Daniel Nexon


Academia, Mental Health, and the Cult of Productivity

E’Lisa Campbell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is a guest post by Amelia Hoover Green, Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Politics at Drexel University

Will Moore’s death was a tragedy. To state the hopefully obvious: Will’s ferocious productivity makes his death no more or less tragic. Public tributes to Will focus, rightly, on his forthrightness, his heart for justice, his mentorship, his kindness. But productivity—as a value, as a compulsion, or both—shows up too.

In his final post, Will wrote that he enjoyed his avocations, but “[t]o feel good about myself—to be able to look myself in the mirror—I needed to produce.”

Joseph Young’s tribute to his mentor recognized that Will “had a chip on his shoulder” but “remained ridiculously productive throughout his career. He passed on this chip to his students, who are in turn productive across the board.”

Erica Chenoweth, Barbara Walter, and Young list Will’s many contributions to Political Violence at a Glance, noting that Will “did it because he loved the study of political violence, he loved to educate, he loved to produce, and because he was an unbelievably generous soul.” (Emphasis mine.)

Another of the political scientists touched by Will’s life, Emily Ritter, calls for academic environments to be more receptive to those with mental illness, writing: “I… tend to be a ‘high-functioning depressive’, in that I can still be productive, meet deadlines, give lectures, and be outgoing in social environments while being depressed, confused, lonely, and panicky internally. …There’s no gap in my CV. No one would have ever been the wiser about my dark clouds–except that I told them.” (Thank you for telling us!)

Stories about mental illness in the academy often come from people who recover, produce, and/or prevail. In an important 2014 piece on depression in the academy, Amanda Murdie wrote: “A healthy you means that you will produce more…Taking time out to care for yourself will make your work better.” Murdie is a prodigious producer of research whose post began with some context: an invited talk at her graduate school department, a secure job.

Outside political science, my Drexel colleague Lisa Tucker wrote a searing and beautiful essay about her experiences with anxiety in academia — an essay which opened (had to open, I might argue) with the news that she had received tenure. Another law professor, Elyn Saks, has written movingly about working in academia while experiencing psychosis. The blurbs, of course, lead with her work: “Elyn Saks is a success by any measure: she’s an endowed professor at the prestigious University of Southern California Gould School of Law…”

It stands to reason that personal reflections on mental illness and the academy should focus on the positive and productive, and/or should come from those who have an impregnable fortress of a CV to speak from. As Saks has written, “I did not make my illness public until relatively late in my life. And that’s because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn’t feel safe with people knowing.” Saks is now, finally, safe to discuss her schizophrenia publicly — because it’s clear that schizophrenia hasn’t affected the all-important productivity. Continue reading

A Friendly Amendment to a Useful Conversation: Lets Make the World a Better Place

Will Moore

This is a guest post by Christian Davenport, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Will Moore was a close friend of, and  collaborator with, Professor Davenport.

There have several themes emerging out of the loss of our dear colleague that have emerged: how wonderful Will H. Moore (hereafter Will) was as a colleague, teacher and friend as well as a detailed and long-overdue discussion about mental health/care in the profession as well as individual cases. I do not want to detract from that conversation but I do wish to suggest two things.

First, just because we might—and should—provide some venue/place/service for people to share and be heard regarding what is going on in their lives does not mean that all of those in need will avail themselves of such a service. As an African American (after generations of experiments, neglect and poor treatment), I am hesitant to go to anyone’s office; many friends, relatives, and black folk I don’t know share this opinion according to existing research. There are other reasons for not going —pride, fear, a perception of inefficacy, shyness, poverty, etc.

I’m not against the community of scholars identifying and providing such a service. I’m just identifying that there are some limitations that need to be considered. If things were available does not mean that our dear friend would still be here.  It’s a little more complex than that and I wish to probe this a little.

