This is a guest post by Richard W. Maass, an Associate Professor at the University of Evansville. His research focuses on international security, US foreign policy, terrorism, and diplomatic history. He has a forthcoming book on how democracy and xenophobia limited US territorial expansion (Cornell UP, May 2020).
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government.
This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme:
The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.
Duma Member Sergey Markov
The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA.
Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV, responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.
Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:
Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.
Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)
For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready.
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.
This is a guest post from Paul Poast, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Earlier this spring, Poast wrote a post about the Asshole Theory of US Foreign Policy and the structural conditions that may facilitate the United States playing the role of a jerk on the international stage. In part 2, we embedded Poast’s thread on President Trump’s gauche offer to buy Greenland from Denmark.
In part 3, Poast reflects on President Trump’s talk about extracting payment from Saudi Arabia for protection in light of previous burden-sharing episodes such as the first Gulf War. This is another embedded thread so you may have to click on the image to read the whole thread.
This is a guest post from Paul Poast, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Earlier this spring, Poast wrote a post about the Asshole Theory of US Foreign Policy and the structural conditions that may facilitate the United States playing the role of a jerk on the international stage.
In light of President Trump’s overtures to buy Greenland from Denmark, Poast wrote a thread on Twitter about Denmark’s importance to NATO, suggesting why President Trump’s suggestion might be considered an asshole move.
What follows is an embedded thread using ThreaderApp. This is part II in the occasional #AssholeUSFP series. [Note: If full thread isn’t visible to you, click on the first thread and it will open in a new window. Full thread should be visible if you have a Threaderapp account. We’ll experiment with embedding features…]
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.”
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.
This is a guest post from Shana Gadarian and Dan McDowell, both Associate Professors at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
Earlier this month, after Chinese authorities reportedly backtracked
on a set of economic reform promises as part of ongoing trade discussions, President
Trump announced that existing tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods would
increase from 10% to 25%. China responded
with new tariff hikes of its own on American products.
The costs of the escalating trade war are most acute in rural
areas where Trump has enjoyed strong political support. While it
is possible that economic pain from the dispute will erode the president’s
popularity among his base, our research suggests that Republican support for
the trade war depends less on how much pain the US endures and more on how much
it hurts China.
Last week, Dina Smeltz, Jordan Tama, and I had a piece in the Monkey Cage on the results of our 2018 survey of 588 foreign policy opinion leaders. We found that these opinion leaders misestimated public attitudes on (1) US engagement in the world, (2) support for trade, (3) support for military intervention, and (4) support for immigration.
I did a thread on the results, which I’ll summarize below, but I wanted to follow up with some thoughts based on a thoughtful critique from Ken Schultz that focused on our finding that elites thought the public less supportive of military intervention than our public survey results suggested.
Awhile back, when cross-posted here and at Lawyers, Guns and Money to harp on the Game of Thrones denouement, LGM Commenter “Dogboy” clicked a link in that post to this article by Stanford researcher Scott Sagan (with Benjamin Valentino), purporting to show (via survey experiment) that Americans would be fine carpet-bombing civilians in Iran. Dogboy’s rightful reaction: “WTF, WHY DID I CLICK THE LINK?” To which I was happily able to reply, “Don’t worry, I’ve studied this data and the authors are wrong. Stay tuned for my follow-up essay in the next few days.”
It has taken many days to issue my follow-up, partly because, while I was busy completing replications on the Iran study and preparing a rebuttal for publication, Sagan and his team published another similar study on North Korea just before Trump headed over there.
This time, their survey
respondents were not asked to saturation bomb an Iranian city (a flagrant
violation of the Geneva Conventions), but to violate the UN Charter through a
preventive strike on North Korea, with nuclear or conventional weapons
depending on your treatment group, weighing the strategic gains against various
game-theoretic likelihoods of various levels of civilian casualties in both North
and South Korea, ranging from 15,000 to 1.5 million.
