Kill the Spider

When I was 15, I got my first paying job, doing yard work and odd tasks on summer weekdays for a family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we lived at the time. Their house featured a rough stone foundation with lots of nooks and crannies.

One day, while spreading mulch around the edge of the house, I noticed a dense, funnel-shaped spider web emerging from one of those nooks. I picked up a short stick and touched it to the web. Nothing happened. I shook the stick a bit. Still nothing. I shook the stick a bit harder.

Suddenly, a large, oddly-patterned spider stood on the web above the end of the stick. The spider appeared so fast that it might as well have teleported to that spot, only inches from my hand.

I dropped the stick and leaped back. After I caught my breath, I ran to the garage and grabbed a can of insect-killing spray off the shelf. By the time I got back to the web, the spider had disappeared. I shot a long burst of insecticide into the hole, then another, then another.

Sometimes, I think foreign policy gets made the same way.

The State of War in Syria

I’m just now seeing Bridget Conley’s recent post on the state of war in Syria, which appeared on the World Peace Foundation’s Reinventing Peace blog several days ago. I agree wholly with her diagnosis:

Critics of either U.S. or Russian policy would prefer the rhetorical simplicity of merely pointing out flaws in the other’s position. What is really the problem is that both want war.

Russia now embraces war as a means to ensure that its client, the Assad regime, remains in power. But the U.S. also embraces war as a means to try to achieve regime change and, presumably, other regional and global ends as well. If the Obama administration were primarily concerned with fostering peace or stability and minimizing civilian casualties, it probably should have taken a softer line on President Assad’s status much earlier in this conflict. Instead, it has continued to insist that the conflict cannot end without his departure from power, and it has deepened its support for militias seeking to attain that goal by force.

As Bridget argues, “The most likely outcome of all these pro-war positions is continued conflict.” That’s what the scholarship on foreign intervention in civil wars tells us to expect, and that’s what we’ve seen in Syria for the past few years.

On the alternatives, though, I am less hopeful than Bridget seems to be. Instead of trying to win two consecutive wars—one to topple Assad, and then another to rule post-Assad Syria—Bridget proposes this:

If protection of civilian lives and carving a greater space for democratic practice is the desired outcome, then it’s time to seize the moment and negotiate, playing hardball for a political solution that provides institutional guarantees for democratizing processes.

But here is the conundrum: How can the U.S. “play hardball” in negotiations over Syria’s fate if it does not wield a credible threat to impose some costly punishment on parties that refuse to negotiate, or that negotiate but threaten to renege on any deal reached? And, given the current state of this conflict, how can it credibly threaten to punish defectors from any deal without fighting? What other threats are going to be so costly that the warring parties would prefer a certain outcome in which they mostly lose to the present uncertainty in which they might win and, in some cases, are profiting along the way?

Alternatively, the U.S. could simply pull back from the fight and leave it to the belligerents and their other patrons to sort out. In her post, though, Bridget alludes to one reason the U.S. has not committed to a hands-off approach: the U.S. is not acting alone, and its ostensible allies in this conflict would carry on without its participation. By keeping its hands in the war, the Obama administration apparently sustains its hope of managing that coalition, and of gaining leverage on other issues beyond Syria. As far as I can tell, the administration also seems to accept the claim that any diminution of U.S. involvement in Syria automatically and durably concedes power to its Russian and Iranian rivals.

Another option is escalation—fight harder. As Dan Drezner recently pointed out, though, escalation only makes sense if you believe that fighting harder will push the war onto a preferred path at an acceptable cost. Like Dan, I haven’t yet heard a convincing description of how that would occur. Even if you manage to win the war to topple Assad, you then have to win the post-war fight and contain the regional and global repercussions, and every recent iteration of this approach has ended poorly. With so many players committed to working at cross-purposes, I cannot imagine how this iteration would be different.