With regards to my work on Rwandan political violence, I was essentially traumatized by my trips. I saw mass graves with bodies still in them, conversed with murderers, interviewed survivors, and surveyed both—as well as bystanders.  There was no one to speak to except the small group of other scholars who were interested/open (like Will) and practitioners who shared the experience (like the late Alison Des Forges), most of whom were dealing with their own stuff. When I later got in trouble for highlighting diverse forms of violence and got labeled a genocide denier/trivializer by the Rwandan government (incorrectly I might add), I was further isolated, unsure whom to talk to, and felt compelled to withdraw. Indeed, during this period I did not really speak to anyone about the experience. This persisted for several years, until I started writing about it—initially in story/blog form.  After I did this, I began to feel more comfortable about continuing my work there.  Upon seeing the scholarship that emerged (after I was criticized and banned), I became enraged—further propelling me into the research about Rwanda, which I am now completing.

Trips to India to study the horror that is untouchability (PDF), and to the Dominican Republic to study the slavery-like condition of Dominican-Haitians in Bateyes, further fueled my negative thoughts/feelings about the human condition. Much less sensationalistic, this says nothing about my constant attention to the plight of African Americans regarding the myriad of ways that they are killed and treated in a discriminatory fashion—the number of ways which only multiplies as I look further (higher rates of diagnosed schizophrenia being the last). I tend not to discuss this last one with any of colleagues and numerous friends because most “don’t want to go there”—including, to be honest, myself. Will would go there. He was always ready to let me vent and I would let him do the same when he so desired. Part of the reason that most would not, however, is that there is no simple resolution to the problem. This leads me to the second point.

Second, I wish to suggest that we not only focus on the scholars who are addressing difficult topics and the support systems around them, but also the system that produced the privilege that so elevated and disturbed our dear friend Will.  I wish to suggest that we focus on the system that produced the misogyny that upset our friend and compelled him to take action—repeatedly. I wish to focus on the racism that compelled him to take action and the repression that provoked him to work so hard. I want to focus on the discipline, departments and society that thrives on ignoring peoples work and creating cultures where folks are intolerant of people who are different, awkward, or even odd.  I do not want to suggest that we turn away from such topics because they are difficult, but rather that we all turn to such topics in order to alleviate the overall cost spent by any single person who studies them.

I say all this because I think that some of our conversation following Will’s departing has been hijacked by a belief that if we just had the right apparatus in place, then we would not currently be where we are. I think that many people are in pain because of the world being the way that it is. We are only going to improve this situation by improving the world around us. We don’t just need a venue for communicating our pain and resolving some massive internal issues that these involve. We need to also address the sources for some of the things that prompt anxiety and depression, as well as that shape the openness of individuals to discuss uncomfortable topics. For example, many do not even acknowledge the high rates of suicide within the African American male population (PDF). To deal with this problem effectively however we not only need to provide venues and strategies for helping this population deal with their mental health, but we also need to stop sticking guns in their faces, patting them down, under-employing them, underestimating them, and subjecting them to microaggressive behavior. These two efforts need to work hand in hand in order to produce a change.

Perverse Incentives and Academia

What’s wrong with the current use of metrics in academia? This is the best summary that I’ve ever seen.

I will be discussing the publishing part of the equation on my Saturday panel at ISA.

The Downsides of Burden-Sharing

Abe Newman and I have a piece in Vox on Trump’s attempt to pressure allies into spending more on defense. You should ignore the title. The gist of the argument is that, first, there are upsides to having wealthy and technologically advanced allies dependent on the US for their security needs; second, while it would be great to get NATO allies to spend more on defense, this is a very dangerous way to go about doing it; and, third, the benefits of burden-sharing are likely overblown.

Since it went live, I’ve had a few interesting exchanges. One of the claims that we make is that Trump’s calls for burden-sharing are a bit odd. If we want to derive economic benefits from burden-sharing, we need to reallocate defense savings into more productive sectors. Trump’s own plans for military spending suggest he has no intention of doing this. But Raymond Pritchett points out that the alliance has major recapitalization needs—including the SSBN-leg of the nuclear triad—and so some in the Pentagon might hope that burden-sharing allows reallocation.

Regardless, please give it a read.

