Author: Peter Henne (page 1 of 2)

no, Realism cannot explain the international Covid-19 response

As the world rushes to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, international relations scholars have a lot to say. We are not public health experts, or pathologists. But we can speak to the way states respond to common threats and the political process needed to formulate an effective response. One common reference is the realist idea of self-interest driving state behavior and undermining collective action. Yet, while realism as an inclination can explain what’s going on, Realism as a scholarly theory cannot.

Many scholars and general observers of international relations have reacted with frustration at state responses to Covid-19. The Trump Administration delayed testing and has provided insufficient information or help to states and communities. Britain’s Boris Johnson vacillated from doing nothing to locking down the country. China failed to be sufficiently transparent during the early stages of the pandemic.

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Deconstructing the blob

“The blob” has become a common term during the Democratic Primary. The DC foreign policy establishment, so the argument goes, has an overwhelming effect on all who engage with it, sucking them in and spitting them out as appendages to its militaristic, status quo policies. There is some truth to this idea, but it has come to encompass too much, and the term is losing its value. It may be worth deconstructing what we meant by “the blob” and having a real, direct, debate on Demcratic foreign policy.

The Rise of THE BLOB

One of the more popular phrases flung around in the Democratic Primary (at least on the foreign policy side) is “The Blob.” The phrase was coined by Ben Rhodes, a speechwriter turned top national security aide in the Obama Administration. The blob is the “foreign policy establishment.” This includes “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties.” Basically, the blob represents the Washington foreign policy consensus pushing for a robust military presence around the world. Kind of a less refined version of Bacevich’s “Washington Rules.”

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Are the liberal internationalists wrong? On “being nice” and US foreign policy

I got an alert from the Foreign Policy app on my phone the other day: Tunisia had fired its UN ambassador after he opposed Trump’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan.” Tunisian foreign policy doesn’t usually make waves, but this caught my attention. It’s a sign that, while Arab states aren’t enthused about this plan, they are unlikely to push back strongly. It got me thinking about a bigger question: whether Trump will face any costs as the result of his unilateral and aggressive foreign policy, as liberal internationalists might expect. The answer seems to be no, and that has big implications for US foreign policy.

Anyone who was around during the Bush-Obama transition remembers the debate. Liberal internationalists argue the United States has an interest in compromising with other states and working through multilateral institutions like the UN. It’s not just “being nice,” it actually advances US interests better than unilateral actions. We increase our influence with other states, making it more likely they’ll cooperate with us in the future. And we decrease backlash against and anxiety over US power. So, the argument went, the neocon policy of George W. Bush will actually undermine US interests by making it harder to get things done internationally.

The Obama years seemed to validate this argument. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just being Barack Obama. America signed a ground-breaking nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the New START. The United States negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, and was part of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.

Then Trump came. He withdrew from the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement. There are signs New START is going to fall apart. Trump was skeptical of other international commitments, withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty and signalling he may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. The United States left the UN Human Rights Council. Trump was openly disparaging of NATO. And he was generally not nice in his foreign policy, bullying Canada and China over trade agreements, demanding South Korea provide more money for US troops based there.

Based on the logic of liberal internationalism, US influence should be waning. States will tire of Trump’s aggression and stop following US directions. America will find it harder to get anything done.

But…that’s not happening.

There are some signs of waning US influence. The UN General Assembly famously laughed at Trump during a speech, and NATO leaders mocked him behind his back. China seems to be increasing its sway over the UN.

But that doesn’t seem to extend to substantive complications in US foreign policy. Canada still went through with the new US trade deal despite irritation with Trump’s tactics. South Korea has been scrambling to keep Trump happy, even as they’re frustrated with his pressure. And as we saw, Trump’s unilateral and imbalanced Israel-Palestine deal isn’t provoking much anger among Arab leaders.

So what does this mean for liberal internationalism?

One could argue that America is just so powerful it can get away with behavior like this. But that would be an important caveat for liberal internationalism, which often argues that it’s in America’s interest to be nice.

One could also argue Trump is doing long-term damage to America’s influence. Basically, wait for it. This sounds uncomfortably similar to realist defenses of their predictions that the world will balance against a unipolar America, though. With two of three 21st century US Presidents pursuing aggressive unilateral policies, we should be seeing definite signs of strain by now.

But I think it is very possible that liberal internationalists are just wrong. It is not in a states’ interest to be nice in their foreign policy, especially when that states has the resources to be mean. And maybe, as the neocons argued, it is even necessary to be tough when dealing with other states if you want to maintain your influence.