What we’re left with is foreign policy as a form of witchcraft. As the warring parties fight, various onlookers mumble incantations, wave herbs, and dole out potions. They have faith in the effectiveness of these traditional practices. When events fail to take the desired turn, evil spirits are to blame, and the answer is more mojo. If events ever do turn favorably, everyone swears it was his last spell that did it.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that a hands-off approach would be worse than the status quo. Instead of investing more in fighting and killing, why not invest in opening our doors wider to refugees from this war and helping them resettle here? I know the answer to that question: because U.S. domestic politics won’t allow it. It’s a fantasy. But then, so is the delusion of control that has us investing in the further destruction of Syria, and only one of those two fantasies involves the U.S. government spending its money and sending its people to kill other people.

To Realize the QDDR’s Early-Warning Goal, Invest in Data-Making

The U.S. Department of State dropped its second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR, last week (here). Modeled on the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the QDDR lays out the department’s big-picture concerns and objectives so that—in theory—they can guide planning and shape day-to-day decision-making.

The new QDDR establishes four main goals, one of which is to “strengthen our ability to prevent and respond to internal conflict, atrocities, and fragility.” To help do that, the State Department plans to “increase [its] use of early warning analysis to drive early action on fragility and conflict.” Specifically, State says it will:

  1. Improve our use of tools for analyzing, tracking, and forecasting fragility and conflict, leveraging improvements in analytical capabilities;
  2. Provide more timely and accurate assessments to chiefs of mission and senior decision-makers;
  3. Increase use of early warning data and conflict and fragility assessments in our strategic planning and programming;
  4. Ensure that significant early warning shifts trigger senior-level review of the mission’s strategy and, if necessary, adjustments; and
  5. Train and deploy conflict-specific diplomatic expertise to support countries at risk of conflict or atrocities, including conflict negotiation and mediation expertise for use at posts.

Unsurprisingly, that plan sounds great to me. We can’t now and never will be able to predict precisely where and when violent conflict and atrocities will occur, but we can assess risks with enough accuracy and lead time to enable better strategic planning and programming. These forecasts don’t have to be perfect to be earlier, clearer, and more reliable than the traditional practices of deferring to individual country or regional analysts or just reacting to the news.

Of course, quite a bit of well-designed conflict forecasting is already happening, much of it paid for by the U.S. government. To name a few of the relevant efforts: The Political Instability Task Force (PITF) and the Worldwide Integrated Conflict Early Warning System (W-ICEWS) routinely update forecasts of various forms of political crisis for U.S. government customers. IARPA’s Open Source Indicators (OSI) and Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) programs are simultaneously producing forecasts now and discovering ways to make future forecasts even better. Meanwhile, outside the U.S. government, the European Union has recently developed its own Global Conflict Risk Index (GCRI), and the Early Warning Project now assesses risks of mass atrocities in countries worldwide.

That so much thoughtful risk assessment is being done now doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to start new projects. If there are any iron laws of forecasting hard-to-predict processes like political violence, one of them is that combinations of forecasts from numerous sources should be more accurate than forecasts from a single model or person or framework. Some of the existing projects already do this kind of combining themselves, but combinations of combinations will often be even better.

Still, if I had to channel the intention expressed in this part of the QDDR into a single activity, it would not be the construction of new models, at least not initially. Instead, it would be data-making. Social science is not Newtonian physics, but it’s not astrology, either. Smart people have been studying politics for a long time, and collectively they have developed a fair number of useful ideas about what causes or precedes violent conflict. But, if you can’t track the things those theorists tell you to track, then your forecasts are going to suffer. To improve significantly on the predictive models of political violence we have now, I think we need better inputs most of all.

When I say “better” inputs, I have a few things in mind. In some cases, we need to build data sets from scratch. When I was updating my coup forecasts earlier this year, a number of people wondered why I didn’t include measures of civil-military relations, which are obviously relevant to this particular risk. The answer was simple: because global data on that topic don’t exist. If we aren’t measuring it, we can’t use it in our forecasts, and the list of relevant features that falls into this set is surprisingly long.

