Rodger A. Payne is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and chairs its Administration, Finance, and Outreach committee. He is also on the Steering Committee for the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on a project exploring the role of comedy and satire in international politics.

How the Sausage is Made

Two years ago, Der Spiegel published an audio recording of secret negotiations involving many of the world’s most important leaders meeting together on Friday, December 18, 2009, during the Copenhagen climate summit:

The world’s most powerful politicians were gathered in the “Arne Jacobsen” conference room in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, negotiating ways to protect the world’s climate. US President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of a wooden chair with blue upholstery, talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The blue turban of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was bobbing over the tops of a few hastily assembled potted plants. The meeting was soon dubbed the “mini-summit of the 25.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was there, representing the African continent, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was standing nearby. Only one important world leader was missing, an absence that came to symbolize the failure of the climate summit: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao…

Now, for the first time, SPIEGEL is in a position to reconstruct the decisive hour-and-a-half meeting on that fateful Friday. Audio recordings of historical significance, in the form of two sound files that total 1.2 gigabytes in size and that were created by accident, serve as the basis for the analysis. The Copenhagen protocol shows how the meeting Gordon Brown called “the most important conference since the Second World War” ended in a diplomatic zero.

The video posted above includes many of the most important sound snippets, accompanied by photos of the speakers and some important contextual information.

Der Spiegel‘s online version of the article includes key quotations from the meeting. Essentially, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown were urging their colleagues to come to an agreement about both near-term and long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Asian negotiators, including top Chinese diplomat He Yafei, argued against the sizable emissions reductions target under discussion (50%), even though “Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that it was the Indians who had proposed the inclusion of concrete emissions reductions for the industrialized nations in the treaty.”

European leaders and China’s negotiator Yafei had a surprisingly tense back-and-forth exchange that nicely summarizes some of the most important international politics undergirding the climate change debate. The western leaders accused the Chinese of seeking double standards, wanting to free ride on environmental commitments made by the affluent states:

The words suddenly burst out of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I say this with all due respect and in all friendship.” Everyone in the room, which included two dozen heads of state, knew that he meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying. “With all due respect to China,” the French president continued, speaking in French.

The West, Sarkozy said, had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. “And in return, China, which will soon be the biggest economic power in the world, says to the world: Commitments apply to you, but not to us.”

Sarkozy, gaining momentum, then said: “This is utterly unacceptable!” And then the French president stoked the diplomatic conflict even further when he said: “This is about the essentials, and one has to react to this hypocrisy!”

Angela Merkel also joined the fray, by referencing the scientific evidence necessitating that China join a binding agreement for significant emissions reductions:

Merkel took one last stab. The reduction of greenhouse gases by 50 percent, that is, limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, was a reference to what is written in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Then she directed a dramatic appeal at the countries seeking to block the treaty: “Let us suppose 100 percent reduction, that is, no CO2 in the developed countries anymore. Even then, with the (target of) two degrees, you have to reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries. That is the truth.”

China’s negotiator, He Yafei was unmoved, and placed the blame for climate change — as well as the responsibility to act — squarely on the shoulders of affluent states:

The Chinese negotiator… took on the French president’s gaffe, and said: “I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I think I’m trying to avoid such words myself. I am trying to go into the arguments and debate about historical responsibility.”

He Yafei decided to give the group a lesson in history: “People tend to forget where it is from. In the past 200 years of industrialization developed countries contributed more than 80 percent of emissions. Whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing.”

Seeking to break the impasse, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke pragmatically about the need for action from both the advanced economies and the large developing states (India and China).

“From the perspective of the developed countries, in order for us to be able to mobilize the political will within each of our countries to not only engage in substantial mitigation efforts ourselves, which are very difficult, but to also then channel some of the resources from our countries into developing countries, is a very heavy lift,” Obama said. Then, speaking directly to China, he added: “If there is no sense of mutuality in this process, it is going to be difficult for us to ever move forward in a significant way.”

However, Obama also suggested in his remarks that the problem need not be addressed in the current meeting since “We will try to give some opportunities for its resolution outside of this multilateral setting.”

Indeed, not long after this meeting, the US, China, India and other players cut a deal involving near-term (2020) emissions reduction targets that countries would set for themselves. This was described by climate activist Bryony Worthington as a “voluntary ‘pledge and review later’ type agreement with minimum enforcement.” Worthington and many other observers thus considered the summit “a spectacular failure on many levels.”

The final deal was made, as Der Spiegel notes, without direct input from the Europeans. In other words, the key decisions were not made at the meeting documented in the audio recording. In fact, the high-level mini-summit adjourned at the request of the Chinese negotiator, and the major developing states met separately:

The Indians had reserved a room one floor down, where Prime Minister Singh met with his counterparts, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and South Africa President Jacob Zuma. Wen Jiabao was also there.

Shortly before 7 p.m., US President Obama burst into the cozy little meeting of rising economic powers.

At that meeting, everything that was important to the Europeans was removed from the draft agreement, particularly the concrete emissions reduction targets. Later on, the Europeans — like the other diplomats from all the other powerless countries, who had been left to wait in the plenary chamber — had no choice but to rubberstamp the meager result.

IR scholars rarely have access to this kind of (nearly) real-time “insider” data, though it is telling that virtually all of the world leaders make claims that we would have expected. In that way, this audio recording is like the Wikileaks documents. The evidence reveals what we think we already know about how the sausage is made.

Note: Thanks to Miranda Schreurs (posting on a mailing list) for pointing me to the audio recording.

Climate Change and Godwin’s Law

The Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank well-known for its skepticism about climate change, placed the above digital billboard for 24 hours along the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago this past week. For $200, they bought a lot of publicity.

Apparently, though now cancelled, the planned ad campaign was going to place similar billboards with the same message bearing photos of Osama bin laden, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro.

Subtle, eh?


Indeed, it reminded me immediately of the occasional efforts by like-minded political operatives to link Adolph Hitler and anti-smoking crusaders. A U.S. politician recently ignored Hitler’s views towards tobacco and just linked the Fuehrer directly to modern anti-smoking efforts. West Virginia Senate candidate John Raese said this a few weeks ago:

“I don’t want government telling me what I can do and what I can’t do because I’m an American.  But in Monongalia County you can’t smoke a cigarette, you can’t smoke a cigar, you can’t do anything.  And I oppose that because I believe in everybody’s individual freedoms and everybody’s individual rights to do what they want to do and I’m a conservative and that’s the way that goes.

But in Monongalia County now, I have to put a huge sticker on my buildings to say this is a smoke free environment.  This is brought to you by the government of Monongalia County.  Ok?

