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Tag: "foreign policy"

From Colony to Superpower: Part I

[ 0 ] November 10, 2008 |

Erik Loomis and I have embarked on a project to evaluate George Herring’s new book, From Colony to Superpower. Herring is a well-respected historian of the Vietnam Era, and has produced a roughly 900-page book on the history of American foreign policy. Each Sunday, Erik and I will comment on a new chapter of the book. I’ll be reading as a political scientist, focusing on how the development of US foreign policy fits into extant theories of international relations. Erik will be reading the book as a historian, with an eye toward how Herring integrates modern scholarship on American foreign policy into the overarching narrative. Perhaps more interesting than the academic element, we’ll also take the opportunity discuss interesting and worthwhile stories about American foreign affairs, in particular those that have fallen out of the public memory. The book has twenty chapters, so we expect to keep this up for twenty Sundays. We’ll be responding to each others points in posts throughout the week, and of course in the comments sections of both blogs. Anyone who wants to join in is welcome, even if you don’t plan to read the book. We’ll take care to include responses to posts and comments in our responses to one another. If you have the book and would like to participate, drop one of us a line. Erik has the first post on the first chapter; go read it now.

Herring makes what amounts to a second image reversed argument about the impact of international factors on the formation of American political institutions. A second image argument (using the terminology developed by Kenneth Waltz in Man, the State, and War) derives international outcomes from domestic factors; for example, democracies don’t go to war against other democracies. Second image reversed derives internal characteristics of states from the international system. Herring makes the case that much of the drive towards centralization in the early Republic came from the need to interact with the international system. While security was one concern (the Founders were concerned about Native Americans, the British, and the Spanish), commerce, according to Herring, was a larger consideration. Pursuit of an open commercial policy was one of the justifications for the Revolution, and expectations were that the new nation would enjoy good commercial relations with Europe. It turned out, however, that coming to agreements was difficult without a central legislative and executive authority capable of negotiating and regulating such agreements. This is a clear cut case of institutional isopomorphism on the international stage. In order to deal with the states that then existed, the United States needed to become like them. The international system creates units that mirror already existing units. There’s both a realist and a constructivist account for this, with the realist case focusing on security concerns, and the constructivist case concentrating more on social and commercial issues. Both cases find some support in Herring’s argument, although I tend to find the latter more satisfying.

As Erik points out, the introduction and first chapter of this book probably look different than they would have fifteen years ago. Herring makes clear that the Founders were, in a very important sense, genuine revolutionaries; they expected the United States to behave differently internally and externally than the nations of Europe. Moreover, the Founders believed that the United States would play a revolutionary role in world politics, eventually if not immediately. Early American efforts at diplomacy with Europe were, it’s fair to say, uneven and often a bit naive. The colonists shared the British prejudice towards continental powers, especially Catholic ones, even as they sought the military and commercial aid of France and Spain. It’s still wrong to make a leap connecting the Founders to modern-day neoconservatism; the Founders on the whole had a profoundly different conception of the relationship between democracy and force than is held by the neoconservative right. Nevertheless, the idea that the United States would play and unique and crucial role in world politics is not new to American political thought.

I’m not sure that I can agree with Erik’s argument that the Revolution was a mistake. Herring convincingly argues that the interests of the colonies and of England diverged significantly in the latter decades of the 18th century. The United States wasn’t able to achieve everything that it wanted through independence (in particular, the commercial sector didn’t grow as anticipated), but the nation was able to survive and expand without the protection of the British Empire. The expansion point is key; Britain and the colonies disagreed bitterly over proper relations with the various Indian nations. The British preferred a far more conciliatory policy than the colonists were willing to entertain. This disagreement doesn’t put the Founding generation in a particularly good light, but it nevertheless represented a serious dispute that would have proved problematic even if the various tax and autonomy issues had been solved. Also, the Revolution limited (but did not fully preclude) American participation in the world war that last from 1790 until 1815. The avoidance of such entanglements was another justification of the Revolution.