In other cases, we need to revive them. Social scientists often build “boutique” data sets for specific research projects, run the tests they want to run on them, and then move on to the next project. Sometimes, the tests they or others run suggest that some features captured in those data sets would make useful predictors. Those discoveries are great in principle, but if those data sets aren’t being updated, then applied forecasters can’t use that knowledge. To get better forecasts, we need to invest in picking up where those boutique data sets left off so we can incorporate their insights into our applications.

Finally and in almost all cases, we need to observe things more frequently. Most of the data available now to most conflict forecasters is only updated once each year, often on a several-month delay and sometimes as much as two years later (e.g., data describing 2014 becomes available in 2016). That schedule is fine for basic research, but it is crummy for applied forecasting. If we want to be able to give assessments and warnings that as current as possible to those “chiefs of mission and senior decision-makers” mentioned in the QDDR, then we need to build models with data that are updated as frequently as possible. Daily or weekly are ideal, but monthly updates would suffice in many cases and would mark a huge improvement over the status quo.

As I said at the start, we’re never going to get models that reliably tell us far in advance exactly where and when violent conflicts and mass atrocities will erupt. I am confident, however, that we can assess these risks even more accurately than we do now, but only if we start making more, and better versions, of the data our theories tell us we need.

I’ll end with a final plea to any public servants who might be reading this: if you do invest in developing better inputs, please make the results freely available to the public. When you share your data, you give the crowd a chance to help you spot and fix your mistakes, to experiment with various techniques, and to think about what else you might consider, all at no additional cost to you. What’s not to like about that?

In Praise of a Measured Response to the Ukraine Crisis

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted that the Obama administration wasn’t getting enough credit for its measured response to the Ukraine crisis so far, asserting that sanctions were really hurting Russia and noting that “we”—by which I meant the United States—were not directly at war.

Not long after I said that, someone I follow tweeted that he hadn’t seen a compelling explanation of how sanctions are supposed to work in this case. That’s an important question, and one I also haven’t seen or heard answered in depth. I don’t know how U.S. or European officials see this process beyond what they say in public, but I thought I would try to spell out the logic as a way to back up my own assertion in support of the approach the U.S. and its allies have pursued so far.

I’ll start by clarifying what I’m talking about. When I say “Ukraine crisis,” I am referring to the tensions created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its evident and ongoing support for a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. These actions are only the latest in a long series of interactions with the U.S. and Europe in Russia’s “near abroad,” but their extremity and the aggressive rhetoric and action that has accompanied them have sharply amplified tensions between the larger powers that abut Ukraine on either side. For the first time in a while, there has been open talk of a shooting war between Russia and NATO. Whatever you make of the events that led to it and however you assign credit or blame for them, this state of affairs represents a significant and undesirable escalation.

Faced with this crisis, the U.S. and its NATO allies have three basic options: compel, cajole, or impel.

Compel in this case means to push Russia out of Ukraine by force—in other words, to go to war. So far, the U.S. and Europe appear to have concluded—correctly, in my opinion—that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine does not warrant a direct military response. The likely and possible costs of war between two nuclear powers are simply too great to bear for the sake of Ukraine’s autonomy or territorial integrity.

Cajoling would mean persuading Russian leaders to reverse course through positive incentives—carrots of some kind. It’s hard to imagine what the U.S. and E.U. could offer that would have the desired effect, however. Russian leaders consider Ukraine a vital interest, and the West has nothing comparably valuable to offer in exchange. More important, the act of making such an offer would reward Russia for its aggression, setting a precedent that could encourage Russia to grab for more and could also affect other country’s perceptions of the U.S.’s tolerance for seizures of territory.

That leaves impel—to impose costs on Russia to the point where its leaders feel obliged to change course. The chief tool that U.S. and European leaders have to impose costs on Russia are economic and financial sanctions. Those leaders are using this tool, and it seems to be having the desired effect. Sanctions are encouraging capital flight, raising the costs of borrowing, increasing inflation, and slowing Russia’s already-anemic economic growth (see here and here for some details). Investors, bankers, and consumers are partly responding to the specific constraints of sanctions, but they are also responding to the broader economic uncertainty associated with those sanctions and the threat of wider war they imply. “It’s pure geopolitical risk,” one analyst told Bloomberg.

