Foreign Policy Micro-Initiatives

Matthew Yglesias comments (“Resilience,” The, 30 October 2007) on Robert Kagan’s Sunday editorial (“Free Elections Come First,” The Washington Post, 28 October 2007, p. B7):

The unfortunate reality for those like Kagan who’d like to believe that an incredibly aggressive, violent, coercion-oriented US foreign policy is the height of moral probity is that living conditions around the world are, in general, improving for the better without us. There are major exceptions in Sub-Saharan Africa and North Korea but there’s nothing about a glance at those places — Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories — that have benefited from American “democracy promotion” policy that would make any sane person think we need to Kaganize our approach to Russia or China.

This should not be to say that the U.S. should sit passive, but rather than blowing the entire budgetary and soldierly load on one or two high risk foreign policy extravaganzas, what the U.S. should pursue is multifaceted, low-grade, low risk diplomatic pressure and programs across a wide range of countries and issues. It has a higher probability of success, failures have less consequence and unlike massive military interventions, history is on our side here.

Unfortunately foreign policy thinking under the tutelage of George W. Bush, et. al. and the right more generally has taught the country to love the spectacle. The slow, meandering work of diplomacy is no longer enough to capture and hold the imagination of a people who have come to expect “shock and awe,” explosions, daisy-cutter bombs, multi-million dollar airplanes and soldiers looking like a bunch of badasses. No besuited pencil-necks touting human rights reports will suffice for this appetite.

In this regard the President and Congress are no longer really strategists who take as their primary object the international situation, so much as senior public relations people involved in the creation of images for mass public consumption. The images then become the raw material of a primal American dialog about manliness, virility, strength, fear, safety, children, et cetera that takes place in an almost entirely solipsistic fantasy world. So the terms of our foreign policy debate have become whether or not a scrawny Greek guy looks convincing driving a tank, how manly George Bush looks in a flight suite and who would be better received serving Thanksgiving dinner at a surprise visit to a FOB.

The problem with foreign policy micro-initiatives is that they don’t enter into the symbol system of U.S. political dialogue.

Hegemony Corrupts

Francis Fukuyama argues that the misbehavior of the United States in the last few years — he includes the Clinton years — is in fact systematic (“A Self-Defeating Hegemony,” Real Clear Politics, 26 October 2007):

But the fundamental problem remains the lopsided distribution of power in the international system. Any country in the same position as the US, even a democracy, would be tempted to exercise its hegemonic power with less and less restraint. America’s founding fathers were motivated by a similar belief that unchecked power, even when democratically legitimated, could be dangerous, which is why they created a constitutional system of internally separated powers to limit the executive.

Such a system does not exist on a global scale today, which may explain how America got into such trouble. A smoother international distribution of power, even in a global system that is less than fully democratic, would pose fewer temptations to abandon the prudent exercise of power.

A “smoother international distribution of power” could come about through any of a number of ways. The United States could revert to the former system whereby it conducted itself with a self-imposed restraint and voluntarily submitted to a series of treaty-based limitations on its power — ones largely imposed consistently on actors throughout the international system. This would require some measure of calm and circumspection on the part of the U.S. electorate, desiderata for which I am not going to hold my breath. The alternative is that restraint will be imposed upon us by the emergence of a competing power center. The latter is fraught with all the normal dangers of system transition.

So hopefully Mr. Fukuyama’s next book will be on the necessity for one world government.


S. has recently become very interested in social networking sites and has drug me to get FaceBook and MySpace pages. FaceBook is pretty cool in that it’s like a social networking engine with an API for user application development. Judging by some of the applications, they give developers a lot of access. But the thing that I don’t get is why the people behind FaceBook seem to so lack ambition. First of all, they have yet to completely shed their college-oriented origins, so their network remains entirely too fragmented. But the real oversight is why, with that huge existing user database, they haven’t deployed more core functionality. Right now is seems like FaceBook is just a sort of online business card. Why haven’t they deployed dating, group scheduling and calendaring, blogging, employment, classified advertisements and so on? They could be,,, and all rolled into one. Or if not build the functionality themselves, why not partner and integrate or build some gateways? There are some features like what I am talking about, but they are rudimentary. Why not put them front and center? Seems like a recipe for obsolescence to me. In this environment it’s innovate or wither.

