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It’s About Time. (For Regime Change.)

Finally, a resolution to the four-month-old stand-off with the hijackers of the Faina off the coast of Somalia. NY Times reported today that the pirate crew will disembark from the Faina after some sum of money, paid by the ship owners, was air-dropped onboard:

“According to one of the pirates, the owners of the ship had paid the ransom; the pirates had counted the money; and now they were just waiting for nightfall to slip away from the ship.

The hijacking of the Ukrainian ship, called the Faina, stirred up fears of a new epoch of piracy and helped precipitate a rash of similar attacks off Somalia’s coast and an unprecedented naval response in return. Warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain and Germany have all joined the fight against the pirates, though the attacks have continued.

The pirates aboard the Faina would not reveal how much they had netted in ransom — originally they were asking for more than $20 million. According to businessmen on shore, the ransom was around $3 million and the money was dropped by parachute from a small plane, which seems to be the new way to deliver pirate booty. Last month, a huge Saudi oil tanker that had been hijacked was freed in a similar way.”

You can look at this in two ways. One: as a triumph of diplomacy with no loss of life. Two: as an excruciatingly glacial policy response to an incident emblematic of a widespread human security problem afflicting civilian and commercial traffic on the high seas – a global governance failure which could be changed with a shift in priorities and some savvy institution building, if these could only be sparked off by a bit of political imagination.

I don’t have concrete proposals, but I tend to see it through the latter lens. Four months? Surely this track record could be improved if governments took hostage taking at sea seriously as a human security problem. In fact, the protection and liberation of hostages was one of the ‘human security problems’ identified by respondents to my human security survey that has not attracted significant advocacy or global policy response.

In other words, this strikes me as an example of what Radoslav Dmitrov and his collaborators called a “non-regime” on p. 235 of their 2007 International Studies Review article: “a transnational public policy arena characterized by the absence of multilateral agreement for policy coordination.”

I wonder how this might be changed. Readers are invited to submit their ideas: what concrete goals could human security activists push for in terms of mechanisms to protect and assist victims of high seas piracy?


Manas: the hands of fate? (Updated)

It remains unclear whether the Kyrgyz government really wants the US out of Manas or whether it wants to extract higher rents.

Rob Farley comments that the “United States has been paying considerable rent to use the airbase in question.”

Yes and no. It can be too easy to focus merely on the size of sidepayments. In fact, that might be part of the problem.

Remember that the US doesn’t officially pay rent for basing and access agreements. It just so happens that host countries get “unrelated” aid packages and foreign-policy perquisites. This isn’t simply a normative issue; the US has strong incentives to reduce the transparency of the price it pays for bases in order to preclude upward pressure on host rent seeking. Keeping the true “value” of transfers and concessions opaque both makes it more difficult for hosts to calculate the true “market price” of the strategic package it offers, as well as gives US officials greater ability to deflect direct demands for higher rents.

Prior to the Tulip Revolution, the US was getting Manas on the cheap. In addition to some development assistance that was probably in the US interest anyway, the US negotiated some pocket-change (in relative terms) contracts with Kyrgyz elites to supply goods and services to US forces. As Alex Cooley wrote in 2006 (PDF):

The Manas base also offered critical material support to the Kyrgyz president and his political clients. The base constituted the biggest U.S. economic investment in Kyrgyzstan. From its first year, it contributed about $40 million annually to the small Kyrgyz economy and employed about 500 Kyrgyz nationals in a variety of positions.

The lion’s share of base-related funds flowed not to national agencies, however, but to private Kyrgyz entities closely tied to the ruling regime. The Manas International Airport, a technically independent company partly owned by Aydar Akayev, the president’s son, collected $2 million annually in lease payments, plus additional landing fees of $7,000 per takeoff. The airport company also was awarded most of the base-related service contracts. These revenues flowed directly to Manas Airport and were neither accounted for nor taxed by the Kyrgyz government.

However, the most lucrative source of base-related payments were fuel contracts, secured by the airport- affiliated Manas International Services Ltd. and another legally independent fuel company, Aalam Services Ltd., owned by Adil Toiganbayev, Akayev’s son-in-law. A New York Times investigative story revealed that out of a total of $207 million spent by the U.S. Department of Defense on fuel contracts during the Akayev era, Manas International Services received $87 million and Aalam Services received $32 million in subcontracts. The amounts and structure of these payments were kept opaque and were not reported in the Kyrgyz media. A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation uncovered that the Akayev clan had embezzled tens of millions of dollars of these base-related revenues through a network of offshore accounts.

Pentagon and State Department officials contend – and they are legally correct – that none of these payments or contracts clearly violated any U.S. laws or DOD tender procedures. But such claims do not change the fact that these payments played a highly
political role within the Kyrgyz political system. These base-related revenues supported the Akayev regime and its political clients, who regarded them as the unstated quid pro quo for granting basing rights to the United States and its coalition partners.