These costs can directly and indirectly shape Russian policy. They can directly affect Russian policy if and as the present leadership comes to view them as unbearable, or at least not worth the trade-offs against other policy objectives. That seems unlikely in the short term but increasingly likely over the long term, if the sanctions are sustained and markets continue to react so negatively. Sustained capital flight, rising inflation, and slower growth will gradually shrink Russia’s domestic policy options and its international power by eroding its fiscal health, and at some point these costs should come to outweigh the putative gains of territorial expansion and stronger leverage over Ukrainian policy.

These costs can also indirectly affect Russian policy by increasing the risk of internal instability. In authoritarian regimes, significant reforms usually occur in the face of popular unrest that may or may not be egged on by elites who defect from the ruling coalition. We are already seeing signs of infighting among regime insiders, and rising inflation and slowing growth should increase the probability of popular unrest.

To date, sanctions have not dented Putin’s soaring approval rating, but social unrest is not a referendum. Unrest only requires a small but motivated segment of the population to get started, and once it starts, its very occurrence can help persuade others to follow. I still wouldn’t bet on Putin’s downfall in the near future, but I believe the threat of significant domestic instability is rising, and I think that Putin & co. will eventually care more about this domestic risk than the rewards of continued adventurism abroad. In fact, I think we see some evidence that Putin & co. are already worrying more about this risk in their ever-expanding crackdown on domestic media and their recent moves to strengthen punishment for unauthorized street rallies and, ironically, calls for separatism. Even if this mobilization does not come, the increased threat of it should weigh on the Russian administration’s decision-making.

In my tweet on the topic, I credited the Obama administration for using measured rhetoric and shrewd policy in response to this crisis. Importantly, though, the success of this approach also depends heavily on cooperation among the U.S. and the E.U., and that seems to be happening. It’s not clear who deserves the credit for driving this process, but as one anonymous tweeter pointed out, the downing of flight MH17 appears to have played a role in deepening it.

Concerns are growing that sanctions may, in a sense, be too successful. Some observers fear that apparent capitulation to the U.S. and Europe would cost Russian leaders too much at home at a time when nationalist fervor has reached fever pitch. Confronted with a choice between wider war abroad or a veritable lynch mob at home, Putin & co. will, they argue, choose the former.

I think that this line of reasoning overstates the extent to which the Russian administration’s hands are tied at home. Putin & co. are arguably no more captive to the reinvigorated radical-nationalist fringe than they were to the liberal fringe that briefly threatened to oust them after the last presidential election.

Still, it is at least a plausible scenario, and the U.S. and E.U. have to be prepared for the possibility that Russian aggression will get worse before it gets better. This is where rhetorical and logistical efforts to bolster NATO are so important, and that’s just what NATO has been doing. NATO is predicated on a promise of collective defense; an attack on any one member state is regarded as an attack on all. By strengthening Russian policy-makers’ beliefs that this promise is credible, NATO can lead them to fear that escalations beyond certain thresholds will carry extreme costs and even threaten their very survival. So far, that’s just what the alliance has been doing with a steady flow of words and actions. Russian policy-makers could still choose wider war for various reasons, but theory and experience suggest that they are less likely to do so than they would be in the absence of this response.

In sum, given a short menu of unpalatable options, I think that the Obama administration and its European allies have chosen the best line of action and, so far, made the most of it. To expect Russia quickly to reverse course by withdrawing from Crimea and stopping its rabble-rousing in eastern Ukraine without being compelled by force to do so is unrealistic. The steady, measured approach the U.S. and E.U. have adopted appears to be having the intended effects. Russia could still react to the rising structural pressures on it by lashing out, but NATO is taking careful steps to discourage that response and to prepare for it if it comes. Under such lousy circumstances, I think this is about as well as we could expect the Obama administration and its E.U. counterparts to do.