Book Catalog Geek-Out

Cataloging my books on LibraryThing, Washington, D.C., 28 September 2007

S. bought me a lifetime membership to LibraryThing and I found that scanning books into a web database is the perfect distraction from sleep at 2:00 in the morning on a work night. Whenever I had a few minutes I would pull a cubby off the shelf and scan maybe a dozen books at a time. It took a few weeks like this, but soon enough I had the entire collection in.

Now if only LibraryThing had a tool to run off Dewey decimal number labels.

Here is my collection. It presently stands at 800 volumes. I dread having to move out of my basement apartment. The new place will undoubtedly be a third-floor walk-up and a studio to boot.

If any reader with a particularly large collection decides to catalog their books too, I highly recommend the CueCat barcode scanner. It’s cheep, ships quickly and turned a job that could have taken months into one that was only like two weeks of a few minutes each night.

Anyway, here’s a picture with most of the back side of the bookshelf to the right still stacked around my PC. It’s also the station where one third of the magic here at This Is Not A Dinner Party happens.

A Caspian Balance?

Again, the trump argument in the debate over whether the standard predictions of realism, that hegemony always produces a balance, applies as well to Twenty-First Century U.S. unipolarity as it has all other hegemons, is to ask, “Where is the balance?” Realists have been hard-pressed to answer this question and have made recourse to the notion of the “soft balance.” This has evoked a bit of ridicule from their neoconservative opponents, who reply that there is no such thing as soft balancing, or if there is such a thing it doesn’t count.

Well, how about last week’s Caspian Sea Leaders Summit for a hard balance (Fathi, Nazila and C. J. Chivers, “In Iran, Putin Warns Against Military Action,” The New York Times, 17 October 2007)?

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said at a summit meeting of five Caspian Sea nations in Iran on Tuesday that any use of military force in the region was unacceptable. In a declaration, the countries agreed that none would allow their territories to be used as a base for military strikes against any of the others.

Later he had a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he said he had expressed a desire for “deeper” relations between the countries, Reuters reported.

[Mr. Ahmadinejad said,] “The goal is to keep the sea clear of military competitions and keep foreigners out of the region.”

The article concedes that, “their statements appeared to have more political than military significance, and were not a departure from the status quo.” It looks to me like a departure from the status quo in so far as while it is not a clear-cut case of hard balancing — there were no mutual defense pacts signed or declarations that an attack on one would be viewed as an attack on all — a couple of states banding together in a show of solidarity to compel the hegemon to back down seems like a pretty far cry from soft balancing too.

Amping Up The Coercion

Matthew Yglesias has a nice real world example (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” The, 21 October 2007) that illustrates one of the points from my Thursday theoretical post (“Bandwagoning, Network Benefits and the Stability of U.S. Unipolarity,” 18 October 2007). He refers to this passage from Vice President Cheney’s recent address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (“Vice Presidents Remarks,” Lansdowne, Virginia, 21 October 2007):

Dr. Bernard Lewis explained the terrorists’ reasoning this way: “During the Cold War,” Dr. Lewis wrote, “two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: ‘What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?'” End quote.

This is amazing. In the White House you have a bunch of people who reject the Cold War theory of containment. The issue is slightly muddled when you think that they reject it in favor of some third theory of how to prosecute the war on terrorism, but in fact they reject containment, the strategy pursued by the winning side in the Cold War, in favor of that theory of international relations held by the losing side. I see that the present issue of The Weekly Standard castigates liberals as the stupid faction of U.S. politics (Ceaser, James, “The Stupid Party,” vol. 13, no. 6, 22 October 2007, pp. 22-26), but with such historical geniuses as the present crop of Republicans running the show, where can we go wrong?

