Friday, November 14, 2008

Obama and the World: Introduction

The election is finally over and now it's time to think about how the U.S. is going to interact with the world under an Obama administration. Considering that I am an International Relations scholar first and foremost (and hackish political pundit only in my spare time) I am going to spend the next few posts analyzing how I think Obama's administration is going to deal with the various foreign policy challenges that are coming down the pike in the next few years, with an emphasis on diplomatic issues. Diplomacy is a pretty nebulous concept, so I will be hoping to unpack it to help make sense of what is going on in various regions.

At the most basic level, it seems people in general have high hopes for Obama. The world clearly wanted him to win in a big way prior to the election. Take a look at this very pretty interactive Gallup poll that Foreign Policy Magazine had on their website in the run-up to the elections; I'll be referring to it in subsequent posts. The numbers are pretty striking. If the world had a candidate it supported, it was generally Obama, and then overwhelmingly so. McCain only had more support in Georgia, the Philippines, and Cambodia (Laos is within what I imagine was the polls margin of error - usually +/-3%).

But look carefully at the map. Certainly, the West was heavily invested in this election and very pro-Obama. Middle-Eastern countries and China - i.e. the tricky areas - tended to not have an opinion on who should win, or if they did, said they didn't think it would make a difference. This is a bit of cold water in the face of people who think the whole world is as happy with Obama's win as the people who are reading this blog might be(all three of them).

This evidence is further supported by the interactive map at Pew, which is even more fun. While McCain was truly despised the world over, there is not a huge amount of support for Obama in geo-strategically significant areas outside of the West.

The Obama administration is not going to get it easy at the start in other words. In fact, there is a chance that they may be tested early on. But, based on the policy direction that Obama outlined during his campaign, as well as his response to issues such as the Georgia-Russia war(?) in August, I think he is going to help the U.S. adjust to a changing world, bring allies closer together, and calmly but firmly put challengers back in their boxes.

So consider this the prologue to a number of discussions/predictions on what an Obama administration might do in the world. I will have separate posts on the Middle-East & Iraq, China, U.S. allies/Europe/NATO, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror (though I just found out yesterday that it is no longer called that), and maybe even Climate Change (I haven't decided yet).

But to start with in the next post, I will go with everyone's favorite new Hollywood-esque threat: Putin's..er Medvedev's Russia.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Would YOU like to be the Great Satan?

Two pieces of writing have recently come to my attention regarding US policy towards Iran.  This paper by some people at the University of North Texas uses, of all things, an event history model to address what they call ``The Podhoretz Argument''.  This is the idea that the most effective strategy by which to redress the threat of Iran is for the United States to employ military force to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability.  Enterline et al look at the relations between the US and opponents from 1945-2002 and find that:

`` our model shows strong support for the idea that American military clashes reduce, rather than extend, the durability of peace following a use of military force. Historically, American military clashes have sharply reduced the durability of peace afterward, although this effect diminishes the longer the United States and an opponent go without fighting again. We note a similar effect in terms of the number of fatalities produced by a military interaction; specifically, the greater the number of fatalities resulting from a military interaction between the United States and an opponent, the less durable the peace between them afterward. Undoubtedly, there is a selection effect at work here, such that the United States is most likely to be involved in high casualty clashes with those states with which it has the most hostile relationships. Nevertheless, this historical tendency runs in direct contrast to Podhoretz’s argument.''

Then, on Duck of Minerva, there is this interesting argument that Obama's willingness to talk to Iran could cause a legitimacy crisis for the regime because they have premised so much of their foreign policy rhetoric on denouncing the US as the Great Satan.  As Peter observes, ``Its a terrible thing to take away one's enemy''

Bottom line: I don't think we should bomb Iran.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The GOP is eating its young

Sorry I have been away for so long. Friends came in from out of town, there was an election, and I am officially up to my eyes in disgusting statistics.

I thought I'd take a few minutes to comment on the current civil war that is brewing in the GOP, between the lunatic fringe and the dwindling moderate conservatives. That these two groups should eventually clash was somewhat inevitible. Nixon's Southern Strategy met with the Goldwater conservatism of the 60s and set the Republican party up to be able to marry the social issues of race and religion to economic issues of lower taxes and free market liberalism. The apogee of this strategy was seen in the coming of Reagan, who managed to obliterate Carter (and later Mondale) by snatching a huge amount of blue-collar Regean Democrats: people who were democrats on economic issues but conservatives on social ones. With them in tow, the Republicans stomped to victory.

Ah...the glory days.

However, such a coalition could not last forever. In this election cycle the big tent, already creaking, finally splintered. The proximate cause can be found in Sarah Palin, but I think the tensions were already showing. Nonetheless, Plain acts as a good symbol of what both sides expected from the party. Moderate Republicans saw Palin as a cynical choice but good enough to get them the tax breaks they wanted; radical Republicans genuinely liked her, much more than they liked McCain. As the election proceeded, moderate Republicans began to jump the sinking ship - many citing Palin as the problem; whereas the radicals complained she was being stifled.