Mind the Power Gap

I have new online piece, co-authored with Dani Nedal, at Foreign Affairs:

President Donald Trump believes that America makes terrible deals—from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Why, according to Trump, do other countries take such advantage of the United States? Because our leaders and officials are stupid and incompetent and are terrible negotiators.  “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people. But we have people that are stupid,” said Trump when he announced his decision to run for president. On immigration, he was similarly blunt: “the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning.” And during the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, he claimed that “we are making a terrible deal” because “we have the wrong people negotiating for us.” He added that “the Persians are great negotiators” and that “they are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear.”

If the Trump Doctrine is to put “America First” by focusing on bilateral bargains—understood in terms of short-term winners and losers—then its corollary is the “Good Negotiator Policy.” In the president’s world, bad people make bad deals.  The best, smartest people—most notably, Trump himself—always get the best bargains. He is right that personal attributes and interpersonal dynamics can make an important difference in international negotiations. But Trump’s focus on individual skill overlooks the most important factor that shapes political agreements in general and international ones in particular: the relative leverage of the parties involved.

The problem is that when the Washington locked in most of its bargains and arrangements, America was much more powerful, in relative terms, than it is now.

It takes a rather naïve negotiator to attempt to overhaul relatively favorable deals from a position of comparative weakness. The United States will not get better bargains than it achieved when it controlled more than twice as much of global power as it currently holds. If Trump abandons long-standing practices of American-led liberal order for bilateral, transactional, and zero-sum relations, other states have little reason to prefer dealing with Washington to China, Russia, or any other country.

When it comes to stiffing contractors, he’s shown a very good understanding of how power asymmetries shape bargaining outcomes. But, overall, Trump’s rhetoric is in keeping with a man who was born on third base and thinks staying there is a testament to his mad business skillz.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, if you’re so inclined. You may need to register to get access.

(cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money)

Preliminary Notes on Progressive Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump


I apologize for inflicting this on you all, but I’ve found that blogging helps me think through ideas and questions—especially given the Duck’s readership. So, without further introduction, here are some half-baked notes on Progressive foreign policy.


The 2016 primary contest highlighted the general atrophy of progressive foreign-policy thought and infrastructure.

  • Virtually the entire left and liberal foreign-policy apparatus lined up behind Clinton, whether because of affinity, hope for employment and fear of retaliation, or out of the calculation that she was the only viable game in town.
  • Sanders never articulated a coherent foreign-policy paradigm, although you can find it in skeletal terms: multilateralism in most issue areas, a much higher threshold for military force, the rejection of ‘regime change’ as a legitimate basis for war, a rejection of the ‘neoliberal’ trading order, the pursuit of human rights and human security, lower defense spending, and a moderate position with respect to rival—and potentially rival—great powers.
  • After Sanders, the Greens attempted to claim the mantle of progressive foreign policy. Too often, this took the form of caricature: the old saw that American foreign policy is essentially imperialist and a tool of large corporations, and therefore anyone who opposes US foreign policy should either be embraced—or, at least, flirted with.

The Trump Administration, on the other hand, is a crucible for progressive foreign policy. It forces us to ask basic questions about what we stand for—independent of specific policies.