A Brief Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter on Iraq and Syria

Anne-Marie Slaughter has an op-ed in today’s New York Times in which she argues that the U.S. government should launch air strikes now against targets in Iraq and Syria as a way to advance America’s and the world’s strategic and humanitarian interests. Here is the crux of the piece:

President Obama should be asking the same question in Iraq and Syria. What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people? What course of action will be most likely to stop the violence and misery they experience on a daily basis? What course of action will give them the best chance of peace, prosperity and a decent government?

The answer to those questions may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries. Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.

For the moment, let’s take for granted her assertions about the strategic interests at stake; the U.S.’s responsibility to protect civilians in other countries, by force if necessary; and the propriety of taking such action without prior approval from the U.N. Security Council.

Conceding all of that ground, it’s easier to see that, as a practical matter, Slaughter’s recommendation depends on strong assumptions about the efficacy of the action she proposes. Specifically, she asserts that the U.S. should conduct air strikes (“use of force on a limited but immediate basis,” “from the air”) against targets in Iraq and Syria because doing so will have three main effects:

  1. Deter atrocities (“to remind all parties that we can…see and retaliate against…any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity”);
  2. Spur talks among warring parties (“to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table”); and
  3. Enable positive political development (“to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power”)

If you believe, as Slaughter apparently does, that limited air strikes a) will almost certainly achieve all of these goals and b) will not produce other harmful strategic or humanitarian consequences that could partially offset or even outweigh those gains, then you should probably endorse this policy.

If, however, you are unsure about the ability of limited air strikes on yet-to-be-named targets in Iraq and Syria to accomplish these ends, or about the unintended strategic and humanitarian consequences those strikes could also have, then you should hesitate to support this policy and think through those other possible futures.

The “Cuban Twitter” Fiasco

The Associated Press dropped a big investigative story this morning on how “The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a ‘Cuban Twitter’—a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks.”

The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

If you study or work on democratization or development, this story is one you’ve got to read. That “U.S. agency with ties to the State Department” mentioned in the snippet above is none other than USAID, the supposedly benign and benevolent arm of U.S. development assistance around the world.

As I read the story, I kept thinking: how myopic. I don’t have time this morning to write a post explaining why I think this is a terrible idea, so I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting from a post I wrote on the same topic nearly three years ago, when talk of U.S. government–funded “Internet in a suitcase” programs aimed at keeping the Arab Spring rolling was hotting up. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the whole thing, but here’s my core complaint:

What worries me is that those well-intentioned officials may not have thought through how modest support for activists in authoritarian regimes might backfire. In a paper I presented at an academic conference a few years ago, I used game theory to explore the conditions under which authoritarian rulers might expand civil liberties in spite of the attendant threats to their power in an effort to reduce government expenses and accelerate economic growth. The formal model in that paper suggested that, other things being equal, autocrats are most likely to liberalize when political opponents pose either a grave threat or a minimal threat to their power. When would-be rivals pose a moderate threat, autocrats will feel compelled to keep the screws turned tight to prevent those rivals from gaining the strength that could transform them into a formidable foe. In this situation, the risks of liberalization will often outweigh the potential benefits.

If foreign governments reliably provided enough support to budding opposition movements to enable those movements to overwhelm autocrats’ defenses, we might expect injections of foreign support to spur autocrats to liberalize before they get toppled. As long as foreign contributions fall short of those heights, however—and they nearly always do—autocrats have strong incentives to respond to those interventions by clamping down, not opening up. This problem may be exacerbated by a substitution effect, whereby activists choose to invest less of their own time and money in overcoming barriers to communication because they expect foreign interventions to solve those problems. In other words, the chief outcomes we would expect to see from foreign support for popular uprisings would be more repression, not less, and weaker prospects for a transition to democracy.

The other issue I touched on at the end that post was the effect a revelation like this one has on USAID’s other endeavors, many of which of which are fairly straightforward and well-intentioned programs aimed at improving peoples’ lives in more fundamental ways, like vaccination and nutrition. Programs like this “Cuban Twitter” fiasco erode USAID’s credibility as an agent of development assistance everywhere. “If the U.S. government used USAID as a Trojan horse in Cuba,” politicians around the world might ask themselves, “why not in my country, too?” It’s hard for me to see whatever marginal effect this Cuban program might have had on the prospects for regime change in that country being worth the costs those doubts will impose on USAID’s work everywhere else.