So where does that leave everyone who opposes Trump’s foreign policy?

Well, we could point out that his approach is effective in advancing his Administration’s interests, but those are not necessarily America’s best interests. For example, Trump may succeed in getting NATO to “pay more” for America’s support, but that doesn’t actually help America much. The benefit of multilateralism and cooperation, then, is not that it advances America’s interests; the process of working with other states helps us better understand what those interests are.

Or it may provide further support for the growing restraint crowd. Maybe the only way to lead the world is to be mean. And if we want to be cooperative and helpful, we’ll have to sacrifice some of our expansive interests. So…we sacrifice those expansive interests. If the only way to lead the world is to act like Trump (or George W. Bush), then we must be satisfied with a more restrained foreign policy.

I’m happy to be proved wrong; please feel free to provide evidence of Trump facing real substantive challenges in foreign policy due to his approach.

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Restraint for what purpose?

Restraint in US foreign policy is having a moment. That’s a good thing. But I worry it’s unclear whether restraint is a means or an end, and what that end would be. Without resolving this–preferably in favor of re-imagining a continued US leadership role in the world–current calls for restraint may do more harm than good.

The popularity of restraint in US foreign policy should be making me happy. I went to college in the Bush years, and marched against the Iraq war. After graduating, I joined a group in DC trying to formulate a smart, progressive foreign policy vision. A few years later I resigned in frustration that they accepted the troubling aspects of Obama’s foreign policy–like his expanded drone strikes–and focused mainly on helping Democrats sound tough on foreign policy. I cheered the pushback on US support for the Saudis in Yemen, beginning under Obama and continuing under Trump.

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An American died in an Egyptian jail. Why didn’t this well-connected human rights community speak out?

Earlier this week, Mustafa Kassem, an American held in Egypt, died. The Trump Administration did little to help him. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that the international religious freedom movement (IRF), a community that has gained close access to this Administration, seemed to have done little as well. The reason behind this should make this movement think seriously about its approach to the human rights.

Let me tell you two stories.

In October 2016, Andrew Brunson–a US pastor who had worked for a long time in Turkey–was arrested for alleged connections to the coup attempt against Turkish President Erdogan. His cause became a priority for the international religious freedom movement, who repeatedly pressed the Trump Administration to act. And it did. US Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom (IRF) Sam Brownback pressed Turkey for Brunson’s release. Vice President Pence spoke out. The United States imposed sanctions against Turkey and raised tariffs. Eventually, Turkey gave in and released Brunson.

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The sneaky rise of “common wisdom” in Middle East studies

We’ve all spent the weekend processing the killing of Iranian official Qassim Suleimani by a US airstrike. While this is obviously very important, we should think about a secondary implication of this act–how this undermined the apparent Middle East analyst consensus that America was pulling back from tensions with Iran, and how this consensus even emerged in the first place.

A few months ago I noticed something interesting. Saudi Arabia, after adopting a hostile foreign policy on Qatar and Yemen–motivated by its fears of Iran–seemed to be getting nervous. They’d issue warning signs about the impact of a war, and their UAE allies actually seemed to be trying to calm things down. I noted this on Twitter (I’m not going to look up my tweets, but you can find them), and thought I was onto something.

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The biggest losers from the Suleimani strike may be America’s Gulf allies

Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.

Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.

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Chain-ganging in reverse? Gulf states and US hostility towards Iran

I had a piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkeycage” over the weekend, which you can read here. I noted that many worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pull America into war with Iran. But it actually looks like they’re the ones restraining us. The piece was inspired by the famous “chain-ganging” dynamic in IR scholarship, but there was little discussion of that as it was geared towards a broader audience, so I wanted to expand here.

I suspect most readers of this site had to read Christensen and Snyder’s “Chain gangs and passed bucks” at some point. In case you didn’t, the argument is basically that in multipolar systems, alliances tend towards chain-ganging (being dragged into wary by allies) or buck-passing (wars breaking out because no one wants to stand up to an aggressor). The former happens in the case of offensive-dominant systems, the latter in defensive dominant ones.

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This op-ed shows what’s wrong with US foreign policy

Today, Ryan Crocker–career foreign service officer and former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan–wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing its criticism of the Afghanistan war he oversaw. He pointed to progress made in Afghanistan, which is fair (and doesn’t necessarily contradict anything in the Post’s reporting), but generally did little to directly undermine worries about the war. Beyond that, as I noted in a frustrated Twitter thread earlier today, he showed off a lot of what’s wrong with US foreign policy.