  • Some of the policies Trump espoused on security—criticism of the Iraq War and the Libyan intervention—and international political economy—opposition to the TPP and to ‘neoliberal’ trade deals—resonated with the progressive left. Both in terms of their own policy priorities—less war, more protectionism—and in terms of their overall distrust of neoliberal variants of internationalism.
  • What is neoliberal internationalism? It combines, in brief, a disposition to use force for liberal ends with the ‘Third Way’ consensus. The progressive left often sees it as indistinguishable for neoconservative foreign policy—a view reinforced in 2016 by Clinton’s votes for the Iraq War, history of support for trade agreements, and Bill Clinton’s role in passing NAFTA.
  • But this is not quite right. As I’ve argued elsewhere—in the context of liberal internationalism—both approaches embrace activist foreign policy and the promotion of liberal order, neoliberal internationalists see multilateralism and multilateral institutions as intrinsic goods. Neoconservatives do not. The neoliberal institutionalists are correct. One reason: a great many of the challenges we face—such as climate change, global disease, and transnational terrorism— require collective action. That depends on multilateral cooperation.
  • Trumpism highlights not only how neoconservatives and neoliberal internationalists are in the same family, but that progressive foreign policy also belongs to that family. This is not to downplay the significance of our differences. For instance, the Iraq War, targeted killings, and the like are matters of life and death. But we are arguing on similar terms. Trumpism, however, represents a stream of thought about the American role in the world that was, until now, marginal—and marginalized—in the post-war era.
  • Progressive foreign policy is a variant of liberal internationalism. In 2003, the Progressive Policy Institute released a report calling for “Progressive Internationalism.” I can’t find the full report, but it looks pretty much like centrist democratic foreign policy. But I think “Progressive Internationalism” is the right term for the variant of liberal internationalism that progressives ought to champion.

Continue reading

The Many Faces of Trump Foreign Policy

From NBC. Admit it, you'd rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

From NBC. Admit it, you’d rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

It won’t be too long before we start to get a better understanding of what foreign policy in a Trump Administration will actually look like. It’s useful to keep in mind that current rhetoric is no guarantee of future grand strategy. Remember when we all worried that the Bush Administration was going to be too isolationist? Good times.

But let’s assume, for a moment, that the past is prologue. Or the prologue is the main part of the book. Or whatever.

This raises an interesting puzzle: what the $@!#* • #!*$$%*(!! is he doing? Seriously. What the !#(&–^&!# stupid #$#(*$!! is going on?

As I noted in another post, on what godforsaken inhospitable bright orange gas giant is it a good idea to attack your most successful alliance at the same exact time that you’re picking fights with your nearest peer-competitor—that is, China? And it isn’t like the incoming administration has been sending unambiguous signals to key Asian allies while it’s been prodding China. Oh yeah, and also North Korea’s in the mix.

As I was thinking about this—duly motivated by a discussion among fellow international-relations specialists on Facebook—I took to the Twitters to work out some alternative theories. Here they are:

The Chess Master.” Trump is a strategic genius. He recognizes that the US cannot afford to defend Europe while threatening war with China. He needs to take Russia out of the picture. So that means a “grand bargain” that will concede to Russia its privileged sphere of influence, as well as forward some of its other strategic priorities in western Eurasia. Not only does this free up the United States to take on Beijing, but it might even entice Russia to remain neutral—or support the US. It’s like the Austrian Diplomatic Revolution. Which turned out terrific for Vienna.

“The Transactionalist.” This is the conventional wisdom on Trump. He thinks in terms of short-term zero-sum bargains, mercantilist economics, and is deeply insecure about being taken advantage of. In his mind, NATO helps trade competitors. It’s basically a trade subsidy for Germany. But he can make big, splashy deals with countries like Russia. Maybe he can squeeze better deals from the NATO allies as well. There is a “T” in NATO, after all. It doesn’t have to stand for “Treaty.”

“Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt.” Trump speaks loudly and carries… a small stick… in his freakishly small hands. He’s all bluster. US foreign policy will largely carry on as normal, under the watchful eye of Defense, State, and second-tier national-security staff. In fact, Trump’s barking might just get a few NATO countries to make token increases in their defense spending, or offer more subsidies for American troops.

“The Buffoon.” This is kind of like Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt, but he actually means it; cooler heads aren’t going to prevail. It really is that bad. In other words, Trump is an impulsive narcissist and a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t worry too much about strategic logic. There really isn’t any. But some nice commentators—at Fox News, NewsMax, whatever new #MAGA journals appear, or the National Enquirer—will be happy to tell us that it’s genius. In a hundred years, Chinese revisionist historians will argue that there actually was a calculated grand strategy. They will be wrong.