Remember Hitler used to put Star of David on everybody’s lapel, remember that?  Same thing.”

Right, it’s the same thing.

Actually, there’s no need to draw an analogy comparing Hitler and anti-tobacco views to terrorists and concern for global warming. The climate skeptics have sometimes gone straight for the jugular:

When Christopher Monckton, the hereditary third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, attended an Americans for Prosperity meeting in Copenhagen on Wednesday night that was interrupted by chanting youth [climate] delegates, he was reportedly furious. But no one expected him to go back and berate them.

Yesterday he ambushed a small group of students from the non-profit SustainUS inside the Bella centre. One of them texted her friends for help. Several arrived, including Ben Wessel, a 20-year-old activist from Middlebury College, Vermont.

Monckton then repeatedly called them “Nazis” and “Hitler Youth”.

Other climate skeptics have positioned themselves in the role of Einstein vis-à-vis Hitler. 

[Aside: Would this be a good time to point out that some of the professional climate skeptics were tobacco skeptics once upon a time? And I mean literally the same people, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen. ]

Of course, two can play (and have played) this game. For some concerned about global warming, climate change denial is like Holocaust denial:

Index on Censorship hosted an event at the Free Word Centre in the hope of teasing out the various strands of this conflict. The title – “Is climate change scepticism the new Holocaust denial?” – may have seemed provocative, but it picked up on phrases used by panellist George Monbiot, who in the past has described the two stances as equally immoral and stupid. When asked if he thought climate sceptics’ evidence for their claims was as flakey as that of Holocaust deniers for theirs, Monbiot concurred. Questioned on the use of the term “deniers” to describe his opponents, Monbiot said he simply could not think of a better way of describing them, though he recognised the implications the term could carry for some.

CBS TV journalist Scott Pelley went that route back in 2006: “If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel,” he asks, “am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?”

At least some politicians worried about global warming have compared climate skeptics to the Europeans who appeased Hitler, or the Americans who dismissed his significance.

And so it goes.

As a political scientist interested in political communication and the prospect of deliberative democracy, these examples are fairly disheartening.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote here at the Duck about Godwin’s law: “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” Or, as one US News political columnist wrote, there is “an unwritten rule in public speaking: comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany never work.” One oft-mentioned corollary to Godwin’s law suggests that “whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.”

In this case, I fear that “if both sides do it,” then we are all doomed.

Academic Rigor in the Classroom: Time to Get Serious?

Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.


To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.

Can game participants change the payoff structure?

This past weekend, an entertaining video clip was making the rounds on twitter and in the blogosphere. It is from a British daytime television show called “Golden Balls” and the academic discussion about it has been framed around 2 by 2 game theory:

At the end of the show the contestants have to make one last decision over the final jackpot. They are each presented with two golden balls. One has “split” printed inside it and the other has “steal” printed inside it:

  • If both contestants choose the split ball, the jackpot is split equally between them. 
  • If one contestant chooses the split ball and the other chooses the steal ball, the stealer gets all the money and the splitter leaves empty-handed. 
  • If both contestants choose the steal ball, they both leave empty-handed.

It is similar to the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, however, in this game the players are allowed to communicate.

Indeed, the communication is the interesting element of this particular play of the game:


 Here is the “Golden Balls” situation using simple 2×2 game matrices:

In this game, steal is likely the dominant strategy. If you are certain your opponent is going to split, then it is superior to steal in a single play. You win. If you are certain your opponent is going to steal, then you are indifferent between stealing and splitting, though many people would likely steal just to avoid being made to be the sucker (thinking of relative gains).

Indeed, if we ignore cash values and make the sucker result the 4th-ranked payoff given the logic I’ve just provided about relative gains, then this game would then be a single-shot prisoner’s dilemma game. The dominant strategy is steal (defect). Obviously, preferences over outcomes should determine the strategy one employs in a game. Generally, however, simple game theory assumes utility maximization and the outcomes here are technically the same.

In any case, in this video from “Golden Balls,” player 1 (the man on the right in the brown shirt) has attempted to turn this situation into a different game — chicken, I think — by trying to add a perceived payoff that is worse than playing the sucker in a prisoner’s dilemma.

In chicken, the common story is two teenage drivers head directly for one another at high speed. If they both swerve (yield), this is the mutual split result. If only one swerves, s/he is the chicken and the other player wins. If both continue driving towards one another, they have a horrible accident.

Here, if player 2 selects steal with the knowledge that player 1 is definitely going to steal, then the total prize possible will be ZERO. However, if player 2 lets himself be exploited, then player 1 has dangled the (unenforceable?) promise of sharing the winnings after the show. Effectively, player 1 has attempted to transform the situation by creating the image of a shared victory even when the other player yields. It would be kind of like a fixed boxing match. The payoff comes after the participant takes the dive.

Generally, if one earns a reputation for selecting steal (never swerving) in the game of chicken, then no others will want to play this game with you because their best option is to split (swerve/yield). Why select the outcome that will assuredly result in a disastrous outcome? Unfortunately, one cannot earn a reputation for unyielding play in the first confrontation with an unknown player.

However, in his Introduction to Herman Kahn’s On Escalation, Thomas Schelling recommended that a chicken player should throw the steering wheel out the car window to signal a firm commitment to the steal (not swerve) strategy. Such a player has signaled to the opponent that the result is out of his hands. The best that can be hoped is to avoid disaster.

In this case, to influence Player 2’s choice, Player 1 has essentially communicated that he is tossing the steering wheel out the window.

And then, Player 1 swerves anyway!

“Castro is Our Hitler”

Ozzie Guillen
Photo credit = Dirk Hansen.

Last Friday, April 6, Time magazine published controversial excerpts from an interview with Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen:

“I love Fidel Castro,” Blurts Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins, in his Jupiter, Fla., spring-training office before an early-March team workout….After a second of reflection, the most unfiltered figure in baseball, if not sports, wants a do-over. “I respect Fidel Castro,” says Guillen, a Venezuela native who also says he respects Hugo Chavez. “You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that mother—— is still here.”

Those remarks set off something of a firestorm in Miami, where a very large Cuban-American community resides. Cubans may love baseball, and Ozzie Guillen may have been hired to appeal to the local Latino community, but expressing admiration for Castro is the dangerous third rail of Florida politics. And because Florida is important in national politics, American politicians frequently bow to the Cuban American community’s concerns.


Then again, Guillen is somewhat used to controversy. He famously apologized in 2006 for making a gay slur about a Chicago sportswriter — but he apologized only to the gay community, not to the journalist. He commonly describes players, umpires, and others using profanity. His twitter feed is popular precisely because of his off-the-cuff nature.