I spent 11 years in Washington, DC, doing the usual young professional DC thing. I worked for a defense contractor. I joined networking groups. I attended events at think tanks. During this time I saw a lot of speeches either promising a new direction in US foreign policy or defending its current direction. Both tended to be vague and defensive even as they refused to directly engage with the very real problems in our policies. I had a flashback to that as I read Crocker’s op-ed.

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IR, it’s time to talk about what the “multiple comparisons issue” really is

As a reviewer and recipient of reviews, I’ve noted a recent trend among IR papers. A study uses cross-national data with regression analysis, and runs multiple models with different variables or sub-sets of the data. Sometimes the results are consistent, sometimes they aren’t. But often a reviewer will object to the study’s validity, pointing to the “multiple comparisons” issue. Multiple comparisons can be a real problem in quantitative IR studies, but I worry we’re mis-diagnosing it.

What do I mean? Imagine we’re writing a paper on interstate conflict. We could measure conflict onset, duration or intensity. We could measure intensity by an ordinal scale, the number of deaths, or other more complicated measures. We could include all dyads, politically-relevant dyads, dyads since 1945, 1989, etc. Ideally these choices would be based on our theory, but our theories are often not specific enough to specify such choices.

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A bigger question in the alt-ac debate

I had a kind of unique path to my current tenure-track job, straddling the policy-academia divide. So I’ve followed current discussions on “alt-ac” careers with interest, but found something lacking in them. Nathan Paxton’s recent interview with APSA crystallized that; the bigger question is not how to support alt-ac PhDs but how to counsel people before getting PhDs in the first place.

As I’ve discussed, I sort of followed the “alt-ac” approach in the first part of my career. For those who haven’t seen it, “alt-ac” means “alternative academic,” referring to PhDs who pursue jobs outside of higher education. I worked in DC before grad school, and continued working in “policy” jobs during grad school even as I tried to prepare for an academic career. And I worked in research jobs for several years before becoming a professor.

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Has regression analysis shrunk our imaginations?

I realize this is a weird thing for me to ask, since the vast majority of my publications–as well as a few of my works in progress–have relied on regression. But I was wondering this recently based on my own and others’ responses to a new project.

I was presenting qualitative research recently that tried to make the case for ideas mattering in a conventional security studies topic (I’m being intentionally vague). I had a lot of evidence that it did, but the way it mattered was bit more nuanced than the way material factors mattered. An audience member took issue not with my evidence, but with my interpretation; they argued it seems like this shows ideas don’t really matter at all. And I had similar thoughts while writing this paper; not that ideas didn’t matter, but that they fell short of the type of effect we were used to seeing. So I had to decide how defensive I wanted to be in discussing my results.

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What do new Turkish university campuses have to do with Trump’s Syria decision?

So by this point we all know the big news on Syria. Overnight, Trump announced that–after consulting with Turkish President Erdogan–the US would be pulling troops out of north Syria, giving Turkey freedom to operate. This would likely involve military actions against Kurdish forces there, which Turkey fears are coordinating with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the United States had worked with these Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, so we’re basically abandoning them. Second, this will basically leave ISIS detention camps unguarded, possibly letting this terrorist organization regroup.

A lot has been said on Twitter and elsewhere. This will hurt US credibility. We shouldn’t have open-ended commitments in the Middle East, but this isn’t the way to stop them. This is no way to treat our allies. I encourage you to read others’ takes, and I’m not going to pretend these insights are original to me (but you could read my thread if you want).

But I did start thinking about what Turkey is hoping to accomplish. They’re framing this as a security issue; they want to uproot forces supporting insurgents in their territory. That is understandable, even if we don’t like abandoning Syria’s Kurds. But there are indications this is part of a broader push to increase Turkey’s regional influence.

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Want to fix peer review? Standardize appeals

It’s happened to all of us. You get that email “Decision on Manuscript…,” open it with a bit of trepidation, just to find a (hopefully) politely worded rejection from the editor. Sometimes this is justified. Other times, however, the rejection is due to the legendary “Reviewer #2,” a cranky, ill-informed, hastily written rant against your paper that is not at all fair. The details can vary–they don’t like your theoretical approach, don’t understand the methods, are annoyed you didn’t cite them–but the result is the same: thanks to a random draw from the editor’s reviewers list you’ve got to move on.

We all seem to agree this is a problem. Peer review is finicky, and often relies on gate-keepers who can fail to objectively assess work. The pressure to publish for junior faculty and grad students is immense. And editors are over-worked and overwhelmed. Dan Nexon provided a great service recently by writing a series of posts on his experience at International Studies Quarterly. This gave a lot of insight into this often opaque process, and got me thinking about what to do with the above situation.