Naturally, of course, the mediareported on
this study, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists and titled “What Do Americans Really Think
About Conflict With Nuclear North Korea? The Answer is Both Reassuring and
Disturbing” by focusing on the DISTURBING: the quote from the article most
frequently mentioned in the media is this one:
“As we have previously found, the U.S. public exhibits only
limited aversion to nuclear weapons use and a shocking willingness to support
the killing of enemy civilians.”
Well, having just
replicated the original Iran study,* and also looked closely at this new North
Korea one, I can tell Dogboy and everyone else that
we can (mostly) relax. Here’s why: what Sagan’s team calls “disturbing” is not
really that disturbing, and even if it is, the “Reassuring” way outranks the
“Disturbing” in statistical terms. Below are three reasons why you shouldn’t
worry too much about the blood-thirstiness of your fellow Americans.
“A Large Hawkish Minority
Lurks.” Basically, Sagan’s team found Trump supporters are happy
to bomb foreigners. Why the authors want to focus on (or have the media focus
on) the minority of voters who would support war crimes over the large majority
of Americans that don’t is unclear. But what they find “disturbing” is these
voters also appear “appear insensitive to informational cues that most security
experts would expect to reduce such levels of support.”
Voters may ‘appear’ that way, however, because
Sagan and his team did not include ‘informational cues’ on knowledge or
exposure to the Geneva Conventions in their experiment – something lots of
‘security experts’ including my co-author and I found matters tremendously in
such matters. Indeed, when we replicated the original Iran Study we found that
providing these cues reverses the result on saturation bombing:
What this means is that in real life, where
international and domestic human rights groups (plus generals) would invoke the
Geneva Conventions or UN Charter, support for these acts would be much lower
than a carefully controlled survey experiment might suggest.
“A Shocking Willingness to
Support Killing Civilians.” No. Absolutely not. What they found is
that a large majority of Americans (77%) opposed killing civilians, whether or
not this was done through conventional bombing or nuclear weapons. Again, this
is “reassuring” not “disturbing” and it is also entirely consistent with the
Geneva Conventions, which prohibit killing civilians no matter what weapons you
This new North Korea
finding is actually consistent with what Alex Montgomery and I found on our
replication of the original Iran study, as reported in this companion piece in Foreign Policy on audience
reactions to the firebombing of King’s Landing: the vast majority of Americans
believe it’s wrong to target civilians under any circumstances.
“A Strong Retributive Streak?” Sagan and his team also write that, even though “the majority of Americans do not want President Trump to return to threats to attack North Korea,” there is a “strong retributive streak in US public opinion.”
This is a stretch. On the original Iran study, the authors developed this claim, because they found that among those willing to bomb the city, some Americans used a sort of “they deserve what they get” or “bomb them all” kind of explanation. On our replication, we found that only a minority of Americans really preferred to target civilians once you control for framing effects embedded in the original prompt, and of those that only a tiny minority (12%) evinced this sort of mentality when we studied the open-ended comments explaining the answers. This dropped to 6% if we gave an open-ended version of the question itself, rather than forcing respondents to choose between terrible options:
Now that’s an augmented
replication of the original Iran study. In the new North Korea study, Sagan and
his team argue death penalty support predicts retributive attitudes toward
civilians and maybe so (we haven’t explored that), but this is hardly a
“disturbing” finding about Americans, since death penalty support is at
The Media Does Like
Whether these findings
are legitimately disturbing or not, the media sure latched on to the claim that
they were, and circulated the erroneous conclusion that this means Americans
are happy to kill civilians – just as they did when the original (and flawed)
Iran study came out.
This is a shame because
what Americans think about what other Americans think can actually influence
what Americans think – and that can influence what policymakers do. If the
media’s misappropriation of this survey finding, due to a carelessly worded
title in a research paper, leads Americans to think many of their countrymen
are fine disregarding the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions, that
really is terrifying. Because research shows those rules are sometimes
the thin red line encouraging restraint in war.