Moreover, this is not even the first time Guillen has openly expressed admiration for Castro’s endurance in power. In 2008, Men’s Journal asked Guillen, “Who’s the toughest man you know?” His answer:

Fidel Castro. He’s a bullshit dictator and every-body’s against him, and he still survives, has power. Still has a country behind him. Everywhere he goes they roll out the red carpet. I don’t admire his philosophy. I admire him.

Yet, the latest remarks have essentially forced Guillen to offer multiple apologies — and caused his team to suspend him for five days.

Obviously, context is everything. In 2008, Guillen worked in Chicago. Now, he works in Miami, home to hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.

To me, the most interesting dimension of the story is the comparison some Cuban Americans are making between Fidel Castro and Adolph Hitler.

Dan Le Batard, a Cuban-American writer for the Miami Herald, who also hosts a radio show in Miami and a show on ESPN with his father, a Cuban exile, went on SportsCenter yesterday to explain why Ozzie Guillen’s recent comments were so hurtful to the Cuban-American population in Miami.

Le Batard calls Guillen’s comments “the worst possible thing that [he] could have said.” Le Batard also explains just what Castro means to the local population…

“For Cuban-Americans, he’s our Hitler. Without getting into a comparison shopping on atrocities, let that marinate for a second. For Cuban-Americans, Fidel Castro is our Hitler.”

R.J. Rummel estimated years ago that the Castro regime was responsible for between 35,000 and 141,000 deaths through 1987. The median figure was 73,000. In 2008, Genocide Watch, the Coordinator of the International Campaign to End Genocide, put the total to-date Cuban death toll in the thousands and Cuba Verdad’s careful effort to document each death established the figure at just under 8,000 dead — plus nearly 78,000 Balseros victims through 2007. I cannot readily determine if Rummel’s figure includes the death toll from Cubans lost at sea fleeing the regime.

These numbers reflect the acts of an autocratic regime, to be sure, but the comparison to Hitler seems like a huge stretch. In a much shorter period of time, Germany under Hitler’s rule managed to kill over 11 million noncombatants and launch a world war that killed tens of millions of people. Hitler is generally rivaled only by Stalin in these sorts of debates. In 2005, when Fidel Castro was still in power, he didn’t even crack a top 10 list of the world’s worst dictators.

Perhaps Cuban Americans are not familiar with Godwin’s law: “if you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” Or, as one US News political columnist wrote, there is “an unwritten rule in public speaking: comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany never work.” One oft-mentioned corollary to Godwin’s law suggests that “whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.”

I say, tell that to whoever it was that compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler.

Friday Nerd Blogging: Baseball Edition

Yesterday, long-time Duck of Minerva contributor Bill Petti taped an on-field segment for “Clubhouse Confidential” on the MLB Network! For the non-baseball nerds, MLB = major league baseball.

It’s great to see Bill using his methodological and analytical skills in this way. This is not his first appearance on the program to provide sabermetrical analysis.

Most of the time, Bill uses his talents in his “work with senior executives at various pharmaceutical, financial, and consumer packaged goods companies to help them align their human capital and processes with their overall strategy to drive top and bottom line results.”

I quoted that from Bill’s website only because this baseball fan is jealous and envious (path not taken and all that). Good work Bill.

One style question: should viewers be worried that Bill finds everything “interesting”?

The Selling of the Iraq War: Case Study of Presidential Persuasion?

This week, a number of high-profile journalists and bloggers are engaged in a debate about presidential persuasion. Among other examples, they have been discussing the George W. Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq war — leading political scientists at the The Monkey Cage to weigh in with data and useful analysis.

Much of the discussion about the Iraq war centers around this chart, which details the contours of support for the war based on party identification.

I left the following in comments, but wanted to add key links:

The Bush administration really starting selling war in late August and early September 2002, so prior data is not especially relevant to the question of presidential persuasion.  Andrew Card was quoted in the NYT the 1st week of September 2002: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” In August, Card formed the White House Iraq Group and on the 26th of that month, Cheney spoke to the VFW. From that time until war began in March 2003, Republican support for war increased by over 5% despite a starting position at nearly 80% — and despite open skepticism expressed in the NYT & WSJ by Bush I stalwarts James Baker & Brent Scowcroft. At the same time, Independent support for war remained flat at about 60%, and Democratic support remained between 45-50%. I’m pretty sure Gallup polling from the last 25 years showed 2003 as the nadir for Democratic party ID, meaning that at least some ex-Democrats were suddenly telling pollsters they were pro-war Independents or Republicans.

Some elites may well have become skeptical over time, but media coverage of the case for war was decidedly uncritical and newspaper op-ed pages were overwhelmingly pro-war, especially after the Colin Powell presentation at the UNSC.

In any case, the selling of the Iraq war was remarkable and fairly unique, so we should be careful generalizing from it.

Abusers’ Peace?

In reaction to Charli’s provocative February 20 post on the constructivist peace, I left a number of questions in comments. Since more people read the blog than read the comments, I thought it was worthwhile to put them on the front page as a separate post.

Thus, if you are interested, click through. I’ve added a few pertinent links as well to create added value for people who already read the original comments.

I’m not familiar with the specific studies noted in Charli’s post, but do wonder about the scope and interpretation of the data — especially in regard to the “abusers’ peace.”

1. International war is a fairly rare event in the past 65 years, but civil war is far more common. What kinds of states are most likely to experience civil war?

The COW database, by the way, treats the Soviet and CIA/Pakistan interventions in Afghanistan as a civil war. By contrast, Vietnam is coded as an international war.

2. How much of the abusers’ peace might be explained by decades of Soviet hegemony over eastern Europe? Would Soviet hegemony reflect shared identity?

Following Rummel, what kinds of regimes practice democide?

3. Given that human rights abusers arguably long outnumbered non-abusers in international politics, and that international war itself is rare, isn’t any quantitative study using those variables bound to find a somewhat misleading abusers’ peace?

4. Is this really just a back-handed way of pointing out that the US, UK, and France (or NATO) have primarily intervened in states with poor human rights records — including former colonies? Most of the other recent mixed-dyad international wars seemingly involve Israel and its neighbors or India-Pakistan.

5. Just eye-balling the list of international wars, I see a number of abuser-abuser conflict dyads in recent decades: Iran-Iraq, Ethiopia-Somalia, China-Vietnam, Cambodia-Vietnam, and Uganda-Tanzania.

When these states were not fighting, did that reflect shared identity?

Does any hypothesized shared identity among abusers apply to the regime or the people?