This Is Not a Drill

Times like these, part of me wishes I studied microbes or aeronautics or modern American fiction.

One of the most significant crises in international relations of the past 20 years is unfolding right now in Ukraine, but it is impossible to talk or write publicly about it without engaging in a political act that can have significant personal and even public consequences. There is no political science in real time, only politics. When analysis overlaps with practice, the former becomes part of the latter. Sometimes the stakes are high, and I’ve found recently that more people are listening that I had anticipated when I started blogging about current events, among other things.

Or, more accurately, I just hadn’t thought that part through. I think I started blogging because I had time to do it, I enjoyed and benefited from the mental exercise, and I hoped it would advance my career. Best I can recall, I did not think much about how it might eventually entangle me in public conversations with significant consequences, and how I would handle those situations if and when they arose.

In case it isn’t obvious, my last post, on Ukraine, is the catalyst for this bout of introspection. That post had ramifications in two spheres.

The first was personal. Shortly after I published it, an acquaintance whose opinion I respect called me out for stating so unequivocally that Yanukovych’s ouster was “just.” His prodding forced me to think more carefully about the issue, and the more I did, the less confident I was in the clarity of that judgment. In retrospect, I think that statement had as much to do with not wanting to be hated by people whose opinions I value as it did with any serious moral reasoning. I knew that some people whose opinions I value would read my calling the ouster a “coup” as a betrayal, and I felt compelled to try to soften that blow by saying that the act was good anyway. That moral argument is there for the making, but I didn’t make it in my post, and to be honest I didn’t even make it clearly in my own head before asserting it.

The other sphere is the political one. I still don’t believe that my opinions carry more than a feather’s weight in the public conversation, if that. Still, this post has forced me to think more carefully about the possibility that it could, and that I won’t control when that happens and what the consequences will be.

Before I wrote the post, I queried two scholars who have studied Ukrainian politics and law and asked them whether or not Yanukovych’s removal from office had followed constitutionally prescribed procedures. Both of them replied, but both also asked me not to make their views public. As one explained in an email I received after I had already published my post, the risk wasn’t in being wrong. Instead, the risk was that publicizing a certain interpretation might abet Russia’s ongoing actions in the region, and that potential political effect was more important to this person than the analytical issues my question covered. Of course, it was impossible for me to read that email and not feel some regret about what I had already written.

One irony here is that lots of political scientists talk about wanting their work to be “policy relevant,” to have policymakers turn to them for understanding on significant issues, but I think many of the scholars who say that don’t fully appreciate this point about the inseparability of analysis and politics (just as I didn’t). Those policymakers aren’t technocratic robots, crunching inputs through smart algorithms in faithful pursuit of the public interest.  When you try to inform their decisions in real time, you step out of the realm of intellectual puzzle-solving and become part of a process of power-wielding. I suppose that’s the point for some, but I’m finding it more unnerving than I’d expected.

If you work in this field and haven’t already done so, I urge you to read Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics for much deeper consideration of this fraught terrain. I picked up Lilla’s book again this morning and found this passage (p. 211) particularly relevant:

Some tyrannical souls become rulers of cities and nations, and when they do entire peoples are subjugated by the rulers’ erotic madness. But such tyrants are rare and their grip on power is weak. There is another, more common class of tyrannical souls that Socrates considers, those who enter public life not as rulers, but as teachers, orators, poets—what today we would call intellectuals. These men can be dangerous, for they are ‘sunburned’ by ideas. Like Dionysius, this kind of intellectual is passionate about the life of the mind, but unlike the philosopher he cannot master that passion; he dives headlong into political discussion, writing books, giving speeches, offering advice in a frenzy of activity that barely masks his incompetence or irresponsibility. Such men consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.