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If you mention the evangelical delegation to Saudi Arabia, I’d have to ask which one

The other day, Emily McFarlan Miller–a journalist with Religion News Service–noted a sense of deja vu. The AP had an article on a delegation of US evangelicals who travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s Crown Prince (and effective ruler). The deja vu was because there was a similar delegation–with some of the same individuals–last year, which she wrote about at the time. These repeated visits, and the visitors’ response to the conservative Islamic Kingdom, are surprising, and may represent a shift in how evangelical elites view Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 visit took place shortly after the (technically) alleged (but, come on) assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, and was led by a US man who’d previously praised MbS as a sincere reformer. Noteworthy individuals on the trip included former Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s top evangelical advisers and a recent appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. After returning, he praised MbS’ reforms and “support for moderate Muslim rule.”

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Wait…what about Iran?

Remember this summer, when we were about to go to war with Iran? Iran seized an oil tanker passing through the Persian Gulf. Iran also shot down a US drone. The United States responded by shooting down an Iranian drone flying near a US ship, and nearly launching an air strike against Iran. The United States also expanded sanctions on Iran.

With Trump’s behavior becoming…unpredictable, and hawkish advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seemingly ascendant in the Administration, some sort of military clash appeared likely. But at some point this likely event kind of…faded away. It’s hard to point to a specific moment–someone backing down, tensions defusing dramatically. The issue just slipped away.

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Thoughts on making the most of APSA for the alt-ac attendee

Graduation Cap and Diploma on White with Soft Shadow.

C/o Bluestocking, 2008 Uyen Le

APSA is nearly upon us again, and I thought I should write something profession-related as I got back into blogging. My first thought was to make fun of annoying questions, but I already did that (six years ago…but still relevant). And there is a lot of advice floating around for grad students or others on the market. Instead, I thought I’d focus on an area where my experience is more unique: navigating academic conferences while working outside academia (or alt-ac*) and–in my case–trying to get back in.

For just a little context, I am currently in a tenure-track job but had always been on the policy-academia border. I worked in the defense industry in DC before grad school, and continued working part-time after I started (as I attended school in DC). I then switched to the think tank world (working part-time with the Pew Research Center). After graduating, I went on the academic job market but ended up getting policy jobs–first with the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Responses to Terrorism (START) and then full-time with Pew. After a few years out, I decided to try the academic job market again, and got my current job.

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Need some evidence of America’s waning influence?

One of the (many) concerns about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is the impact it will have on US influence around the world. Will Trump’s rhetoric and actions restore US dominance in the international system, or will they aggravate the world, leading them to look elsewhere for leadership? We can find some answers in the reports that Trump is considering branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Most debating US influence under Trump think it’s waning. Dan Drezner has pointed to public opinion polling suggesting a turn away from the United States. The UN Secretary General agrees. And others have suggested America start learning lessons in hegemonic decline from Great Britain.

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Editors, we need to talk about robustness checks

It’s happened to all of us (or least those of us who do quantitative work). You get back a manuscript from a journal and it’s an R&R. Your excitement quickly fades when you start reading the comments. One reviewer gives a grocery list of additional tests they’d like to see: alternate control variables, different estimators, excluded observations. Another complains about the long list of robustness checks already in the manuscript, as it obscures the important findings. Sometimes both of these reviewers are the same person.

And it gets even more complicated if the article ends up rejected and you send it to another journal. Now that list of robustness checks–some of which were of questionable value–expands under a new set of reviewers’ comments. And those reviewers irritated by voluminous appendices get even more annoyed by all the tests included with little clear justification (“another reviewer told me to add this” not being an acceptable footnote).

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Does IR really have a “culture problem?”

Is it a mistake to push back on a senior scholar (whose work you admire) right before ISA? Maybe. Is it overkill to post twice in one week? Probably (sorry Duck superiors). But I had to say something about this Christian Reus-Smit piece in Foreign Policy–based on his new bookclaiming IR doesn’t understand culture. It’s an example of the sort of well-meaning critique that fails to really engage with work being done in IR, which can divide and undermine scholars who should be working together.

Reus-Smit argues IR sees culture in an outdated manner, approaching cultures “as tightly integrated, neatly bounded, and clearly differentiated” entities that are “causally powerful.” He argues this misrepresents reality, ignores advances in other fields, and is a common failing across realist, rationalist and constructivist theories.

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