6. How long before this thread leads us to the “clash of civilizations“?

Walmart still isn’t green

Luftverschmutzung in Liaoning China
Photo credit: lhgszch on Flickr.

Back in December 2009, I wrote a post for the Duck called “Wal-mart Isn’t Green.” Jared Diamond had written a provocative op-ed about various green business initiatives for the NY Times and Steve Walt had blogged about it too.

I recently thought about that exchange because the December issue of The Atlantic included an interesting article by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell called “How Walmart Is Changing China.” Much of the article considers burgeoning environmental initiatives involving Walmart and China:

The world’s biggest corporation and the world’s most populous nation have launched a bold experiment in consumer behavior and environmental stewardship: to set green standards for 20,000 suppliers making several hundred thousand items sold to billions of shoppers worldwide. …one thing is already clear: how Walmart and China interact with each other over the next decade will be critical to the fate of the planet’s environment.

Schell mentions three very ambitious green goals Walmart has established for itself:

1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy.
2. To create zero waste.
3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment.

I’d encourage everyone to read the piece to get a feel for the scope of the problem and for interesting discussion of the various initiatives underway.

I’m primarily interested in the article’s conclusion. Will this work?

On the final page, Schell finally comes to the question that has been nagging at me for some years — as my 2009 blog post accusing Walmart of “greenwashing” made clear:

However smart, prescient, and successful Walmart’s sustainability efforts actually turn out to be, just how “sustainable” is the whole bloody global-retail proposition that lies at the heart of the company’s amazing progress?

For the first cut at an answer, Schell quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, who recently wrote a book about Walmart’s environmentalism:

“When I started, I didn’t imagine I would be convinced that Walmart was green. And actually, they are not green, but they are a lot better than they were. And the efforts they are making are influencing not only their suppliers, but other businesses as well. Now Walmart is acting something like a private regulator. Nonetheless, the nature of their outsourced business model is not, ultimately, sustainable.”

And Schell’s final thoughts about both China and Walmart are certainly pessimistic:

In fact, one could say the same thing about China, which—after so many decades of defiant proletarian opposition to capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism—has embraced the American-style market and is ardently following the Walmart path to prosperity. Indeed, allowing, even encouraging, people to consume as much as they want, or can, has become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s key strategies for political legitimacy and social stability. Party leaders may label their version of development “scientific” or “sustainable,” but it’s still development. The bitter reality is that even if unrestrained consumerism becomes less environmentally destructive per unit of production than it was in the past, it is still unsustainable in the long run. So even as this most innovative of corporate and statist green strategies may represent an environmental breakthrough and good business for Walmart, and good politics for the Chinese government, it may nonetheless end up being very bad business for humankind.

In the long-run, consumers and businesses alike must figure out ways to operate sustainably. I suspect the phrase “global supply chain” isn’t going to fit into that plan very well given the inherently large volume of energy and other resource usage associated with moving and consuming products around the world, including food.

Comprehending Gingrich

Newt Gingrich

Born Newton Leroy McPherson, the man now simply known as “Newt Gingrich” has been surging in the latest opinion polls asking Republican voters to identify their preferred presidential candidate. He also recently won the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader, which 538’s Nate Silver finds to be important in the early New Hampshire primary:

This analysis finds that The Union Leader’s endorsement has been highly statistically significant in helping to explain the voting results. Consistent with the simpler averaging method that we used before, it pegs the endorsement as having roughly an 11-percentage-point impact.

Academic readers of this blog may well know that Gingrich, as one scholar described him, is “a card-carrying member of the overeducated elite….Gingrich holds the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Modern European History from Tulane University in New Orleans.” He had a tenure-track job at West Georgia College in the 1970s, though he was denied tenure and took up politics full-time.

Today, someone put Gingrich’s dissertation on the internet. Feel free to bookmark and read later the former House Speaker’s lengthy take on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.” Since I don’t have time in the near-term to read this tome myself, I’m dependent upon the prior work of Laura Seay, a young scholar now at Morehouse College, who actually reviewed this work in 2009:

I finally sucked it up and headed to the basement microfilm room in the library to read Gingrich’s dissertation. (When I say “read” here, I mean, of course, that I skimmed through until I found something interesting.)

Seay reports quite a bit of detail about Gingrich’s dissertation on her blog post. I won’t spoil too much of her review (read it yourself), but the take home point is relatively important:

The whole thing is kind of a glorified white man’s burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970’s.

I mention this point because I’m reminded of something ridiculous candidate Gingrich said about Barack Obama in September 2010 to National Review Online:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

Now that we know about Gingrich’s early work as an historian, I ask the following questions:

What if Gingrich is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Belgian, pro-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? What if that is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior?

For related discussion, see this on Libya, this on Iran, and this on the latest in Afghanistan and Pakistan, etc.

Hans Beinholtz: Europe For Sale

The entire bit is good, but the really good part begins about 3:30 into this video from last Thursday’s “Colbert Report.”

“Invest in Europe, where culture, history and fun are always having a three-way.”

War and the Eurozone

PM and Chancellor Merkel press conference

Last week, at University of Bristol, I gave a talk called “The Future of World Order” to the student International Affairs Society. It was a speculative lecture, based on my 17 years directing the Grawemeyer Award (for Ideas Improving World Order) more than my scholarship per se. I warned the audience from the start of two personal biases: (1) I am an optimist; and (2) I don’t really put much stock in specific predictions. I tried to stick to big ideas more than particular policies.

In the presentation, I argued that any order built on coercion and force would inevitably face a legitimacy crisis — and would ultimately collapse. The implications are twofold, I think. Domestically, people will demand greater control of their own lives. This means the world will see many more emancipatory movements to topple autocrats and unaccountable sources of power — as illustrated just this year by events in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, the city of London, Wall Street, etc.

Internationally, it means order built on deterrence, brute force, or even the balance of power will give way to something that is more consensual, such as a security community. In support of this position, I talked a bit about John Mueller’s thesis that major power war is becoming obsolete — an outmoded institution, abandoned like slavery and dueling previously were. Could this thinking become even more pervasive, so that virtually any talk of war — internal or external — becomes outmoded? Eventually.

In the talk, I did not explicitly argue against the traditional state-centrism of international relations, nor call for the end of the states-system. However, I strongly implied that the future of world order will be more cooperative, focused on low rather than high politics (elevating the human security agenda), and much less violent.

This week, recovering from jet lag, I’ve been following the efforts to save the euro and Eurozone. One interesting aspect is that conservative leaders in Europe have certainly made some bold claims to sell their preferred outcomes. For instance, while traveling in Australia, British Prime Minister David Cameron used some classic statist language to highlight his concerns about the implications of ongoing negotiations:

“This is our key national interest, that Britain, a historic trading nation, has its biggest markets open and continues to have those markets fairly open and fairly governed.”