“The Leninist.” The Trump ‘brain trust’—some combination of Bannon and Flynn—just want to burn it all down. This is something Cheryl Rofer (blog, Twitter) emphasizes. As reported at The Daily Beast:

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

In this scenario, it’s all about shredding globalism and liberal order. And that means watching NATO and the EU burn. Or, at least, gumming them up. Here, the eerie overlap with Russian interests is all a matter of convenience. They hate the liberal order, because it benefits the US and its allies. The Trumpistas hate the liberal order too, because reasons.

“The Transnational Rightist.” The Leninist is to revolutionary Marxism as The Transnational Rightist is to parliamentary socialism. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NATO and the EU that a Europe dominated by a mix of right-wing populist and post-fascist parties won’t cure. The enemy is the broad European center—the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and so on. What Trump wants is the rise of political co-confessionals, such as the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, and the Freedom Party in Austria. Hurting the establishment is good, but burning everything down would be a bit too much. Maybe just the EU. NATO can stay. Is Russia an ally of convenience or a fellow traveller? For now, it doesn’t really matter.

“The Useful Idiot.” Is Trump compromised by Kompromat? Is his overleveraged financial spider web dependent upon, intertwined with, or simply looking for the best deals in Russia? Does Trump just having a thing for strong, buff autocrats? Who knows? It’s all bad.

“Tales of the Incompetent Transition.” Transitions often make for policy instability and amateur-hour mistakes. I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009. The Obama Administration had just rolled out its new plans for European ballistic missile defenses. They were much better than the old plans. They also involved ending the “Third Site” in Poland. That the Bush Administration had so carefully negotiated. Apparently, no one gave  Warsaw a ‘heads up’. Things were bumpy for a bit.

Point is, even well-run transitions full of experienced people can go bad. And this is not one of those transitions. Eventually, there will be national-security principals, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and the rest of the crew. People will be briefed. Many will have a clue. Things will settle down.

…. Of course, it could be any combination of these. And perhaps I’ve missed some possibilities. Thoughts?

[cross-posted at the Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Taking Democracy for Granted

[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. After Aida Hozic shared the essay with me, I asked Valerie and Mark if I could post it at the Duck. They kindly agreed. I think it is one of the clearest—and most succinct—statements of why we should be worried and vigilant about the fate of US institutions.]

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.

— Valerie J. Bunce and Mark R. Beissinger


In Domestic and Foreign Affairs, ‘It’s the Institutions, Stupid’

american-839775_1920[tl;dr: 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 too remains a major concern. The piece collects and synthesizes arguments that I have made in other social media, most notably Twitter.]


A number of people are now sharing stories about Trump and his circle with the caption “This is not normal.” The pieces range widely in subject matter. They range from  apparent purges of insufficiently loyal members of Trump’s transition team to Kansas Secretary of State—and transition-team member—Kris Kobach’s discussion of “drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.”

They are right: none of this is normal.

My wager in this post is that Trump’s election may amount to an inflection point in the institutional fabric of our political system. And by this, I do not simply mean our domestic republican institutions. I also mean the broadly liberal-republican international order constructed after World War II.  Indeed, these two sets of institutions are profoundly bootstrapped to one another. This dual threat amounts to the greatest challenge to the American experiment since the early years of the Cold War.

The nature of this challenge requires us to set aside normal politics. It requires a broad coalition—of liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and moderates—to come together with the purpose of monitoring and protecting the health of those institutions. Such a coalition will fail if it becomes divided by policy differences. At this moment, many of the standard debates—about taxes, the level of economic regulation, and size of the defense budget, and so forth—are of secondary importance. Indeed, their elevation to existential concerns helped bring us to this point.


As I’ve argued on Twitter, most Americans—and academics—operate with the assumption that political institutions are sticky. Once constructed, they prove difficult to radically transform—in the absence of huge shocks such as revolutions, wars, and economic collapse. And, in many respects, that’s a reasonable assumption. Institutions structure political competition and cooperation, create vested interests, and otherwise generate their own mechanisms of perpetuation.