Commenting specifically on the adoption of the seemingly generous landing rights formula, former U.S. ambassador to Krygyzstan John O’Keefe suggested that the fees could have been avoided but were viewed by the U.S. side as an important economic inducement that would secure the Kyrgyz government’s commitment. Consequently, these private or selective incentives also served to “depoliticize” the base issue in Kyrgyz politics, as political parties, the Kyrgyz parliament, and the media neither publicized nor overtly criticized the terms of the basing agreement.

The problem came when the new government “opened” the terms of the US-Kyrgyz agreement and realized what was actually going on. They demanded an hundred-fold increase in rent. The ultimate agreement fell short of Kyrgyz expectations.

As I alluded to in my prior post, there are a couple of dynamics going on.

First, the Kremlin has never been particularly pleased with US influence in Central Asia (Russia has its own base in Kyrgyzstan). It looks like the Russian government decided to provide “exit options” to the Kyrgyz in the form of a significant offer of bilateral assistance. Even if that aid is unconditioned upon shutting down US operations at Manas, the Kremlin’s decision to play Monty Hall still significantly shifts the balance of leverage in US-Kyrgyz negotiations towards the Kyrgyz. Indeed, I write about this dynamic in a forthcoming review essay on the state of balance-of-power theory.

Second, the US approach toward Manas, consistent with the so-called “lily pad” vision of the 2001 QDR (PDF), focused on creating a “light footprint” base with minimal social impact on the country. The idea is that doing so makes anti-basing sentiment less likely. In fact, such a posture only increases suspicions about US policy objectives, fails to avoid incidents of the kind that reduce the legitimacy of the US presence, and inhibits the process whereby US bases produce substantial local public goods.

Thus, while current US rents really are quite substantial given the size of the Kyrgyz economy, they come in a variety of side payments that fail to concretely tie the base to the prosperity of significant domestic constituencies. Under those circumstances, the dynamics of the relationship become merely about the size of the aggregate rents paid by the United States compared to public concerns over US activities, i.e., the least desirable frame for US negotiators.

For more, see another piece by Alex Cooley: “U.S. Bases and Democratization in Central Asia,” Orbis. Vol. 52, No. 1 (Winter 2008), pp. 65-90 (PDF).

UPDATE: As I was arguing:

Bakiyev has been seeking more money from the United States for use of the air base, and the timing of his announcement seemed designed to highlights his nation’s economic needs. Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid, and also to write off $180 million in debt and build a $1.7 billion hydropower plant.

U.S. payments to Kyrgyzstan currently total $150 million a year, of which about $63 million is rent for the Manas base. “We hope to continue those discussions because Manas is vitally important to our operations in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Morrell added, however, that “we can continue without it, obviously.”

“There is obviously a long-term political dimension here that’s in play vis-à-vis Moscow,” a senior U.S. Central Command official said yesterday, with Kyrgyzstan “trying to play one bidder off the other. The United States is caught in the middle, seeing who is going to be the highest bidder. We don’t know yet whether this is simply a card being played in the negotiating process or they are going to ask us to leave.”

The Manas base is “pretty inexpensive from the U.S. point of view when you consider what it gives us in terms of access in the region,” the official said. “I don’t know what price the United States is willing to pay . . . but at the same time I don’t know whether we’re willing to be held hostage.”

Image Source: Defense Update

Hot deal for our UK readers

Well, “hot” isn’t quite the right word. But I just got word that you can pre-order a copy of The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton University Press Description) for 34% off the cover price at

Someone must have taken a look at the book and realized what a dog they had on their hands.

PS: Yes, the title on the cover mock up is wrong.

Manas no more?

Breaking reports, if true, vindicate a manuscript Alex Cooley and I wrote last year.* Whatever pleasure I get from saying “I told you so,” however, is outweighed by my concern about the complications to US operations posed by the potential loss of Manas.

The AP:

MOSCOW – News agencies are quoting Kyrgyzstan’s president as saying that his country is ending U.S. use of a key airbase that supports military operations in Afghanistan.

A decision to end the U.S. use of the Manas base could have potentially far-reaching consequences for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Interfax and RIA-Novosti quoted Kurmanbek Bakiyev as making the statement just minutes after Russia announced it was providing the poor Central Asian nation with billions of dollars in aid.

Bakiyev is being quoted as saying that the Kyrgyz government “has made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgystan and in the near future, this decision will be announced.”

Kyrgyz government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

UPDATE: more information continues to come in. US officials say this is just a move to increase rents.