He later told the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson: “In business often it’s selling more to your existing customers that’s the best strategy.

What his comments reveal is that when – if – the eurozone crisis ends, big political questions will replace the big economic problems”

“We’re big sellers into Europe, we can do better in those markets if we liberalise further.”

Mr Cameron has vowed to protect the UK’s position and said on Friday that the City of London was one “area of concern… a key national interest that we need to defend”.

“London – the centre of financial services in Europe – is under constant attack through Brussels directives,” he said.

Note the words and phrases Cameron used: “key national interest,” “attack” and “defend.”

Next, consider these remarks Wednesday from German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

“Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe. They are not for granted. That’s why I say: If the euro fails, Europe fails,” Merkel said, followed by a long applause from all political groups.

“We have a historical obligation: To protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and blood spill. None of us can foresee what the consequences would be if we were to fail.”

Gulp.

Based on these quotes, scholars should perhaps worry about the long-term durability of Mueller’s thesis.

Well, at least slavery is gone. Right?

Graduation Rates

Are student-athletes better prepared to complete a college degree in a reasonable amount of time than the general student body? Given the stereotypes many people share about “jocks,” this may seem like a startling question. Yet, the NCAA released evidence this week that claims to demonstrate that student-athletes graduate at a very high rate, often at much higher rates than other students at the same institutions. My local newspaper, the Louisville Courier Journal revealed this news today on the second page of the sports section. The front page of the same section featured local athletes modeling new uniforms. Seriously.

In any case, here are the NCAA numbers and claims:

The NCAA released its annual report on graduation rates Tuesday and proudly declared that college athletes are earning degrees at record rates and outpacing their fellow students by nearly all measures.

For the first time the graduation rate for both the one-year snapshot of incoming freshmen (in 2004-05) and the four-class measure (covering the years 2001-04) hit at least 80 percent. The one-year score was 82 percent, bettering the record 79 percent from the previous three reports. The four-year average was 80 percent, breaking the previous all-time high of 79 set in 2009 and matched in 2010.

This data is striking, especially when compared to graduation rates for all students in college. Of the million-plus students who enter college every fall in the United States, Forbes reports that just over half will graduate in six years. For non-elite institutions, the rate is 40%. A NY Times story from September 2009 quoted economist Mark Schneider saying that many universities are now “failure factories.”

Why do so many students fail to graduate within six years? The NY Times article discusses a then-new book that studied 200,000 students at 68 colleges. It found that low income students often fail to graduate because college is too expensive. Somewhat more ambiguously, many students and colleges have allegedly embraced a culture that does not expect students to graduate in a timely fashion. This is described as an institutional failure of accountability (see also this).

A more recent study funded by the Gates Foundation and discussed in the LA Times in September found that nearly 75% of students are now part-time because of jobs, family pressures, etc. “Only one-quarter of students attend full-time, live on campus and have few work obligations.” Part-time students have 25% graduation rates after 8 years, according to that study. The study examined students “from the California State University system and not from the University of California or the state’s community colleges.” That would seem to cover a middle-range of students — not the highest quality students in the UC system, nor the potentially struggling students in junior colleges.

For many years, my University has been earnestly trying to improve its six-year graduation rates for undergraduates. It very badly wants to be affiliated with Phi Beta Kappa and low graduation rates are a barrier to entry. The on-line biography of University President Jim Ramsey touts the improvements made in recent years:

The quality of UofL’s freshman class has improved each year, with the average ACT score of incoming freshmen climbing to 24.5 in 2009 from 20.7 in 1995. The university’s graduation rate has soared 60 percent since 2001.

I don’t know if these are the latest numbers, but very recent data from the 2009-2010 academic year reveal that the University graduates just 48.4% of its entering class within six years. However, according to the (draft) Business Plan 2020, the University intends to improve that by 20% by 2020 and thus achieve a 60% rate. That will not be an elite-level rate, but it will be significantly above national averages for comparable institutions.

And since the graduation rate was 33% in 2004, the above data do show real improvement. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the achievement is often credited to some changes implemented by the Dean — such as a larger and better-trained advising staff. However, some of the success may also be due to the University’s tougher academic standards (implemented over the last 20 years since I’ve been on campus). Entering students are now better prepared for the rigors of college — and less-qualified students (as measured by entering test scores) are now in other schools. Additionally, some credit may be due to the changed social and cultural environment. When I arrived, the University was a commuter school with very few dorms or on-campus residents. The University has since built many new dormitories and houses a sizable portion of the student body. Campus life is much different.

Nonetheless, the NCAA data reveal that athletes have much higher graduation rates than other students at Louisville. As the evidence from today’s local newspaper reveals, this includes the football and basketball teams:

At the University of Louisville, athletes in all sports who came in as freshmen in 2004 graduated at an 81 percent rate. Football players were at 66 percent and men’s basketball 56.

The article points out that the federal government also publishes data about graduation rates, and it finds a miniscule difference nationwide, 63% rates overall versus 65% for athletes. Among other things, the government uses a different technique for calculating how transfer students are counted.

Also, NCAA numbers are apparently a bit inflated this year because they counted Ivy League athletes for the first time. The NCAA says that change helped in football, but had a minor influence on the overall numbers.

In any case, what lessons can be learned here for “failures factories”? Also, what can improving universities like mine learn? After all, faculty and department administrators here and elsewhere remain under strong pressure from Deans and other higher officers to find ways to improve the graduation rates for the entire student body.

It would seem that an athletic scholarship solves many of the problems identified by the academic studies explaining low graduation rates. After all, many athletes are on scholarship. According to the NY Times in March 2008, the NCAA reported nearly 140,000 division I and II scholarships in 2003-2004. The average amount of funding was just over $8400 — or $10,400 with football and basketball included in the count. That’s far from a full-ride, but it undoubtedly reduces economic pressure on those athletes and their families. Sure, student-athletes have to “work” by putting in many hours practicing and competing, but this effort involves a voluntary extracurricular activity that they might enjoy. It has to beat a part-time job at the UPS shipping hub, which is where many Louisville students work.

Second, athletes often have access to academic tutors, regular meal plans, and other perks that regular students do not have. Someone in the Athletics Department sends every instructor multiple messages during the academic term to make sure that student-athletes are performing well enough in classes to remain eligible for competition. Surely that alters the cultural experience for these athletes and helps assure institutional “accountability”

I’m not certain how much this issue is on the minds of the Occupy Wall Street social movement, but the problems reflected in the data referenced throughout this piece surely demonstrate that American inequality has many perverse and difficult-to-overcome problems throughout society. If families cannot afford to pay for college outright, then their sons and daughters end up spending six, eight, or more years trying to balance work, school, and family life. Too many end up without a college degree despite many years spent seeking one.