Erik further makes the case that slavery in North America would have been abolished earlier in the absence of the Revolution. I’m not sure that I can agree with this, either. To keep the colonies part of the Empire, some power-sharing arrangement would have been necessary. The population of the United States was 16.2 million in 1838, while the population of Great Britain was a touch over 25 million. Even allowing that a considerable portion of that population was enslaved, and that the population might not have grown to the same extent had the colonies remained part of the Empire, this represents a free white population of a scale dramatically different than the other elements of the Empire. The continued inclusion of the colonies within the British Empire would have necessarily transformed the character of the Empire, opening some possibilities and foreclosing others. In particular, the continued existence of a large, white, and wealthy slaveholding class in the North American colonies would have made it much more abolition in the British Empire a much more dodgy prospect than it ended up being. Moreover, the slaveholding class was willing to fight to protect slavery in 1860; there’s no reason to think that would have changed if the relationship between the Empire and the colonies had remained intact.

Finally, I think that a movie or HBO miniseries about John Jay is long overdue. He seems to have had entertaining adventures in France and Spain, and was of course both the “Forgotten Federalist”, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A quick perusal of Wikipedia and IMDB reveals not a single instance of Justice Jay appearing in film; this is surely a crime against cinematic history.

Any thoughts on casting?

Walt-Muravchik

[ 24 ] October 15, 2008 |

It’s difficult to exaggerate the degree to which Stephen Walt demolishes Josh Muravchik in their realism vs. neoconservatism exchange in the September National Interest. The prompt concerns which, of realism or neoconservatism, will best answer the threats that the United States will face in the future. As such, the debate really turns on which of realism and neoconservatism has proved a better predictor of past threats, and has provided the best recommendations for response to those threats.

Muravchik lands a couple of blows on realism. The reality of realism is and always has been in serious question, which is to say that there’s a tension between the normative and descriptive claims of realists. Walt waves this away with an “of course realists call out what they believe are mistakes”, but the problem does run deeper. Hans Morgenthau includes an anecdote in the first chapter of Politics Among Nations about French and British consideration of military assistance to Finland in 1939. Such assistance would have put the Allies at war with both Germany and the USSR. Morgenthau mocked French and British concern for international law as unrealistic, which is fair enough, but he didn’t explain how international law and norms of justified intervention could guide the behavior of two great powers. If France and Britain, then why not the world, and if the world, then where is realism? Thinking along these lines might lead to a whole new research program…

Muravchik also notes that realists failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. This is reasonably fair, although Kenneth Waltz in Theory of International Politics did wonder whether the Soviet Union could keep up with the United States. Perhaps more to the point, neoconservatives also failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union on anything approaching the timeline that the collapse actually occurred. The number of neoconservatives who believed, in 1984, that the USSR would be gone by 1992 can be counted on the fingers of no hands. Muravchik might object that neoconservatives, at least, believed that the lifespan of the Soviet Union was limited, but then realists also believe that the structure of the international system (by which I mean polarity) can change over time. Moreover, neoconservatives were strongly committed to the idea that the Soviet Union was much, much stronger than conventional analysis suggested; this was the motivating concept behind Team B, and animated the rhetoric of the first Reagan administration. Far from expecting that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, neoconservatives seemed to believe that it was competing quite well against the United States. Indeed, a young scholar named Stephen Walt wrote a book called Origins of Alliances, arguing that the global balance of power was not nearly as dire as neoconservatives (and offensive realists) would portray it. Ironically enough, Walt departed in important ways from realist analysis in the book, but that’s a story for another day.

So yeah, Muravchik lands a couple of glancing blows. Walt then proceeds to beat Muravchik like a red-headed stepchild. First, Walt calls out Muravchik’s nonsensical “history” of neoconservativsm, which essentially portrays every successful policy endeavour of the United States in the 20th century as falling under the rubric of neoconservatism. This claim has been common among neoconservatives since Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation, which argued that the United States has always, evidence and appearance aside, been a neoconservative nation. As Walt notes, it is indeed strange that neoconservatism could have such a critical impact on foreign policy decades before it was coined, and especially odd that it gets credit for originating the successful policies of liberal internationalism, which neoconservatives have always bitterly criticized. Muravchik gives neoconservatives credit for both Wilson and Roosevelt/Truman, without noting that there’s considerably divergence between the two approaches, and that both (but especially the latter) involve exceptionally heavy doses of the institutionalization of international life, something that actual neoconservatives are allergic to.