*We’ve only sent it to one journal, which rejected it based on a range of positive to negative reviews. Because I’m a bitter and vindictive person, I am now going to point out that the decisive review rejected our contention that increased exit options for US basing partners and enhanced information about the deals the US cuts with other basing partners might (1) create upward pressure on rent demands and (2) even lead to the US losing some of its “light footprint” bases. This is exactly what has been happening, and may now have come to fruition, at Manas.

Metaphors of War: Superbowl Edition

Football and War have long been metaphors for each other, with players famously (and infamously in some cases) referring to themselves as “warriors” who will “do battle” on the gridiron led by “field generals” at quarterbacks, throwing “long bombs” to score, and Generals “calling an audible” to launch a “blitz” or a “hail-marry pass.” Indeed, those seeking to inject greater tolerance into American culture have long counseled that we do away with such metaphors, as they trivialize war on both sides of the equation. George Carlin saw this years ago. (Updatedrepaired link to Carlin’s baseball vs. football routine).

Today’s Superbowl between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers provides a rare moment reflection on this seemingly inescapable current in American popular culture. The Cardinals offer a unique mechanism for this, as until this year, they were probably best know for being the team of Pat Tillman, the former Cards player who joined the Army and was killed in Afghanistan.

It also provides a moment to notice, as the Washington Post reports, that the NFL seems to have re-thought its role in this process:

In a little-discussed shift in recent years, the NFL has moved away from depicting its games in military terms. While the league continues to embrace the military as an entity, inviting Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, to make the Super Bowl’s opening coin toss and having the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a pregame flyover at Raymond James Stadium, the NFL no longer endorses using military terminology to describe its contests.

It is inappropriate, league officials say, to do so at a time when American forces are fighting two wars halfway around the globe.

“It’s a matter of common sense,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as he stood outside the stadium the other day.

The same is true at NFL Films, an arm of the league that perpetuated for decades the image of football as controlled warfare by producing movies glorifying the game’s violence with phrases like “linebacker search and destroy.” In recent years the company’s president, Steve Sabol, ordered all allusions to war be removed from its new films.

“I don’t think you will ever see those references coming back,” he said. “They won’t be back in our scripts, certainly not in my lifetime.”

The sport that once saw itself as the closest thing in athletics to the military no longer holds to this once-cherished notion.

“We’re not going to fight no war, man,” Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said….

“They were basically cliches anyway,” Sabol said. “Just like you would hear coaches say, ‘That’s a guy I want to be in a foxhole with,’ they’ve never been in a foxhole and they’re trying to articulate that to a player who has no idea what a foxhole is.”

At the extreme, these metaphors were always silly, at their worst, they devalued the true sacrifices of soldiers and dehumanized the true destruction and human devastation wrought by actual war. Its a good thing that the NFL is moving in this direction.

Why the Kremlin worries (but not too much…yet)

The BBC:

Thousands of people have held rallies across Russia protesting against what they describe as the government’s mismanagement of the economy.

The biggest demonstration took place in the eastern city of Vladivostok, where protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In the capital Moscow, police arrested a number of people at an unauthorised gathering by a radical party.

Meanwhile, government supporters also held their rallies across the country.

Protests on such a large scale were unthinkable just a few months ago as the economy boomed with record high oil prices and as the Kremlin tightened its grip over almost all aspects of society, the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow says.

But now with the economy in deep trouble, there is real fear amongst ordinary people about what the future will hold, he says.

He adds that unemployment is rising rapidly, as are the prices of basic food and utilities.

I cannot emphasize enough how much of the Kremlin’s legitimacy rests–either directly or indirectly–on good economic performance.

There’s a lot more to write about recent developments involving the Russians. I hope to get around to it soon.

Calling all hands

If recent posts are any indication, Laura Rozen has finally stopped referring to virtually every rumored or confirmed Obama foreign-policy appointee as a “hand,” as in “a a think tank hand” and “Clinton-era NSC Africa hand”and “former CIA Latin America analyst and NSC hand” and “top foreign-policy hands” and “several Washington South Asia hands” and “veteran negotiator of the Dayton accords and sharp-elbowed foreign policy hand” and “a long time Africa hand and foreign service officer”and “Hill foreign policy hand”, etc.

She’s doing wonderful work, especially for people like me who have some concrete interest in finding out where people are going, but I’m starting to think she needs to invest in a thesaurus.

Researchers identify “historic” Plutonium

As the person who sent the link to me said, “this is [just] really cool.”

Nuclear archaeology has solved the mystery of a jug of plutonium that was found sealed inside a safe dug up as workers cleaned up an early Hanford burial ground.

Science showed the plutonium was historic: Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland traced its origins to the first batch of weapons-grade materials ever processed at Hanford.

It’s also the second oldest known man-made plutonium 239, said Jon Schwantes, a PNNL senior research scientist who led the investigation. The oldest is held in the Smithsonian.