Mortenson declines Education Grawemeyer

In addition to filling an open faculty line in international relations (IR), I was hired in 1991 by the University of Louisville with the idea that I would eventually direct the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The World Order award was then one of four Grawemeyer Awards and at the time I was hired, I knew virtually nothing about any of them. The prize was worth $150,000, making it the largest award in Political Science. Nonetheless, it was not especially well-known even within the discipline, nor much publicized outside of it, though the earliest prizes were awarded to prominent IR scholars and Political Scientists like Samuel Huntington, Robert Jervis, Robert Keohane and Richard Neustadt.

The annual awards in Education and Religion were also relatively unknown. The award in Music Composition, however, apparently became a major global award and typically receives media coverage in the New York Times and other global outlets. The award amount eventually increased to $200,000 (though it decreased after the 2008 stock market dip) and a fifth award in Psychology was added in 2001. Sporadically, awards other than Music Composition have received a modicum of publicity.

The World Order Award winner received a great deal of publicity in 1994 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Louisville to speak and collect his payment. Though this selection occurred just before I assumed leadership of the World Order Award, I recall that most of the coverage concerned his missing pants truly. While I have never believed that the lack of media interest in the World Order winners reflected anything in particular about the field or the winning ideas, it can be frustrating laboring in relative obscurity. Many people reading this post have perhaps reviewed for the award in the past — and I know that many had never really heard about the prize until I asked them to read for it.

In any case, there are clearly far worse fates than being unknown to the wider world. Earlier this year, on April 14 — after months of delay and behind-the-scenes negotiation — the Education winner for 2011 was announced: Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea.

Was this the academic equivalent of the Grammy award for Milli Vanilli?


A few days later, “60 Minutes” ran the famous story questioning his honesty, humanitarianism, and research integrity. A couple of days after that story broke, best-selling author Jon Krakauer published a digital book slamming Mortenson for lying and losing “his moral bearings.”

Needless to say, this created a publicity nightmare for the University of Louisville and for my colleagues in the School of Education, who administer the prize. Time magazine ran a piece detailing the trouble and the story of the university’s apparent gaffe made more news than most of the awards ever have.

This weekend, roughly one week before Mortenson was scheduled to visit Louisville, speak, and collect his prize, the University announced that Mortenson had decided not to accept the award.

“We, like millions of others, have been inspired by Greg’s work and we share his commitment to education and to his belief that we can provide a more peaceful future for all our children through knowledge and friendship,” [Provost Shirley] Willihnganz said.

While UofL will not give the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Education, Willihnganz said the university will provide $50,000 in privately funded scholarships (unrelated to the Grawemeyer endowment) to students who decide to major in education and agree to teach in Louisville’s poorest schools.

I have watched this affair unfold with both a sense of distance and uncomfortable proximity. Most of what I know about the Mortenson case has been learned by reading the newspapers and press releases. Each of the awards is quite distinct and I rarely see the faculty involved in the other awards — Psychology is a bit of an exception since it is part of Arts & Sciences. However, Education, Music, and Religion are located in completely different colleges within the University organizational chart.**

For months, people in Louisville and fellow scholars have asked me about Mortenson because they assume my involvement in World Order grants me access to the inside scoop. That is not the case.

Over the years, as you might expect, the World Order award has received nominations supporting fairly prominent political figures. Most of them, like Gorbachev, have baggage associated with their work even if they are best known for remarkable ideas or (more likely) for engineering dramatic political changes. Reviewers and the screening committee are supposed to focus on the nominated material, but these external issues inevitably loom in the background — and press against the foreground. I have no doubt that some ideas were considered more seriously at some steps in the multi-stage selection process precisely because they emanated from famous figures.

The Grawemeyer review process involves nearly a full year of hard work to select a single work — and awarding the prize to a well-known figure can bring immediate attention to the entire effort. I do not believe that the Education committee selected Mortenson because of his name recognition. However, I do think that the selection serves as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in the review process. It could be read, in fact, as another point in favor of blind review.

Before closing, I should note that I resigned my position directing the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World order in the spring, effective June 30, 2011. Our department chair had announced his intention to depart for another university, the faculty elected (and the Dean selected) me to succeed him, and I had a one semester sabbatical coming in fall 2011 that I did not want to interrupt. It seemed like a good time for a transition. As it happens, the chair of our Political Science department serves on the Final Selection Committee for the World Order award, meaning that I will again have some important Grawemeyer duties in fall of 2012.

** Correction/note: The Religion award is administered by a University faculty committee in conjuction with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The long-time coordinator of the award, Susan R. Garrett, holds a faculty position at the Seminary.

Liar, hypocrite or partisan hack?

Dick Cheney’s memoir apparently verifies an interesting political point from George W. Bush’s memoir. Last November, I noted that the former President claimed that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had approached him in 2006 prior to the congressional elections in order to urge withdrawal of some US troops from Iraq. This might save the Republican majority, argued the Majority Leader, even though McConnell was publicly taking the position that the US should remain in Iraq for vital security reasons. After the election, of course, Bush famously increased the US deployment in Iraq (“the surge”).

A local columnist in Louisville has identified a key passage in Cheney’s memoir that apparently confirms Bush’s account, based on the former Veep’s recollection of a July 2007 dinner he hosted (p. 462):

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walked over to me. Mitch had been one of the most concerned of the Republicans. He was up for reelection and had suggested to the president that he needed to begin a withdrawal in order to avoid massive defection of Republican senators.

As my original post noted, McConnell’s opposing public and private positions certainly make him look bad.

Was he lying when he said US troops were vital for security? Was he simply acting as a hypocrit? Or, and you can feel free to pick more than one choice, was he overtly expressing his partisan preferences in each situation, regardless of the security implications?

Understanding Zombie Comedy

Earlier this week, Tufts professor Dan Drezner tweeted that his Theory of International Politics and Zombies book has now sold more than 10,000 copies. That’s a huge total by academic standards and I sincerely congratulate Drezner on his success.

Fellow Duck of Minerva bloggers have previously written a good deal about zombies and Drezner’s book. For Foreign Policy, Dan Nexon wrote a brief comment about Drezner’s original article suggesting that we should think (naturally) about IR in terms of hierarchy and empire:

America’s unmatched global-strike capabilities will lead most other remaining states to acquiesce to U.S. leadership over the zone of the living.