And then Walt gets to Iraq. Read it yourself; a summary does no justice. The real coup de grace comes with this:

Finally, Muravchik claims neoconservatives “treat purely moral concerns . . . as a higher priority than would realists,” yet his response evinces little concern for ordinary human beings. He expresses no remorse at the suffering that neoconservative policies have wrought and seems mostly concerned that the neocons are now “taking their lumps” over Iraq. What matters to him is political standing in Washington, not the hundreds of thousands of needless Iraqi deaths, the millions of refugees who fled their homes, or the tens of thousands of patriotic Americans killed or wounded. So let us hear no more about the neoconservatives’ “moral” convictions. Amid such company, the realists who opposed the war can stand tall.

Indeed; the moral component of neoconservatism has always been the appearance of moral rectitude, rather than any practical effort to achieve moral goals. This makes it particularly appropriate for creatures of the Beltway, who endure no real costs for their moral postures.

In any case, the exchange is well worth reading; it reminds me a bit of Walt’s dispute with formal model/rational choice types in International Security, which is collected in Rational Choice and Security Studies. That’s also worth reading, but only for political scientists.

Failed Imperialists

[ 36 ] July 16, 2008 |

Atrios makes a point:

From the perspective of US as imperial power the “‘single-minded’ focus on Iraq” has also been an utter disaster. For those who think that one way or another the US should be throwing its weight around everywhere (by invading random countries, by various forms of economic imperialism, or by controlling and using the power of international institutions), Bush has pretty much set that agenda back substantially. That these people have been and continue to be his biggest supporters is a testament to the fact that their egos are more important than their dreams. But that’s no surprise either.

Indeed; to the extent that the United States must devote years, billions upon billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of troops to “winning” in Iraq, the very purpose of the invasion is undermined. It does no good to “throw some little country against the wall” if in doing so our own capacity to act is severely wounded; other little countries that might have been intimidated take note of the fact that we are incapable of acting. This was, of course, why Don Rumsfeld bitterly resisted proposals to go into Iraq with substantially more troops, why he resisted the idea of increasing troop levels, and why he resisted the shift to counter-insurgency; he understood that such moves undermined the purpose of the invasion in the first place. To the extent that the war has been about the extension of American imperium, it has failed disastrously.

Maybe Latin America Doesn’t Need Our Leadership

[ 6 ] July 15, 2008 |

Mr. Trend on Obama’s proposed Latin America policy:

Certainly, it’s tough at this stage to say exactly and concretely what kind of plans or policies he has for Latin America, because he’s not offered much beyond general, open-ended comments. Still, the two clearest models, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, the two Democratic presidents that might offer the clearest examples of what foreign policy from a Democratic president could be, are pretty poor examples (I think we can exclude Carter because his policy was based almost strictly on human rights violations in military dictatorships, which simply no longer applies in the Americas). However, drawing on vague, Kennedy-esque notions of an “alliance of the Americas” strikes me as the kind of paternalistic rhetoric common to the mid-20th century. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, while beneficial for some countries in various ways, was also extremely patronizing, imperial, and too closely bound to Cold War polarizations to be as effective as Kennedy’s supporters would like to have us believe. And Clinton’s insistence that Latin American countries join in his neoliberal Washington Consensus (which, let us not forget, South American leaders like Menem and Cardoso agreed to do) resulted in the Argentine economic collapse and also caused long-term negative consequences that leftist leaders in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil (among others) are only now overcoming. Far from being some benign program of social and economic improvement, the Alliance for Progress and the Clinton administration’s Washington Consensus were just two in a series of presidential (Democratic and Republican) efforts where the U.S. government presumed it knew what was best for Latin America, regardless of whether the individual countries wanted that help or not.

Signaling

[ 0 ] May 4, 2008 |

Let me second Yglesias’ recommendation of this Dave Meyer post on signaling. Meyer concentrates on the public relations aspect of signaling behavior in a democracy, but here are some assumptions that have to hold for a strategy of “signaling”, such as invading small countries in order to demonstrate that we’re tough, to work:

  1. Signals are unambiguous: The meaning of our signaling is not subject to interpretation, such that different people could, based on different priors, carry away different meanings.
  2. Signals always indicate what we want them to indicate: This is related to the first; if we are trying to send a signal of strength, then we send a signal of strength, not a signal of mean, stupid, crazy, etc.
  3. We never develop a bad reputation, except for weakness: This is related to the first two; our effort at signaling strength doesn’t have reputational costs. If we invade his country, the Other will understand us as strong, rather than as brutal, imperialistic, crusading, evil, etc.
  4. No one ever considers that we might be trying to deceive through signaling: This is probably the most important. If signaling is about creating a reputation for strength, and if a reputation for strength is a positive good, then obviously there’s an incentive to lie about being strong. The entire premise of signaling depends on no one noticing that we have an incentive to lie about our own strength.
  5. We know our own strength: Our effort to communicate the true level of our resolve is dependent on knowing what that level is. However, the resolve of the American people to crush enemies of the American public is a value that is unknown to anyone, including our leadership. At best we’re guessing, which basically means that every effort to signal is essentially deception.

Unfortunately, none of these assumptions hold. Worse, in an effort to signal that we have the will to crush small countries under our boot, we often seem to gut our capability to do so; even if attacking Iran were a good idea, the military deployment in Iraq has made such an effort impossible.

Not Burke! Not Burke!

[ 14 ] April 12, 2008 |

Yglesias:

But foreign policy questions are McCain’s passion, he’s chosen to put them at the center of his campaign, and there’s really nothing at all Burkean about McCain’s take on them. The “our country is democratic, democracy is awesome, therefore we should try to conquer the entire world in the name of spreading democracy” syllogism at the core of McCain “Enduring Peace Built on Freedom” is straight out of the French Revolution.

Quite. Read Uday Mehta Singh’s Liberalism and Empire for a good account of the differences between Burke and the Mills on colonialism and aggressive foreign policy. I’d add that a certain rump “Burkeanism” is almost a default position for a politician who doesn’t really care about domestic policy issues; it’s easy enough to disguise indifference as the appreciation for slow, careful reform.

…indeed, it’s just this kind of thing that Burke would warn against:

Suppose we replaced the mayor of your town with a twentysomething foreigner who didn’t speak English but did have a ton of firepower at his disposal and no real checks on his power. You’d probably feel that was a step in the wrong direction. And conversely, it’s not genuinely reasonable to expect relatively junior Army officers to do this sort of job well.

With the added insight that producing twentysomething imperial viceroys who have had the experience of virtually unchecked power is something that has never been good for a healthy democracy…

Transition

[ 26 ] February 23, 2008 |

Randy Paul helpfully explains why Castro is bad even if he led only the 34th worst regime since 1900. Police state dictatorships are never particularly admirable; it seems to me that US policy should in general be that the institutions of such regimes ought to change in broadly democratic directions. This doesn’t imply that all such regimes are equal, or that such a policy requires invasion, embargo, etc., or that there’s anything admirable or consistent about current or historical US foreign policy in this area etc. etc. etc. As such, for me the single greatest crime of US policy towards Cuba is that for the last fifty years it essentially guaranteed Castro’s hold on power, especially in the last twenty years as the rest of Latin America has steadily transitioned towards democracy.

Cuba!

[ 10 ] February 8, 2008 |

Via Yglesias, Rodger Payne gives some solid reasons for preferring Obama to Clinton on Cuba policy:

Last summer, however, Obama wrote an op-ed for the Miami Herald calling for the US to ease up on some aspects of the economic embargo toward Cuba…Obama has also voted twice to cut off funding for TV Marti.

After Obama’s op-ed, however, Hillary Clinton’s campaign attacked it.

As US Cuba policy amounts to 47 years of utter stupidity (and counting!) anything sensible is quite welcome, and Obama seems to be talking more sense than Clinton. Payne suggests that Clinton’s position here is simply rhetorical, and that the distance between the two candidates is probably small. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far; the problem with US Cuba policy is, essentially, a rhetorical one, and thus holding to the same rhetoric while shifting policy in a sensible direction on the margins doesn’t actually do much. Whatever progress the first Clinton administration made in Cuba-US relations was lost during the Bush administration, in no small part because the rhetorical frame (starve Cuba until Castro gives up) remained unchanged.

A Clerisy of Clerisies

[ 14 ] January 31, 2008 |

Via Yglesias, Dean Baker has some tough words for the Washington Post and the Beltway media more generally:

Rather than acknowledge that the experts on whom they rely had badly misunderstood the problems facing the economy, the Post just acted as though nothing had changed. “Everyone agrees we need stimulus.” Isn’t that simple?