In the 2010s, a lot of oration happens in cyberspace, and a public intellectual is more likely to blog than to give a speech. In other words, scholars who blog about politics in real time must recognize that we are “offering advice,” and must therefore guard against the risk of becoming the “sunburned” intellectuals whose urge to speak drowns out our “incompetence or irresponsibility.”

But what does that mean in practice? Lilla isn’t trying to write a self-help guide for bloggers, but he does go on to say this (p. 212):

The philosopher-king is an ‘ideal,’ not in the modern sense of a legitimate object of thought demanding realization, but what Socrates calls a ‘dream’ that serves to remind us how unlikely it is that the philosophical life and the demands of politics can ever be made to coincide. Reforming a tyranny may not be within our power, but the exercise of intellectual self-control always is. That is why the first responsibility of a philosopher who finds himself surrounded by political and intellectual corruption may be to withdraw.

I do not consider myself a philosopher, but I take his point nonetheless.

The Tragic Figure of Ambassador McFaul

On February 4, U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul announced that he would leave his post after the Winter Olympics to be with his family again in California, ending what the New York Times described as “a stormy two-year tenure during which relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.”

McFaul had never served as a diplomat before taking this post, and his two years on the job have drawn polarized reviews. Many observers hold McFaul at least partially responsible for the slump in U.S.-Russian relations, and some of those critics point to his inexperience in diplomacy as one cause of that slump. Others praise McFaul for his dogged and open pursuit of “dual-track” diplomacy, publicly engaging with Russian activists and the wider public in person and through social media while also engaging in more traditional relations with the Russian government those activists are trying to transform or topple.

I think there’s truth in both views, but I agree with James Carden (here) that the fault for McFaul’s rocky tenure lies primarily with the people who decided to appoint him to the post. I see Ambassador McFaul as a tragic figure—a man who meant to do good and tried his level best but whose accumulated professional baggage made it almost impossible for him to succeed in the job of a lifetime. (Disclosure: While in graduate school at Stanford, I served as Mike’s teaching assistant for one quarter, for his course on Russian politics. Mike was professionally cordial toward me at the time, but I haven’t had contact with him since finishing school apart from being “friends” with him on Facebook.)

Relations between the U.S. and Russia are both vitally important and persistently fragile, in no small part because the Russian government views its U.S. counterparts with deep distrust. Into this crucial but volatile mix the Obama administration chose to inject a man who had devoted a significant fraction of his public-facing career to transforming Russia in ways the Putin regime could only regard as hostile. As Carden notes,

For twenty years McFaul had been a prolific and consistent promoter of the idea that Western democratic values, American-style capitalism, and Western norms with regard to press freedoms are universal and that it ought to be the goal of American statecraft to impose those norms on Russia. And if the Russian government wasn’t interested in this transformative project, America should engage directly with Russian ‘civil society’ instead. Indeed, writing in the Washington Post in 2000, McFaul was firmly of the opinion that ‘democracy in Russia is a precondition for cooperation.’

International-relations theorists can tell you that there are plenty of structural reasons why the U.S. and Russia struggle to cooperate in many areas. Still, it’s hard to see how the appointment of someone with McFaul’s background to the post of ambassador could have done anything but make that cooperation even harder. When McFaul hit the ground running in directions that only seemed to confirm the Power Vertical’s suspicions of him, he almost certainly dug himself into an inescapable hole. But how else could it have been? The ambassador believed what he had been saying about the democratization of Russia his whole adult life, and as a man of good character, he had to act on what he believed.

The tragic flavor of Ambassador McFaul’s tenure permeates an excellent “exit interview” with him on the New Republic‘s web site. In that interview with Julia Ioffe, McFaul seems to speak candidly about how he approached his job, how hard it was, and where he succeeded and failed. In the “success” column, he notes that the U.S. continues to run supplies for troops in Afghanistan through Russia, and he points to cooperation on counter-proliferation efforts in Iran, North Korea, and Syria. At the same time, he acknowledges that, on the issue to which he has devoted much of his career—the democratization of Russia—things have only gotten worse. Asked what the future holds for Russia’s opposition, McFaul says,

I mean, my honest answer is: I don’t know. The space for political action has been dramatically constrained. That’s just obvious. At the same time, I am impressed by the vibrancy of Russian society. There’s a dynamism here that is not going to end.