The result will not, unfortunately, be Liberal Order 3.0, but a global Pax Americana supported by regional client-empires tasked with controlling and eradicating local zombie eruptions.

Likewise, Laura Sjoberg argues that Drezner reifies masculinization in/of IR.

Reviewer Adam Weinstein argues that the book is “a light, breezy volume” laced with “quick dry punch lines” (Drezner is said to have a “weakness for the cheap joke”). While Charli Carpenter conceded that “the book can and must be read as parody,” Vikash Yadav more critically writes that this hint of humor does not compensate for the mainstream thinking he finds both in Drezner’s book and the larger debate about it:

I do not see the discussions about zombies as a type of new or out-of-the-box thinking. If anything, the discussions of zombies that I have noted so far are completely “in-the-box” thinking, except with a touch of geeky humor, parody, and wit that is usually lacking in the discipline.

So what would constitute an out-of-the box critique of Theory of International Politics and Zombies?

In her most thorough Duck blog post about the book, Charli notes a potentially serious failing of Drezner’s work.

…the book actually scarcely mentions critical theory, post-modernism, feminist theory or pretty much any scholarship falling on the “reflectivist” side of the discipline, much less utilizes their tools. (Though to be fair, Dan doesn’t claim to do so, either.)

But if I have one critique of this otherwise brilliant little book, it’s that as a description of “the field” of IR, TIPZ’ relentless focus on rationalist theory to the near-exclusion of identities, language or embodiment frankly bites.

Broadly, Weinstein agrees with this assessment, as he claims that Drezner’s survey of the field is “prone to give short shrift to IR theories he clearly disagrees with [citing social constructivism], and to softpedal on those with which he sympathizes just a bit.”

While those are significant concerns about the book, they are likely not sufficiently unconventional to satisfy Vikash’s critique. Indeed, he suggests a potentially more critical approach — by thinking about the central role of threats in the discipline, especially ultimate “worst case” threats.

I would hypothesize that apocalyptic thinking functions to reassert the relevance of dominant modes of theorizing; apocalyptic thinking disciplines the discipline. Apocalyptic thinking is deeply conservative; it reasserts the relevance of theories which protect the status quo.

This is an especially important concern given some empirical evidence Drezner arguably misinterprets in his book — the meaning of a couple of comedic zombie films, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Some readers may know that my ongoing sabbatical project is about “the comedy of global politics.” As I have previously explained at the Duck, numerous realist and other IR theorists have long argued that the discipline is explained in tragic terms. Tragic stories traditionally focus on doomed heroic nobles who find themselves constrained by their situation. The stories tend to be set in the Great Hall or on the battlefield and end in death.

By contrast, comedy potentially provides an important alternative narrative perspective on the discipline. Comedies typically focus on ordinary people and emphasize their regular lives — the human security agenda, if you prefer that language. The stories end happily, perhaps in a marriage. Comedies focusing on elites typically satirize and critique those characters, revealing them to be self-interested buffoons. Satire, farce and black comedy can be subversive, reflecting critical rather than entrenched understandings.

Arguably, the makers of the recent comedic zombie films have both the concerns of ordinary people and subversive ideas about elites in mind. The threat from zombies is mostly played for laughs (Zombieland was criticized for its failings as a horror film) and the lives of the (ordinary) main characters provide alternative narratives that are not centrally focused on apocalyptic threats. The zombies seem relatively easy to slay — though, granted, their large numbers are somewhat worrisome. The lead characters spend a fair amount of screen time thinking about their love lives and families. Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland end relatively happily, suggesting romance, family, and a return to (a new) normalcy.

Elite characters in these films, by contrast, are often lampooned and criticized. Obviously, the zombie outbreaks in both films reflect a failure of established order — and the characters in these movies are thus left to construct their own rules and understandings in order to cope with their situations. While Shaun of the Dead relies upon the military to save the lead characters from their situation, the story’s final resolution remains nonetheless focused on the relationships among the ordinary people at the center of the film.

Bill Murray appears as himself in Zombieland , living essentially alone in his mansion and disguising himself as a zombie so that he can have a life outside his dwelling. He plays golf, an elite sport, thanks to his zombie disguise. This way of life proves unsustainable.

Comedic zombie films, despite Drezner’s take (rom zom com?), offer a meaningful pathway to discuss critical theory in IR.

Film review: Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.”

Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard)

“We were in a political movie … Walt Disney with blood.”

I generally do not discuss films unless I enjoy them and intend to recommend them without hesitation. Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. is an exception, worth mentioning in part because it has so rarely been viewed in the US. Godard made the film in 1966, during an incredibly prolific period of his career. Ostensibly, the film pays homage to “The Big Sleep,” a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall detective story based on a book by Raymond Chandler. That earlier film classic is well-known for the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as well as the convoluted plot and ambiguous resolution of the murder mystery.

For his source material, Godard used a book (The Jugger) by Donald Westlake. It is one of Westlake’s Parker novels, penned pseudonymously as Richard Stark. Since Westlake did not authorize the use of his book and was not paid for his ideas, he sued successfully to prevent the film from being distributed commercially in the United States. The film premiered briefly at the New York Film Festival n 1967, but was not then shown again stateside until 2009 — very soon after Westlake died. TCM recently broadcast the movie and I recorded it.

Artistically, the film is interesting, colorful, and quite odd.
Westlake’s Parker, a ruthless killer and efficient criminal in the book series, is renamed Paula Nelson and played by the beautiful Anna Karina (Godard’s soon-to-be ex-wife). As the film’s colors and ideas are clearly embedded in the 1960s, this bit of gender-bending is obviously just one element of the broader social and cultural commentary addressed in the film. At one point, Paula says advertizing is fascism. On another occasion, she explains her cartoon-like experiences as if she is in a “film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart–therefore a political film.” A dirty cop twice talks in the voice of Tweety Bird and many of the colorful pop images in the film certainly add a cartoonish quality to the film.

As the New York Times explained in April 2009:

…while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.

…There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of “As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.

And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.

As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun.

The Times does not devote much attention to the film’s explicit and implicit political agenda. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the disappearance and presumed murder of a young communist writer — the former lover of the film’s protagonist. Various characters in the film compare murder to war and the cold war to hot war. One ticks off a list of past battles, culminating in Hanoi, and suggests that all these wars have been essentially the same. Overtly leftist themes and slogans are woven into the dialogue and some characters seem to see a “vast right-wing conspiracy” almost everywhere.