But to link this up with Thursday’s point:

  1. U.S. foreign policy is in fact becoming much more nasty. To the extent that it is not, it is presently run by people whose objective is to make it more so — people who find at least something to admire in the Soviet conduct of foreign affairs.
  2. As a strategy for achieving its objectives, a state can always just amp up the consequences for non-compliance. The success of this strategy will depend on where a state sits on the spectrum of profitability as a power with which to bandwagon. And I say again that this is not an absolute consideration, but one made in a competitive environment. It is something of which a state can get away with more when the alternatives are slim, but not at all when they are many. Whatever the case, there is a point beyond which even bad alternatives start to look acceptable and states pursuing this option should be mindful of the international environment.
  3. A state can switch to a policy of no positive inducement, but instead solely of making defiance so costly as to be ruled out by all potential dissenters. Such a policy is one of pure coercion. As a basis for alliance, pure coercion seems a pretty bad one. Hence the rapid dissolution of the Warsaw Pact after the revelation of the hollowness of Soviet power. Pure coercion can only work so long as a state is absolutely feared. A few displays of anything less than omnipotence invite further probes. Now a state faces the dilemma of George Orwell in “Shooting and Elephant”: the logic of the spectacle. Under a system of all cost, no benefit, the search for an alternative will be pretty desperate on the part of the subordinated. The gamble of a state pursuing pure coercion is that it can always and for all time prevent the emergence of alternative security arrangements.

As Machiavelli wrote, it is best to be both feared and loved, but if both together are not possible it is best to be feared. The United States in the Twenty-First Century doesn’t necessarily have to choose between being loved and feared, but our foreign policy is dominated by people who have chosen to be feared where no necessity for such a choice was presented. Admiration should be automatic in the right wing mindset, or is a sort of byproduct or side benefit to being feared. Admiration is discounted as a specific objective and consigned to the fates (kind of like conservation: merely a personal virtue). Fear is all.

Friday Cat Blogging: Mogley Loves Bread

18 October 2007, Mogli bellying up to the bread

It’s been a sleepless week of some rather arduous posts as well as a long time since the last Friday Cat Blogging. So here is a little Friday frivolousness.

Kitty is almost entirely indifferent to human food — eating it at least: if it stinks, he will try to bury it. The one exception, oddly enough, is bread. For some reason he is fanatical about the stuff. He pricks up when it goes out on the table and will launch round after round of attack on a baguette.

And it’s not some unknown factor: he wants to eat it. If I pinch off a bunch of buds of bread and lay them out for him, he eagerly chews them down as best a pure carnivore’s fangs will allow.

Here he is at last night’s dinner, bellying up to the bread basket like his claim to its content was legitimate and going to go down unharried.

Bandwagoning, Network Benefits and the Stability of U.S. Unipolarity

There is a debate going on between neoconservatives and others on the right versus traditional international relations theorists and liberals about the stability of the international system of U.S. unipolarity. International Security recently devoted an entire issue to the debate (vol. 30, no. 1, Summer 2005). Obviously it has significant implications for future foreign policy. The argument of the neoconservative has to date been all too easy: if hegemony always provokes a balance, where is it? It has been nearly twenty years since the dissolution of the bipolarity of the Cold War and nothing. And by the way, soft balancing doesn’t count.

The obvious answer to this criticism is that such politically costly, wrenching determinations are very difficult for states to make. Foreign policy establishments are extremely conservative — and rightly so since the survival of the state is at stake — and so only make such a drastic choices as to alter a decades-long foreign policy precedent after the long accumulation of failures — or after the indisputable occurrence of one catastrophic failure.

The choice between bandwagoning versus counterbalancing is essentially an economic calculation. Bandwagoning entails certain costs, mostly those of subordination, but so long as the benefits outweigh the costs, bandwagoning will remain a profitable national security choice. But the cost-benefit analysis is not carried out in a vacuum. Like all such analyses, it is one made in a competitive environment. Bandwagoning might be preferable, even when the costs are extremely high, if the field of choice consists of a security monopoly (unipolarity) — in other words, if the alternative is to go it alone. However, in a system where states have the option of bandwagoning with one of an array of powers, a state will badwagon with the state or alliance in which it perceives the most profitable arrangement of costs and benefits.