The results of the investigation are not just historically significant. Schwantes believes the research also may have applications in the field of nuclear forensics and efforts to keep nations safe from terrorists.

When researchers received the plutonium, they suspected it came from the beginnings of the Atomic Age after the 586-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation was created during World War II as the United States raced to make enough plutonium to make an atomic bomb.

Hanford’s B Reactor was built as the nation’s first production-scale reactor. It irradiated nuclear fuel that was sent to Hanford’s T Plant, the world’s first industrial-scale reprocessing facility, which chemically extracted the plutonium.


Almost live Panel Blogging:

I’m sitting (or at least was, when I started this post) in a rather interesting panel that’s running at AU right now: The Obama Administration and the Palestinian / Israeli Conflict. It’s a pretty intense, thoughtful, and insightful discussion, featuring Aaron Miller, Yoram Peri, Amjad Atallah, and moderated by our own Boaz Atzili. On the schedule but not able to make it today was Joshua Muravchick.

Aaron Miller has quite a lot on his mind and is very talkative and is quite passionate about his points. Its clear that he has a lot that he wants to say—not just here, but in his recent writings, his book, and his other recent commentary. Its the I worked at this for 24 years and got nowhere because you crazy people can’t get over your inane mythology and appreciate the world as it is, not how you want it to be (he didn’t actually say the crazy people part, but he did drop the realism line at one point in his remarks).

Two-plus points, reacting to what I heard.

1. Both Atallah and Miller prefaced their remarks: “Speaking as an American…” Aside from the obvious use of this rhetorical device to preface remarks about the status of the negotiations, the frame also allows them to raise a very critical issue that has been absent from the recent dialogue of US involvement in the Middle East Peace Process. Both noted that the US has very vital National Interests at stake in resolving this conflict. The Obama administration has some major items on its plate: withdraw from Iraq, deal with Iran, the war in Afghanistan and the situation in Pakistan, and terrorist networks who might seek to attack the US directly. The Israeli / Palestinian conflict is connect to all of these and as it degrades, it further complicates the US’s ability to resolve its most vital interests in the region. Resolving the Israeli – Palestinian issue, beyond any Israeli or Palestinian interests, beyond any alliance with Israel, is important to the US achieving key goals on its own. Atallah recalled the way the US dealt with Bosnia—for a while, it was a horrible problem but one where the deep, ancient hatred and longstanding conflict rendered it impossible for the US to do anything. Then, at a certain point, the Clinton Administration decided that resolving the conflict was in the US interest, and they got involved and pushed a resolution (not that the Balkans is the Middle East, his point being that when the US decides its in its interest to act, it can and will take action).

The new “reality”* of the situation might now be an American National Interest in ending the conflict—not solving it to the liking of any one side, but ending it so that it is no longer a problem to the US advancing its other key interests in the region. At this point, the US decides what it needs, and what its worth, in terms of willingness to invest / pay, to get these needs, and makes it happen. Now this is not to capitulate to the inane Walt argument that Israel is somehow dragging down the US in the region (interestingly, Miller referenced the Walt / Mearshiemer book, trashed it, and then called for a more realistic understanding of the US – Israeli relationship, both by the general public and by American Jews that moves beyond some sort of mythology of fear.)

The difference here is that the subtle change of role for the US that they suggest—no longer protector of any one side, no longer “honest broker” but rather concerned great power able to see a workable solution that is good for the US and apply appropriate pressure to both sides to get there.

2. Its very interesting to hear the different analyses of what the barriers are to peace. On the one hand, Miller says the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians is large, while Atallah and Peri say that these gaps are less substantive and more process-oriented. The one thing that is clear from this (and, honestly, any discussion you ever listen to by anyone with any familiarity with the issue) is that the basic issues are still the same basic issues, the general terms of an agreement have a straight genealogy from the Roadmap to the Mitchell Plan, to Camp David, to Oslo, to Madrid, to Camp David. Its essentially the same plan, the same issues. So where’s the problem? Miller says that nothing will happen until there is a unified Palestinian political order, one organization controlling violence over its territory. Now, that’s a state (cue Weber), and as Atallah points out, they aren’t a state yet. Peri says the problem is a lack of trust and leadership on both sides. Miller also faults poor leadership. Peri notes the interesting dynamic in Israeli public opinion: he references surveys that show the Israeli public as more supportive of trading land for peace and closing settlements, but also shifting to the right politically, with Likud expected to win the upcoming elections. No trust in the leadership to actually deliver these long term goals.

Other interesting tidbits:

Atzili noted a new word making its way around Israeli slang: Condoleezation, to work long and hard and accomplish nothing.