In the American system, we have multiple “veto points” spread across our Courts, Congress, and the Presidency. Our federal system devolves a fair amount of authority to the states, making top-down change harder than, say, in France. Indeed, France is on its Fifth Republic, but the United States has enjoyed the same fundamental law—its constitution—since 1789. On top of that, we have a complex, professional bureaucracy that requires immense knowledge and willpower to set in a radically different trajectory.

All of these factors may rightly provide reason to discount my alarmism (and I am being deliberately alarmist). But this is not a good year to bet on the stability of liberal-democratic institutions. The Philippines, with its wave of extra-judicial killings and the deaths of elected officials, is seeing rapid democratic backsliding. Turkey looks in danger of quickly moving through the hybrid-regime phase into outright autocracy.

Americans generally look at democratic backsliding as something that happens “to other people.” As the well-known phrase itself calls into question, we believe that “it can’t happen here.”

But underneath the trappings of continuity—a longstanding continuous currency, the US Constitution, and the like—the United States has indeed undergone radical change. In practical terms, American institutions look almost nothing like they did prior to the Civil War.


Consider this way of thinking about the first 190 years of American political development: We first tried a confederation. We quickly gave up on that and built a semi-centralized federation. That federation collapsed into civil war. The victors established a more centralized federation. We further struggled over the terms of central authority through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. The post-war period saw the combination of a more national-state apparatus combined with a regional race-based hybrid regime. The Federal Government, pushed by a great social movement, ended many of the institutional props of those regional apartheid systems.

Moreover, during the long nineteenth century, the United States was a continental empire. It established settler colonies and displaced indigenous inhabitants. After the Spanish-American War, the US explicitly established an overseas empire. Vestiges of those empires still remain, even if many of the territories of the first became part of the American federation.greateramericamap

We could discuss many more examples. In fact, the history of ethnic, religious, and racial inclusion and exclusion itself supplies a great deal more empirical material. But all of this evidence would all point in the same direction: beneath the superficial stability of the American system—beneath its apparent equilibrium—lies great political instability and ongoing transformation.


The same is true of the post-war liberal international order, including the World Bank, the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). To these, and other, institutions we might add more recent ones, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (EU), and the EU’s predecessor agreements and institutions.  Beyond these ‘named’ organizations lies a host of relationships, networks, partnerships, and alliances. In this diplomatic and military web, the US is at least primus inter pares. Continue reading

Ben Rhodes, Part the Second: Or, Journalistic Interpolations are Not Evidence

For those of you not on Twitter.

(yes, I know the post is displaying parent tweets; WordPress is stripping the code to remove them)

The White House Pushes for its Policies, and Other Surprises from Ben Rhodes

It seems that everyone (at least on the political right) is in a tizzy about the “revelations” in David Samuels’ New York Times Magazine story on Ben Rhodes. For example, Lee Smith, at the Weekly Standard, headlines “Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru Boasts of How the Administration Lied to Sell the Iran Deal.” As I’ll explain below, that’s, at best, massive hyperbole.  But what we really learned is that Ben Rhodes has a massive ego—Thomas Ricks is less kind in his assessment. We also learned that Samuels—like any reporter—wants to break big stories. Put the two together, and you come away less, not better, informed.

Let’s start with one of the passages from the story that’s receiving a lot of attention—and that Smith partially blockquotes:

As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.

This is, more or less, a description of what every single White House does when seeking to pass a major, and controversial, initiative. They connect with allies, they disseminate talking points, they coordinate with like-minded policy and industry groups, and they feed those groups information. Administrations create multiple information channels to the press, the public, and elected officials.The Obama Administration did this for the Affordable Care Act. The Bush Administration did this for its massive tax cuts, for the Iraq War, and, unsuccessfully, in its efforts to privatize Social Security. Continue reading

Interventionism and Restraint in Democratic Foreign Policy

At War on the Rocks, Mieke Eoyong intervenes in the Sanders-Clinton foreign-policy debate. Although the case made for Sanders’ foreign policy by those she critiques—including Sean Kay—is much broader, she focuses on three arguments: that “Sanders has superior judgment because he opposed the Iraq War and Clinton didn’t; Sanders would exercise restraint in intervention, where Clinton is on record supporting U.S. intervention in a number of cases; [and] Sanders would restrain defense spending.”