Some critics interpret a strange bar scene as an example of Hegelian dialectic and the communist slogans emanating from the squawk box might suggest a Marxist dialectic at work. Whatever the preferred method, the title “Made in U.S.A.” almost certainly has a double meaning and arguably suggests the need for a double reading.

First, Godard’s homage to “The Big Sleep” says that American artists deserve credit and praise for the genre of film noir. And hard-boiled detective fiction as well — one character, a writer, is named David Goodis. These dark stories cover important themes often ignored in the mainstream. Of course, the mainstream is represented by Disney cartoons and advertizing and Godard speaks fairly explicitly and critically about these elements of pop culture. Even in “The Big Sleep,” the murderer’s identity is made ambiguous (and other important plot points are changed) because Chandler’s original story would not have been compliant with Hollywood morality codes of the time.

The second meaning of the title suggests that then-contemporary cold war conspiracies, whether overt like Vietnam or covert like a real mystery referenced in the film, were literally “made in America.” Again, the criticism is not especially subtle. Young thuggish characters named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon briefly appear towards the conclusion of the main story. One proclaims that he enjoys killing and the other clearly assents.

Keep in mind that McNamara was Secretary of Defense at the time of this film serving under one of the most progressive Democratic administrations of the last century. LBJ’s “Great Society” produced important civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, new environmental laws, anti-poverty efforts, etc. But, of course, Johnson and McNamara also prosecuted and escalated the war in Vietnam.

Nixon was technically just a former Vice President (under Dwight Eisenhower), private citizen and corporate lawyer at the time this film was made. However, Nixon was an active party leader in 1966, meeting with foreign leaders while traveling abroad and campaigning for Republicans in midterm elections. Nixon had been a notable cold war hawk for some time and was a key figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In his first campaign, he defeated a female incumbent by implying she was a “pink lady” harboring “communist sympathies.”

In the ending shot, Paula tellingly opines that “The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.”

This film remains important because the struggle against pervasive commercialism is far from over and the cold war’s end failed to kill the national security state.

Cross-posted from my personal blog on this Nerd Friday because I have not been adding anything here this summer. Sorry about that.

Carlos

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Cross-posted from my personal blog, by suggestion of a Vikash Yadav tweet.

I’ve now watched the first two parts of “Carlos,” a three-part French-produced television miniseries that was broadcast on Sundance this past month. Édgar Ramírez is terrific in the title (star-making) role, though his character is hardly sympathetic. The notorious terrorist is portrayed as an unusual killer — part playboy, part-diplomat, and part-frustrated middle-manager. Carlos is shown meeting with prominent international leaders and is called a celebrity by his fellow terrorists after the 1975 kidnappings at the Vienna OPEC convention. That event takes up a good portion of part 2.

Part 1 of the film opens with a statement warning that it is a fictionalized account and that only certain specific crimes were factually confirmed at trial. Thus, I was not sure of what to make of an alleged meeting in Baghdad involving Yuri Andropov (then-head of the KGB), Carlos and other desperadoes (one actor looked like Tariq Aziz). Allegedly, Andropov put a price on Anwar Sadat’s head at this meeting.

Indeed, one important element of “Carlos” is the relatively clear state sponsorship the terrorist and his various organizations enjoy throughout most of his career. Support from Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, East Germany and the Soviet Union all figure into the terror incidents portrayed on screen. It is no wonder that the Bush administration, circa 2001, believed that state sponsorship was the key element of its anti-terror campaign (despite facts suggesting a completely different kind of threat). This was not a matter of IR theory privileging states.

As a movie, the Golden-Globe winning production is quite unusual:

The film’s scope, range and ambition are incredible; it’s set in at least 16 countries over a 21-year period, and at all times features the characters speaking the languages they would have spoken in the relevant situations—Carlos himself shifts effortlessly among Spanish, English, French, German, Russian and Arabic. An untold number of supporting and bit players pop vividly to life for however many moments they’re onscreen, and the film maintains an exceptional balance between a relentless forward movement and a certain artistic stability…

…the film is so convincing that it persuades you this is essentially the way it was. There are few so completely transporting historical movies, in that it drops the viewer down in another world and time without evident artifice, doctoring, nostalgia, revisionist thinking or overt political agenda. Those with a continuing stake in the causes involved or their own memories of the times can be counted upon to dispute this or that, but as a time machine “Carlos” functions brilliantly.

I can’t wait to watch part 3 — the decline and fall of Carlos, apparently.

Mindless Empiricism

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" -- Mark Twain. 
If we don’t get to see a photo, how will we know with certainty that Osama bin Laden isn’t simply living in a retirement community with Hitler, Jim Morrison, Elvis, Andy Kaufman, Tupac, Princess Diana, and Michael Jackson? 
I hear that they mostly talk about the good old days, the JFK assassination, and the 2004 election results in Ohio.
Personally, I’ll be satisfied when I see the long-form death certificate. 
I know, I know — 140 char. versions of these should probably be on twitter, rather than here. Sorry. 


					
		

“Too Fat to Fight”

Mission: Readiness, a collection of retired generals, admirals and other senior military officers issued their latest report this week and the accompanying press release should draw the attention of IR scholars interested in the Copenhagen School and securitization: “Childhood Obesity Endangers National Security.” The news was particularly bad for my state:

…obesity rates among children and young adults in Kentucky are significantly higher than the national average. Weight problems have become the leading medical reason why young adults are unable to serve in the military, both in Kentucky and nationwide…

“Today, in Kentucky and across the country, otherwise excellent recruit prospects are being turned away because they are simply too overweight,” Major General [D. Allen] Youngman said.

The Louisville Courier-Journal summarized the report’s bad news for local readers:

The report says that 51 percent of young adults in Kentucky were overweight or obese in 2007-09, up from 38 percent in 1997-99. Indiana’s rates, meanwhile, rose from 37 percent in 1997-99 to 40 percent in 2007-09.

Nationally, the report found that about one in four 17- to 24-year-olds is too fat to serve in the military….

“As we look to the future, military defense will remain an important issue for our country. We are confident we’ll have the tanks and ships.…What we’re really concerned about is who will be able to join the military,” said retired Army General D. Allen Youngman of Bowling Green. “In Kentucky, we are worse off than elsewhere.”

Obviously, there are many good reasons to be concerned about childhood nutrition and obesity — particularly given high rates of childhood poverty and hunger as well. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is probably desirable policy. However, I do wonder about the need to sell the policy by framing it as a national security issue. Even a human security frame would be preferable, but that’s not likely a persuasive message in the US.

Where does US militarism end?

Given this ranking and this data, I’m expecting the new school superintendent in Louisville to be a Dean Wormer disciple.

Note: the title of this post comes from the original report issued by Mission: Readiness.

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