There was general consensus that the idea that the Bush Administration was in any way good for this region or this conflict, or any of the parties, is mythology. To say you support a 2 state solution and then do nothing about it is no help to the Palestinians. To say you support Israel and then disengage from the peace process is no help to the Israelis. No one had much nice to say about the Bush Administration. Muravchik might have altered that dynamic, but he was apparently sick or something.

There was also general consensus that a peace deal with Syria was perhaps more likely than anything else. Its doable, its easy—no existential issues, it has support from the Israeli military (Peri reported), and it would actually help a bit with the other tracks.

Atallah noted that Arab leaders now feel they can engage the US again. The Bush Administration, with Iraq, Abu Gharib, Gitmo, and the like, was impossible to talk to. Obama offers a fresh chance. This holds out the promise that the Obama administration could engage and bring about the regional support necessary for an Israeli – Palestinian process.

Overall, a very interesting panel. There was audio and video taken, I’m told there might be a podcast, and if there is, I’ll try to link to it.

*MEPP commentators always like to talk about “realities” the changing realities, the new realities, the realities on the ground. Sorta makes you wonder how “real” they are, and if they are so real, how they keep changing all the time.

Grand-strategic vision name generator

I’ve been inspired by Vladmir’s comment on the launch of The Progressive Realist, and thus present the public beta of an aid for all those pundits and policymakers in need:

(Click on the image to enlarge)

Am I missing anything? Comments and suggestions welcome.

The Progressive Realist

Today is the official launch of the Progressive Realist blog, which, among other things, aggregates excellent posts from a blog network that includes this very website. Despite the obvious bad judgment that shows, you should mosey on over.

Obama at war: Pakistan

There’s a new finger on the trigger, but the AP reports that Pakistan is still unhappy about U.S. missile strikes inside its territory:

Pakistan urged President Barack Obama to halt U.S. missile strikes on al-Qaida strongholds near the Afghan border, saying Saturday that civilians were killed the previous day in the first attacks since Obama’s inauguration.

Pakistani security officials said eight suspected foreign militants, including an Egyptian al-Qaida operative, were among 22 people killed in Friday’s twin strikes in the Waziristan region.

But the Foreign Ministry said that the attacks by unmanned aircraft also killed an unspecified number of civilians and that it had informed U.S. officials of its “great concern.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says “We maintain that these attacks are counterproductive and should be discontinued.”

The U.S. has apparently made over 30 missile strikes since August. The Obama White House was presumably briefed about the latest attacks, though the U.S. doesn’t even formally acknowledge them. Obama had commented as a candidate.

I’m working on Obama and the Bush Doctrine and hope to have a more complete post soon.

Justify your existence

Stephen Walt, fresh off his compendium contribution, muses about the IR Hall of Fame. His criteria: over two tape-measure home run publications, which is to say, more than two articles or books that continue to show up on syllabi and citation lists for over a decade.

His initial list: Waltz, Huntington, Jervis

His comments generate a slightly more interesting list, adding folks like Keohane, Ruggie, Wendt, Gilpin, Fearon, Katzenstein, Bull, and such.

Farley laments that “My discipline sucks” and he might be onto something…

Who’s on your ballot?

And, like the real HOF, only on-field contributions count, so you can’t ding someone for character. Ricky is still waiting for Ricky to get the call… Will be interesting to see how the voters handle the steroid era.

Guys like EH Carr and Mortenthau will probably be admitted by the veterans committee….

Frackin’ Toasters

In the mailbox today, I found my pre-ordered copy of Peter Singer‘s new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. NPR had an interview with Singer yesterday, which gives you a good sense of his argument and some of the fascinating and frightening changes coming down the pipeline in military affairs.

I was excited to sink my teeth into this before the semester gets started, since I’m eager to update my curriculum on battlefield robots, and since I’ll be blogging in an upcoming symposium at Complex Terrain Lab on the book next month. I’ll save most of my substantive remarks for that forum, and for such time as I’ve actually read the entire book. But based on the first two pages, I have two quick initial reactions:

1) From the very first three sentences, Singer does not disappoint:

“Because they’re frakin’ cool. That’s a short answer to why someone would spend four years researching and writing a book on new technologies and war. The long answer is a bit more complicated.”

I love it – you don’t get a better hook or prose more engaging than that.

2) However I must take issue with a certain assertion in Singer’s very first (and otherwise fascinating) endnote (p. 439), on the etymology of the word “frak”:

“Frak is a made-up expletive that originated in the computer science research world. It then made it way into video gaming, ultimately becoming the title of a game designed for the BBG Micro and Commodre 64 in the early 1980s. The main character, a caveman called Trogg, would say ‘Frak!’ in a litle speech bubble whenever he was ‘killed.’ It soon spread into science fiction, appearing in such games as Cyberpunk 2020 and the Warhammer 40,000 novels. It crossed over into the mainstream most explicitly in the new 2003 reboot of the 1970s TV series Battlestar Galactica. That the characters in the updated version of the TV show cursed, albeit with a made-up word, was part of the grimier, more serious feel of the show.”