A significant advantage to bandwagoing with the United States to date has consisted in the benefit column of the array of international public goods supplied by the U.S. and by the network effects of the U.S.-centric system. On the cost side, historically the U.S. has made the price paid by allied states comparatively very low — think of the subordination costs of allying with the Soviet Union. But two things are happening under right-wing domination of U.S. foreign policy.

First, the U.S. is altering the calculation of costs and benefits. As the U.S. becomes more tight-fisted and capricious in the provision of international public goods, the benefit side starts to look pretty skimpy. And as the majority of the cost side comes from subordination costs, the more the U.S. demands a unidirectional loyalty, the greater the costs to a potential ally become. An act of loyalty is an exchange. When one nation makes a compromise with another, its aim is to make a purchase on some future reverse compromise. A nation compromising keeps a balance sheet of its sacrifices and when it sees that it is garnering nothing comparable in return, it will conclude that it is being ripped off.

A related problem, and much more significant over the long-tem, is that network effects are zero sum. The benefits to using Microsoft products are only partly the quality of the products themselves. The rest of the benefit comes from the fact that everyone else uses Microsoft products too. To e-mail a document is easy because you can rest assured that the recipient uses Word too. If everyone was using Linux instead, the benefits would accrue there and it wouldn’t matter so much how slick Microsoft products were.

One alliance is advantageous in so far as the states comprising the alliance are many, powerful, tightly bound together and offer a broad and deep array of public international goods. These advantages aren’t absolute, but comparative.

States allying with the U.S. are all different, with differing perceived interests and security problems, owing to differing geography, ethnic populations, levels of development, economic makeup, trading partners, and so on. As a result, each makes a different calculation of the profitability of its alliance with the United States. As the United States toughens the terms of its relations with the rest of the world, different nations will drop out at different assessed levels of cost and benefit. But here is where the zero-sum of network benefits becomes so pernicious. For each nation pursuing a security option other than bandwagoning with the United States, the net benefit of allying with the U.S. is reduced and that that of other options, namely that of joining a counterbalancing coalition, is increased.

And there is a feedback loop where this alters the analysis of cost and benefit of bandwagoning with the U.S. The more states that are in a counterbalancing coalition, the more attractive becomes that coalition — all other things being equal. Since the advantages of one coalition is comparative with other coalitions in the system, the strength of one is the weakness of another. And since membership in one alliance typically entails some consequence among states part of a competing alliance, each defection simultaneously decreases the value of membership in the spurned alliance and increases that of the alliance embraced. As more states join the counterbalancing coalition, the deeper the pool of international public goods on offer becomes.

At some point along the spectrum of the United States toughening the terms of its relations with the rest of the world and the trading off of network benefits, a tipping point is reached. The opposing alliance becomes competitive with and then overcomes that that of the United States. They are then in a position to use negative inducements to wrench the plum alliance partners from the U.S. coalition. The contenders find themselves in a position similar to the U.S. during, say, the lead up to the Iraq war, where nations that opposed opted to lay low or feign support, lest they engender the wrath of the U.S.

The two outstanding benefits of bandwagoning with the United States are coverage under the U.S. security umbrella — including that of extended nuclear deterrence — and access to U.S. markets. But both of these will be in declining absolute and comparative value in the next few decades.

U.S. relative military power — and relative military power is all there is — has been on the decline since its apex in 1945. Most pernicious is that though while relative U.S. military spending has been rising throughout most of this period, relative U.S. military strength on the ground has been declining. As the Iraq war shows, at the present price level the U.S. cannot subdue a nation with ten percent of our population and six-tenths of a percent of our gross national product. In al Qaeda we have a small distributed network funded to the tune of a few million dollars a year, whose military capital is even smaller a proportion of our own than their manpower, that now apparently represents an existential threat to the U.S. and is a dogged, nearly unconquerable menace.

Nuclear proliferation will complicate extended deterrence to the point where it can no longer be maintained. The U.S. could nearly convince the Europeans that we were willing to trade Paris for New York when a potential Soviet takeover of Europe was at stake, but could we convince Saudi Arabia that we would trade Los Angeles for Riyadh in a contest with Iran? Hence another reason for missile defense: to preserve the credibility of extended deterrence and thus the benefit to states of subordinating themselves to U.S. designs for a little longer.

