NATO that have become common in the last three decades. The bigger problem (for those who think that NATO is a stabilizing force) comes next year, when we may find ourselves with President Le Pen.  With none of Washington, London, or Paris particularly excited about doing the kind of work necessary to maintaining the alliance… well, who the hell knows?


International climate change action is fucked.  Sorry.  But hey, Hillary’s EMAILZ are deeply concerning.


Syria was fucked either way.  We can probably expect that Trump will start off from a decent position with Erdogan, but then Erdogan’s position on Syria has been inconsistent to the point of incoherence over the last three years.  Even if Assad “wins” with the help of the Russians, and ISIS is pushed out of Raqqa, Damascus does not reassert meaningful control over the bulk of Syria for a very long time.

See also:



[ 126 ] November 9, 2016 |

By Nash, Thomas (Collection of U.S. House of Representatives) – Gingrich, Newton Leroy, (1943—). Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

So in addition to everything else, the Republicans took the Kentucky State Assembly last night, giving them full control of the Kentucky state government.  Bevin time!

More thoughts later on what a Trump administration may look like.  Although my focus is on foreign and security policy, the domestic implications of the Trump victory are likely far more significant than the international, at least in the short term. That said, Trump does have foreign policy commitments, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see a Gingrich-led State Department begin trying to make good on them.  Here’s a provisional look at the rest of the team; Secretary of Defense may be the position in which Jeff Sessions can do the least long-term damage to the country, so there’s that.  More broadly, the overwhelming majority of NeverTrumpers came from the GOP’s foreign and security policy wing, meaning that a) we’re going to see a lot of inexperienced folks in new positions, and b) there’s a huge degree of uncertainty as to how this administration is going to prioritize in its first year. See Brad on the likely disaster waiting for us in climate change policy.

On a maintenance note, will do as well as I can on the troll-hunting front; tips appreciated.

Well, this Sucks

[ 284 ] November 8, 2016 |


Open thread number two. Over/under on how many hours it takes to repeal Obamacare?

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