In fact, however, the word was used (ok, maybe not quite as frequently) in the earlier show as well – albeit spelled “frack.” According to Battlestar WikiBlog:

“”Frak” is derived from the Original Series expletive, “frack,” a term used in character dialogue far less often (or “colorfully”) than its counterpart in the Re-imagined Series. The Re-imagined Series’s production team said they felt that “frack” should be a four-letter word, hence “frak”. The term “frack” was obviously used in dialogue in the Original Series to comply with FCC and other broadcast decency standards because the FCC has jurisdiction over the content of broadcast TV.”

See also here… I don’t generally encourage using Wikipedia as a primary source (take heed ye Polsci 121 students) but in this case I can’t think of a better place to get a sense of the popular understanding of a made-up word’s etymology.

That aside, I look forward to reading and commenting on the rest. Good stuff.

UPDATE (11:22pm). Having put the kids to bed, am now on p. 14 – if this isn’t a good reason to go buy this book, what is? Singer writes:

“[This] book makes many allusions to popular culture, not something you normaly find in a research work on war, politics, or science. Some references are obvious and some are not (and thus the first reader to send a complete list of them to me at will receive a signed copy of the book and a Burger King Transformers collectible).

How frakking cool is that?


Laura Rozen has confirmed reports that Princeton Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter will become “the first woman to head the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, Foggy Bottom’s in-house think tank.”

If Slaughter ever publishes an anonymous insider account about US foreign policy in Foreign Affairs, her obvious pseudonym is XX.

Volleys in the war on terror

Barack Obama may not have formally ended the war on terrorism, but he’s certainly making dramatic changes in the way it is prosecuted. From Spencer Ackerman this morning:

take a look at his first not-even-48 hours in office. He’s suspended the Guantanamo Bay military commissions, a first step toward shuttering the entire detention complex. He’s assembled his military commanders to discuss troop withdrawals from Iraq. He’s issued a far-reaching order on transparency in his administration that mandates, among other things, a two-year ban on any ex-lobbyists working on issues they lobbied for. And now he’s shutting down the CIA’s off-the-books detention complexes in the war on terrorism.

That’s a remarkable start. A bit later in that post, Ackerman mentions that the CIA will also have to start complying with the Army’s revised Field Manual (which is compliant with the Geneva Conventions) when interrogating terror suspects.

To the likely approval of UK Foreign Minister David Miliband, these moves “uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties both at home and abroad.” They also de-emphasize the military dimension of the conflict and begin to disentangle disparate foes previously lumped together as terrorists.

My Two Cents on Obama’s Speech

It was full of gloom and doom, which is not what some of us might have expected from the “hope” President, but just the kind of realism the nation needs to hear. Finally someone who will ask us to step up to bat and make the sacrifices needed to turn the planet around!

(And frankly the enormity of the mess we’re in was hit home to me when my kids and I, desperate to see Obama sworn in during a layover in Charlotte, were told by the manager of the sports bar near our gate that the basketball game was more important than hearing this historic speech. If anyone can change this mentality that afflicts so many Americans, it’s Obama, but there is a long way to go.)

The kids and I spent that hour huddled around my MacBook Air instead, along with a growing crowd of other passengers. My initial reactions:

1) The “war” against “a network” is definitely not over, contra recent suggestions on this blog. Much of Obama’s rhetoric is surprisingly similar to that of the previous Administration. Jon Stewart captured this well last night.

2) Was he sending veiled cues to Israel when he said, the US will be “a friend to all nations”? Are we finally entering an era where the US will not only obey international law but make our alliances and partnerships contingent on similar good citizenship from our allies? And if so, would this be a good thing?

3) Despite being an unprecedented diversity-fest, this was a very monotheistic celebration. Prayers and benedictions were addressed to the Almighty, not to the female Goddess, the Taoist Creative, or the pantheon worshipped in many forms by American Wiccans, Native American communities, or other minority faiths. Obama made multi-faith references to Christians, Muslims, Jews and – importantly – to non-believers. But I was a little bothered by the juxtapositioning of the People of the Book with nonbelievers, dismissing the wide swaths of deeply spiritual people of faith within this country who do not subscribe to a view of God consistent with any of the Abrahamic faiths. Obama did mention Hinduism as well, and it is probably too much to expect him to rattle off an exhaustive list of spiritual and religious diversity within this country. Still, I felt the limits of this framing warranted mention.