I’m going to respond to the first two. I do so as a recovering liberal hawk. In the 1990s, my views on foreign policy were profoundly shaped by the pages of The New Republic. But over the last fifteen years, I’ve moved further and further away from liberal interventionism. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still more of a ‘strong defense’ type than most people on the left. But the problems that I see with Eoyong’s case reflect the reasons for my own evolution.

Indeed, Eoyong’s first argument is that the real test of judgment is learning from mistakes. As she writes:

A candidate’s ability to admit he or she has made a mistake and take corrective action is far more important in the world where imperfect information and changed circumstance may render initial judgments as poor decisions. No one gets it right all the time. How do candidates cope when they get it wrong? What lessons do they learn? What steps do they take to address the problems?

Fair enough. And this is one reason why I don’t worry about a possible Clinton presidency the way that many on the Democratic left do (indeed, if and when Clinton wins the nomination my pocketbook will open up to her campaign and I will do everything I can to support it). But I think it telling that Eoyong has nothing to say about the actual lessons learned by liberal interventionists from Iraq. Continue reading

The Practice Turn in International Relations Theory

Thanks to PTJ, ISQ Online is running a debate about the scope and nature of the ‘practice turn’ in the study of world politics. The symposium centers around a recent International Studies Quarterly article by Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger, “The Play of International Practice.”*

Continue reading

Thoughts on DA-RT

For background on DA-RT, see Jarod Hayes’ post at the Duck of Minerva, as well as John Patty’s response to the petition to delay implementation (as well as its related website) and Jeffrey Isaac’s response to Patty and Isaac’s latest postRoundups and responses abound.

I drafted a longer piece on DA-RT, but now realize that I will probably never finish it. So, instead, some brief comments:

  • I have neither signed the DA-RT Journal Editors’ Statement (JETS), nor the acronym-challenged petition to delay it’s implementation. My basic reasons are straightforward. The journal that I edit, International Studies Quarterly,  is a publication of the International Studies Association (ISA). Given the structure of the ISA, I do not believe that I enjoy the authority to make this kind of decision—although I should note that my view is not universally shared among ISA journal editors. ISA does have a replication policy that ISQ follows, but it currently only extends to the archiving of statistical materials. ISQ will follow whatever transparency policy the ISA deems appropriate for its journals.
  • The dynamics of the DA-RT dispute share some similarity to those associated with “wedge issues.” That is, it “divide[s] [political scientists] through code words [and] labeling” in ways I find deeply troubling.

  • Participants in the debate over DA-RT need to make sure that they cultivate, or continue to display, intellectual empathy. In other words, opposition to DA-RT standards does not make you an opponent of social science understood correctly. Support for DA-RT standards does not make you a methodological puritan.
  • But the controversy does provide some people who hold these beliefs the opportunity to express them in unhelpful ways (cf. “wedge issue”).

  • This is particularly problematic, because there’s nothing wrong with agonistic and intense exchange on the issues.

The Duck Civil War over Russia…

…has escalated. First, Jeff took his argument to Foreign Affairs.  Now I’ve retaliated—and brought in Alex Cooley in an attempt at establishing escalation dominance.

These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however. Putin’s appearance of strength is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position. Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions, and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as U.S. weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless—sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.

Go check it out (paywalled).

The First Democratic Debate: Clinton and Foreign Policy

My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.

In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced,  and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.

Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.

Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:

Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.

At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.

I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”

O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:

I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.

You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.

I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.

And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons. Continue reading

Is Russia a Paper Tiger?

Jeff Stacey has a new piece at Foreign Affairs that is basically a re-skinned version of his post at the Duck of Minerva. It should come as little surprise that I don’t find either piece particularly persuasive.