The economic story of the latter half of the Twentieth Century is similarly that of the relative economic decline of the United States. This is a trend that will only accelerate in the Twenty-First Century as China and India continue to develop. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that the GDP of China may surpass that of the United States in purchasing power parity as early as 2017. Dean Baker similarly predicts about a decade, with China’s economy growing to three times that of the United States by the end of the Twenty-First Century (“The World in 2026“, The World in 2006, Special Edition; Baker, Dean, “The Social Security Shortfall and the National Defense Shortfall,” CEPR, April 2005; though Sun Bin predicts that China will never surpass more than 80 percent of U.S. GDP, “When will China’s GDP overtake the US?,” 29 December 2005). With a billion people each, neither country has to match the U.S. in GDP per capita or standard of living for total economy, aggregate purchasing power, tax receipts and military spending to outstrip that of the United States. And while they’re at it, why not outbid the United States at the IMF, hence gaining a controlling vote at that institution.

It’s like global climate change: U.S. military exhaustion is the thawing northern permafrost and the rise of the Chinese economy is the melting Greenland Ice Sheet of the international system. Both are cataclysms that threaten to push the international system over the hump where the trends become accelerating and self-sustaining.

To the too easy neoconservative argument of “show me a balance,” should be a similarly easy retort that the future is long. Things obviously won’t stay the same: they are already well down the path to changing. When material circumstances change, the relation of nations will follow. They always do; it’s just that sometimes ideology is a lagging indicator.

Jacksonians and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

My last two posts have been about the ways that the right seeks to undo the international system built up over the last 65 years. Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money assesses that they have also succeeded in ruining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well (“The NPT is Dead,” 13 October 2007):

The strike [by the Israeli air force on a possible Syrian nuclear reactor], and especially the apparent acquiescence of the United States in its planning and execution, means that the NPT is pretty much a dead letter… and has been replaced by a de facto arrangement in which states that the US approves of are allowed to have nuclear power, while states we dislike get airstrikes. … Combine this with the recent nuclear deal with India, and I’d have to say that the Bush administration’s effort to kill a legal cornerstone of international stability have been remarkably successful.

To which Matthew Yglesias adds (“The End of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” The, 14 October 2007),

Iraq was the neocons’ big chance to show that the approach to WMD policy they prefer — basically an ad hoc regime enforced by American military power and undergirded by nothing more principled than American whim — was workable. To make it work, they needed to show that we could successful topple a regime we didn’t like and replace it with one we liked better cheaply and easily enough to make it credible that we’d go and do it again. But it failed. The low-cost airstrike approach isn’t going to succeed against any kind of determined adversary, and the more we act like a rogue superpower the harder it will be to get our way.

This is another masterstroke for the Bush administration. They rip to shreds the one bulwark we do have against nuclear proliferation — one that has been fairly successful over the last 40 years — and have ready in its place absolutely nothing. In this case not even the credible threat of U.S. force.

Reaganomics Vindicated!

This piece from The Onion takes the piss out of right-wing economics (“Reaganomics Finally Trickles Down To Area Man,” Issue 43-41, 13 October 2007). And they really realize the potential of the original idea. After the hook it reads like a John Updike novel in miniature.

HAZELWOOD, MO — Twenty-six years after Ronald Reagan first set his controversial fiscal policies into motion, the deceased president’s massive tax cuts for the ultrarich at last trickled all the way down to deliver their bounty, in the form of a $10 bonus, to Hazelwood, MO car-wash attendant Frank Kellener.

“Back when Reagan was in charge, I didn’t think much of him,” Kellener, 57, said, holding up two five-dollar bills nearly three decades in the making. “But who would have thought that in 2007 I’d have this extra $10 in my pocket? He may not have lived to see it, but I’m sure President Reagan is up in heaven smiling down on me right now.”

Leading economists say Kellener’s unexpected windfall provides the first irrefutable proof of the effectiveness of Reagan’s so-called supply-side economics, and shows that the former president had “incredible, far-reaching foresight.”