4) Most remarkable in my mind was this: Obama made very few specific promises in this speech. The one time I heard him use the word “pledge” it was in reference not to ending torture, solving the global economic crisis, or combatting global warming; it was to reducing global poverty:

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

To me, this seems like a surprisingly ambitious agenda – if he was going to pledge this, why not make some other pledges that are more within his capacity? Not to belittle the impact that a concerted US effort to combat poverty could have. President Obama could make an enormous difference immediately with such concrete steps as announcing that he will support the commitment of 7% of the US budget to non-mility foreign aid. This would still be a tiny fraction of US spending, but an enormous increase from existing spending on non-military aid. It would embody his messages of service, sacrifice, outreach to other nations. And, in addition to helping make a dent in global poverty, it would reduce one source of tension between the US and other OECD countries who already meet or exceed the 7% goal.

Theory: between experience and vision

The other night, before the inauguration, I found myself involved in yet another discussion about the relationship between theory and decision-making. Old, familiar territory for us, but slightly altered in this iteration by two factors: the fact that I’m finally teaching an undergraduate course in IR theory (check out our class wiki here) this semester, and the fact that “change” is very much in the air in Washington DC these days. Especially after President Obama’s declaration yesterday that “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” So the question — the perennial question — of the relationship between theory and practical politics is posed yet again, with just as much urgency as ever.

I don’t know that my answer has changed much since the last couple of times I addressed this theme on Duck. But I do think it’s useful to expound the argument, or a version of the argument, again, and see what kind of dialogue it provokes.

First, a brief recap of the Enlightenment Dream about theory — social theory in particular — and what it promised. Once upon a time there were a bunch of European thinkers who conceived an audacious epistemic project: to place all knowledge, and all action that relied on knowledge (which is to say, basically all action), on an absolutely secure foundation in Reason alone. So they set out to demolish prejudices and opinions that masqueraded as Truth, both by revealing how those prejudices and opinions were insufficiently warranted by evidence or logic, and by demonstrating how the defenders of those prejudices and opinions benefited from having others accept their claims. These twin critiques are all over the philosophical literature of the European Enlightenment, from the French Encyclopediasts to Karl Marx and August Comte. In all cases, the goal was to set things on a firmer, more solid basis, and in that way to relieve decision-makers — whether we are talking about public officials or people in their everyday lives — of the awful anxiety of having to commit to a course of action without actually knowing whether it was correct.

Now the master key to making this project succeed, in the minds of these Enlightenment thinkers, was science, which would provide a general theoretical grasp on things and thus make possible the deliberate manipulation of the social and natural environments. Science was supposed to make clear the basic structure of the world; the result of science was supposed to be a set of general theories (or perhaps just one theory) that would in some sense disclose how things really were, somewhere back behind the accidents of actual events. And such theory, in turn, was supposed to provide a solid basis on which to set decisions: if we knew the properties of building-materials, then we could determine how best to build a bridge, and analogously, if we knew the properties of human beings we could determine how best to organize them into political societies.

I am obviously oversimplifying here; there are a vast number of fascinating debates and controversies both about how to construct theories like this and about precisely what such a theory contains. But for my purposes here, it is sufficient to note that (1) something like this Enlightenment Dream persists in the ambitions, and the rhetoric, of many of the social sciences, Political Science and International Relations among them; and (2) the whole Enlightenment project has been called into serious philosophical question for centuries, both by romantics who rejected the idea of science and by existentialists and other postmoderns who rejected the Enlightenment ambitions for science and theory. Contemporary social science is not precisely the same animal as what Comte and Bentham wanted to see — to put the matter bluntly and to use some technical conceptual shorthand, positivist reductionism has been replaced by neopositivist falsification as the dominant way to conceptualize the production of lawlike generalizations — but the dream remains. Teaching in a policy-oriented program in Washington DC, I see this all the time among my students, particularly my MA students: they come for advanced study in IR hoping that it will give them a firmer grasp on how things work, and they look to theory (okay, when we force them to, they look to theory) to provide them with answers.

This, I think, is the major mistake that people make when dealing with the relationship between theory and action, and in particular when dealing with social theory and political action. The Enlightenment Dream didn’t work, because there proved to be no reliable and unquestionable way to ascertain whether any given theoretical claim, no matter how well-established it seemed to be empirically, was anything other than a declaration of how things appeared from a certain point of view. So the only meaningful test of a theoretical proposition is its practical utility, which does not mean that it could serve as the kind of certain grounding that many people wanted and still want it to be. Theory, in a post-Enlightenment frame of mind, is a useful conceptual tool, a systematic elucidation of a way of making sense of things. So almost all that can be said of a theory about, say, world politics is that it serves to show us what might follow if we adhered to its assumptions and followed their logical implications. Hence theory, and theorists, can’t give the kind of practical advice that so many people look for; all a theory or a theorist can say is something like: “what you’ve proposed sounds like theory X, and according to theory X, consequences a, b, . . . n follow if you do this.” This is what Weber called value-clarification, and it’s helpful in that it can perhaps prevent rampant inconsistencies from cropping up in the conduct of action, but it’s sharply limited in that the actor can always reject the value-premise of the theory and move off in a different direction. Theory is irreducibly perspectival, and as such it provides no answers — just clearer and sharper questions.