Overall, I agree with Jeff’s basic assessment of Russian moves as destabilizing. In Syria, where Moscow seeks to save the Assad regime, Russian intervention in a country that the US and its allies are already mounting military operations carries with it significant risks. Also, as Jeff writes:

Indeed, Russia has been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with allied planes and ships across Eurasia for many months now. Among other things, it has been both flying in the flight paths of Western commercial and military aircraft and using ships and submarines to intermittently sail into Western countries’ territorial waters. In addition, Russia has staged a series of large-scale military exercises just across the border of Poland and several Baltic states, and its intelligence service actually seized an Estonian agent during last year’s NATO Summit and held him for several days.

I see this ‘muscle flexing’ as a mixture of ham-handed coercive diplomacy and reversion to Cold War great-power repertoires. It would obviously be better for everyone if Moscow stopped, insofar as they increase the risk of military and diplomatic incidents. But, as I noted a few days ago, these efforts have generally backfiredContinue reading

Russia, Russia Burning Bright? (Spoiler: Not So Much)

Russia Comp GDP

GDP (PPP) for US, Russian Federation, and Major European Economies

The Russian Federation covers more territory than any other country. It has a large nuclear arsenal, skilled weapons designers, and the world’s fourth largest military budget—after the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. But it maintains that budget—which comes it at roughly 12% of US military expenditures—by spending a larger percentage of its GDP on defense than does the United States, China, Britain, France, Japan, or Germany. Indeed, if the major European economies boosted defense spending to 3% of GDP—still short of Russia—they would each have larger military budgets.

Of course, military spending is a poor proxy for capabilities. Russia has a larger population than any other European state, along with a big army, extensive air-defense network, and other indicators of martial prowess. But it also has a smaller economy than the state of California, and still cannot indigenously produce much of the high-tech accruement of modern warfare. Moscow can certainly overwhelm many of its neighbors, but it isn’t a political-military juggernaut.

I consider such remarks necessary in light of the current freakout over Moscow’s intervention in Syria, including here at the Duck of Minerva.

Thankfully, a wave of cooler heads have started to push back against the hyperventilations of #resolvefairy acolytes. But the whole notion that Putin is a master strategist, and that whatever goes down in Syria is a result of his outmaneuvering the West in Ukraine, needs a reality check.

Let’s review. Continue reading

Against Policy Relevance: A Polemic


Over on my Facebook feed, there’s a good discussion going on about Adam Elkus’ “The Problem of Bridging the Gap.” Elkus’ post amounts to, quite deliberately, a medium-length polemic against “policy relevance.” That is, he aims to provoke.

For example, Elkus argues that:

It judges the value of academic inquiry from the perspective of whether or not it concords with the values, aims, preferences, and policy concerns and goals of a few powerful elites. Why, if anything, do we judge “policy relevance” by whether or not it helps governmentpolicy elites? Surely governmental elites, politicians, think-tankers, etc aren’t the only people who care about policy! The “policy relevance” model is simply a normatively unjustified statement that political scientists and social scientists in general ought to cater to the desires and whims of elite governmental policymakers.


It demands that academic inquiry ought to be formulated around the whims and desires of the people being studied. One does not see this demand outside of the political science policy relevance wars. No one asks psychologists whether experiments are “relevant” to lab rats because it would be absurd to base research around what the experimental subject wants. Psychologists also do not care whether or not the college students that are paid to populate their experiments find their research “relevant” or understandable. Nor do neuroscientists inquire about the preferences of neuronal populations or biologists the opinions of ant colonies. Yet political scientists ought to cater to a narrow set of policy elites that they (partly) study?

You should go read the whole thing. Continue reading

Academia isn’t Baseball


PTJ’s Essential Player Statistics

This is a guest post by both Nexon and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson. Standard disclaimers apply.

Cullen Hendrix’s guest post is a must read for anyone interested in citation metrics and international-relations scholarship. Among other things, Hendrix provides critical benchmark data for those interested in assessing performance using Google Scholar.

We love the post, but we worry about an issue that it raises. Hendrix opens with a powerful analogy: sabermetrics is to baseball as the h-index is to academia.  We can build better international-relations departments. With science! Continue reading

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