Here, in microcosm, we saw the inconsistencies of the last 30 years of the Reagan coalition. Since the 70s moderates were happy to have the rubes along, provided the rubes didn't get ahead of themselves. But the rubes, however, saw moderates as as pointy-headed as liberals, and certainly had no intention of bowing to them. In time, the rubes ran for office and won. Consider the Republican primaries. 3 of the 10 candidates did not believe in evolution. The words lunatics and asylum jump into the mind.

Now, with the election over, both sides are blaming each other. Moderate republicans are holding their heads in their hands, wondering what went wrong, suggesting the Republicans redefine their brand and ditch backwoods politics. The Radicals argue that the campaign was insufficiently nutso in flavour and are advocating that Republicans tack even further right.

I have been enjoying the public weeping no end. I can remember the time when these thugs were intimidating everyone around them and slowly driving America into ruin and pulling the world along with them. So nice to see them in the wilderness. Even better for my schadenfreude is the public battling and purging that is going on. Any time a moderate jumped ship they were harrassed as traitors and heretics. Now with the election over, McCainites and Palinites are blaming each other for the loss. It seems to me that the radical side - as one might expect from a group which has a, let's say, instrumental view towards democracy - are baying for the most blood. The best example of this is "Operation Leper", the goal of which is to:

[track] down all the people from the McCain campaign now whispering smears against Governor Palin to [journalist] Carl Cameron and others...We intend to constantly remind the base about these people, monitor who they are working for, and, when 2012 rolls around, see which candidates hire them. Naturally then, you'll see us go to war against those candidates.


This program has the backing of loony-in-chief, Michelle Malkin.

The despair, the rage, the desperation. What can I tell you? I'm loving it.


Above: Ann Coulter and David Frum debate what went wrong

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Epigraph to a phd dissertation...

From Mr Sludge, "The Medium"
by Robert Browning


And all this might be, may be, and with good help
Of a little lying shall be: so, Sludge lies!
Why, he’s at worst your poet who sings how Greeks
That never were, in Troy which never was,
Did this or the other impossible great thing!…

But why do I mount to poets? Take plain prose—
Dealers in common sense, set these at work,
What can they do without their helpful lies?
Each states the law and fact and face o’ the thing
Just as he’d have them, finds what he thinks fit,
Is blind to what missuits him, just records
What makes his case out, quite ignores the rest.
It’s a History of the World, the Lizard Age,
The Early Indians, the Old Country War,
Jerome Napoleon, whatsoever you please,
All as the author wants it. Such a scribe
You pay and praise for putting life in stones,
Fire into fog, making the past your world.
There’s plenty of ‘How did you contrive to grasp
The thread which led you through this labyrinth?
How build such solid fabric out of air?
How on so slight foundation found this tale?
Biography, narrative?’ or, in other words,
‘How many lies did it require to make
The portly truth you here present us with?’

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

International Relations 101 #2

As an example of the effective integration of theory and substantive questions, I would like to submit the example  of Ruth Lane from American University, who wrote an article (gated) in the latest (Oct 08) PS: Political Science and Politics.  She  writes about teaching a class in comparative politics, rather than IR, so her substantive conclusions and reading list are not relevant.  But, the general approach seems to hit the target that I outlined in my previous post.  Her major point is that introducing game theory as an organizing principle enables a theoretically sophisticated way to analyze international phenomena.  At this point I can hear the mental red flags going up in anyone within political science.  The point here is not that science isn't science without multivariable calculus being involved.  Rather, Lane's use of game theoretic concepts helps students focus on the ``players, goals, strategies, and outcomes'' as well as the interdependence or independence of action.  This, she claims, has beneficial effects.  When students find out about a policy they often simply say that it has been put into effect.  In Lane's class

``they are then challenged to redefine such opaque reports with game theory's sharp questions: who exactly were the players (who proposed the policy, who opposed it), what were their goals (stated and unstated), why did the interaction result in this particular outcome (how did the players see the payoffs and choose their strategies?)?  This makes an important pedagogical point, that events do not just happen but are part of an ongoing battle between social forces of various types.  Game theory provides essential tools to undertake what might otherwise be an unguided journey.''

But game theory is the complete antithesis of a focus on substantive phenomena!  Lane complements the use of game theoretic concepts with what she calls idiographic studies that are `interesting' and `make learning a pleasure'.  I wonder what kind of idiographic studies we have in IR.  Maybe this would include a history book on the Cuban Missile Crisis or some  contemporary foreign policy, like Dennis Ross's Statecraft.  I think that this concept could be taken further though.  Lane uses some books that are chosen more for their accessibility and wow factor than their scholarly rigor.  She even assigns a travel book for the material on China.  I can see the immediate criticism here (to echo someone I was speaking to recently about teaching), i.e., ``It's not supposed to be fun, it's supposed to be informative!''  The response here is that choosing readable material, rather than a textbook (for god's sake, this isn't chemistry), is aimed at effective pedagogy, not infotainment.  If a non-theoretical book is assigned, with the aim of providing accessible information on a substantive empirical topic, and then the events are analyzed using either game-theoretic concepts or constructivist theories, then I don't see how this can be dismissed as `fun'.  I do think that there might be a problem with finding accessible accounts of international phenomena, or maybe it is just that those are not the books that I am reading at the moment.  
Next, I'll cannibalize another article for concrete ways to teach game theory to IR undergrads.