So in this sense, theory serves not to ground or correct experience, but to systematize experience and enable reflection on it. This doesn’t, however, mean that theory is nothing more than a logical derivation from experience; in order to systematize experience, it is necessary to select a perspective or a value-commitment from which to begin systematizing. That’s the “visionary” component of theory: a theorist takes a vision and transmutes it into a set of operational principles that can order experience. This is not the same thing as taking a vision and testing it against experience; if that were all that we had to do, then we could simply draw up an incontrovertible list of the precepts of experience and use that list as a way of choosing among visions. This is the kind of thing that unreflective practitioners often seem to suggest: as though experience spoke for itself, and spoke with a single and unambiguous voice. It doesn’t; every effort to draw “lessons from history” or codify the “wisdom of the world” implicitly depends on theoretical propositions and value-commitments.

In that way, the theorist’s task becomes a task of unveiling the implicit theories in use among practitioners, and in so doing haul them out into the light so that they might be examined more systematically. Such an examination, as I have suggested, means not just looking to see how they fare empirically, but also looking to see what their core value-commitments look like morally and ethically. That said, making moral and ethical judgments about commitments is not the theorist’s job; that’s a political and social question, and much like the Supreme Court when faced with that kind of issue, I think it’s only proper to toss it back to the people authorized to make such determinations (which in this case means people in their capacity as citizens, and their duly constituted representatives). Science won’t save us; theory won’t tell us what we ought to do.

The point here is that as the Obama administration takes on the enormous task of “change,” and confronts the basic challenges that confront any decision-making procedure in the post-Enlightenment era — the unavailability of any firm theoretical grounding that would justify particular courses of action and immunize the decision against doubt — neither they nor anyone else ought to look to theory to provide a road-map of what they ought to do. Theory and theorists can clarify the options, and the tough choices that they have to make, but determining what to choose is not in the theorist’s job description. Rather, determining the best course of action involves a closer reliance on experienced practitioners, suitably induced into reflection by the prodding of theories and theorists. It does little good to say something like “constructivism tells us that moral authority can be a power resource, so we ought to develop that.” Rather, we start where Obama started yesterday: “To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.” And then using that as a value-commitment, we theoretically organize experience to give us a sense of the plausible. Which means that the Obama administration should lean on experienced practitioners when deciding precisely which courses of action to undertake to best achieve that goal.

Theory doesn’t answer value questions, but it does give us tools for implementing value-commitments in dialogue with experience. This is a hard sell to policy practitioners, who seem to be endlessly looking for secure answers; hence the other task of the theorist, which is to constantly and continually deflate expectations about what social science can do. Because there is no rational grounding for value-commitments, all we get are determinations to go in a particular direction that can then be supplemented with systematic elaborations of how we might do that — but that can never provide the kind of certainty that many among us still, somewhat futilely, look to science and reason to provide.

Our President

Watching the Inauguration on television, I’m amazed at the sheer number of people packed in the mile and a half between the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. Last night, watching the cable news, I was amazed at the crowd just hanging out on the mall, wanting to “be there” in the moment of this monumental event. I think its quite clear that the inauguration of Barak Obama as President of the United States is becoming more than just your standard Presidential Inauguration, its becoming one of those moments that we will recall years from now as a time when things changed in this country.

For many, this event is so special because finally the president is “one of us.” Obama is not like his recent predecessors. The US is shifting demographically, and Obama is a product of these new demographics. He’s of mixed race. He’s urban. His parents weren’t Presidents, Senators, or even rich. As Nate Silver pointed out, Obama is the first truly urban president in a century, proud to call a real American city his home. He doesn’t have a ranch or a retreat and doesn’t claim some sort of small town mythology. Indeed, his election disproves the Palin thesis that “real America” is small town America. Once, that may have been the case, but today, and going forward, “real America” is city-orriented, urban and suburban.

Its an amazing transition on so many levels, and its quite a thing to witness.

Of course, I’m watching it on cable news from Denver. Taking advantage of the 4 day weekend and the utter insanity gripping Washington, we left town to visit family. But being here in Colorado (where its supposed to be 70 today as opposed to freezing back home). We wouldn’t be taking the toddler down to the mall, so CNN and MSNBC are pretty much the same regardless of where you are.

A Fresh Start

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