This refusal to acknowledge fallibility stems from the same sort of anti-democratic impulse displayed by the Soviet-era press. Just as the Soviet press wanted the public to trust the wisdom of the party bosses, the Post and other pillars of the elite media want the public to believe that the experts who are the insiders on the decision-making process in Washington are uniquely qualified to craft policy.

Quite right. This reminds me of the debate several months ago about the “foreign policy clerisy”, one facet of which investigated whether the foreign policy clerisy was unique or simply one of several communities of experts who essentially controlled the parameters of policy discussion. I leaned pretty heavily towards the latter position, and Baker seems to agree:

Of course this is true for all areas of public policy, not just economic policy. Does anyone who failed to recognize that invading Iraq would lead to a long and costly occupation deserve to be viewed as an expert on Middle East policy? But the Post and other elite media outlets perform a beautification process whereby even the most enormous mistakes are conveniently swept under the rug.

Misunderstanding the economy’s weakness earlier this month is trivial compared to the much more grandiose mistake of failing to recognize the $8 trillion housing bubble, or before that, a $10 trillion stock bubble. If performance mattered, then the experts who got things so hugely wrong would no longer be the ones shaping public policy. Instead, with the Washington Post style beautification process, experts can jump from policy disaster to policy disaster and never have their failures affect their standing.

If we are ever to have an open debate on economics, or any other area of public policy, we will need media that honestly discuss policy failures and that hold those in charge accountable. In the current situation, the economic disaster facing the economy was entirely preventable, but the Federal Reserve and the rest of the inside crew were either too incompetent to recognize the housing bubble or felt the short-term benefits outweighed the costs that the country would inevitably face when the bubble burst. The Post and most other major news outlets chose to hide any serious debate on the problems posed by the bubble on the way up, and they would like to prevent any discussion of this massive policy failure even in retrospect.

In a related development, Matt Duss and I are currently working on a project that investigates the origins of the foreign policy clerisy, and includes some musings about its coming collapse. We’ll keep you updated.

State Sponsored Trolls

[ 14 ] November 30, 2007 |

Walter Pincus, via Defense Tech:

The State Department, departing from traditional public diplomacy techniques, has what it calls a three-person, “digital outreach team” posting entries in Arabic on “influential” Arabic blogs to challenge misrepresentations of the United States and promote moderate views among Islamic youths in the hopes of steering them from terrorism.

The department’s bloggers “speak the language and idiom of the region, know the culture reference points and are often able to converse informally and frankly, rather than adopt the usually more formal persona of a U.S. government spokesperson,” Duncan MacInnes, of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional threats on Thursday.

Huh. I wonder if Al Qaeda deploys teams of trolls onto “influential” American blogs; could we tell the difference between an Al Qaeda troll and a more typical wingnutty troll? On issues of gay rights or abortion, probably not. But then, these ruminations serve only to emphasize how important it is not to allow a “troll gap”; I would hate to think that the future of the Republic is threatened by a troll shortage.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

On Leverage

[ 0 ] October 24, 2007 |

The President on Cuba:

President Bush is planning to issue a stern warning Wednesday that the United States will not accept a political transition in Cuba in which power changes from one Castro brother to another, rather than to the Cuban people.

As described by an official in a background briefing to reporters on Tuesday evening, Mr. Bush’s remarks will amount to the most detailed response — mainly an unbending one — to the political changes that began in Cuba more than a year ago, when Fidel Castro fell ill and handed power to his brother Raúl.

Here’s the problem. I want a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba as much as the next guy, but one of the consequences of adopting a 47 year hardline policy on the current regime is that your threats become pretty hollow. Short of invading Cuba or subjecting it to airstrikes, there’s just not much that the US can do to Cuba in terms of the “stick” part of diplomacy. All of the leverage is on the carrot side. This administration isn’t wholly averse to carrots; it eventually made the North Korea deal, and the Libya deal was far more carrot than stick based (even if it was primarily at the behest of Tony Blair), but given the combination of John Bolton’s continuing efforts to scuttle the North Korea deal and the power of the dread Cuba Lobby, we’re unlikely to see any realistic policy initiative. The consequence is that, whether or not Fidel manages to outlast his tenth American President, the political transition in Cuba will happen largely without US influence.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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