That’s poignant in its own right, but the tragedy comes into starker relief in his response to an earlier question. After talking about his dual-track strategy and the Russian crackdown that has coincided with it, McFaul admits that the public engagement he has practiced and continues to champion may sometimes have exacerbated the problem.

JI: Do you feel at this point that tougher measures against Russia would be counterproductive?

MM: I think it’s easy to overestimate the coercive power of outsiders when dealing with large powerful countries like Russia. But I don’t have a good answer to that. I genuinely do not. I know that we struggle with it every day. I know that we want to make sure that we listen to our Russian colleagues. Many times I’ve heard from civil-society leaders and members of the opposition that, in the name of a nice sound bite or photo op, we have done damage.

For a man who clearly cares deeply about Russia and its people and came to Moscow to do good, that has to be a tough admission to make. He did exactly what he said he would do, and Russia’s domestic politics and its relationship with the U.S. both moved in the wrong direction.

Postscript. Since publishing this post, I’ve heard from a few people who inferred from the final sentence that I hold McFaul partially responsible for those domestic and international trends. That’s not what I meant to say. I think the domestic trend in particular was largely baked into the situation, and there was little McFaul could have done to alter it. As a longtime observer of democratization and Russia, I’d say that the erosion of political rights and civil liberties we’ve seen in that country over the past few years can be explained fine by general theories of political development; we don’t need to reference the ambassador’s dual-track diplomacy to explain it.

That said, I do suspect that the Russians’ perceptions of McFaul’s efforts to engage with their domestic “enemies,” and what those efforts and his background “revealed” about American intentions, made it marginally harder to find common ground in the international arena. Since the collapse of the USSR, I think that the U.S. has consistently underestimated the extent to which its efforts to expand Europe and transform the Soviet successor states have stoked Russian insiders’ distrust of, and hostility toward, the U.S. In that context, I wonder if things which seem tangential or modest to us—like McFaul’s academic and professional history—are perceived very differently by them. Or maybe they’re just really good at cranking up the faux outrage machine. In any case, I hope the ambassador will have a chance to speak more to that argument in public when his tenure is officially over.

What the U.S. Intelligence Community Says About Mass Atrocities in 2014

Here’s what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said about the risk of mass atrocities this year in the Worldwide Threat Assessment he delivered today to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence:

The overall risk of mass atrocities worldwide will probably increase in 2014 and beyond. Trends driving this increase include more social mobilization, violent conflict, including communal violence, and other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses. Many countries at risk of mass atrocities will likely be open to influence to prevent or mitigate them. This is because they are dependent on Western assistance or multilateral missions in their countries, have the political will to prevent mass atrocities, or would be responsive to international scrutiny. Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond, although support for human rights norms to prevent atrocities will almost certainly deepen among some non-government organizations. Much of the world will almost certainly turn to the United States for leadership to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.

That’s a ton of analysis crammed into a single paragraph, and I suspect a lot of person-hours went into the construction of those six sentences.

However many hours it was, I think the results are largely correct. After two decades of relative quiescence, we’ve seen a troubling rebound in the occurrence of mass atrocities in the past few years, and the systemic forces that seem to be driving that rebound don’t yet show signs of abating.

One point on which I disagree with the IC’s analysis, though, is the claim that “widespread impunity for past abuses” is helping to fuel the upward trend in mass atrocities. I don’t think this assertion is flat-out false; I just think it’s overblown and over-confident. As Mark Kersten argued last week in a blog post on the debate over whether or not the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC),

Any suggestion that international criminal justice should be pursued in the context of ongoing hostilities in Syria leads us to the familiar “peace versus justice” debate. Within this debate, there are broadly two camps: one which views international criminal justice as a necessary and useful tool which can deter crimes, marginalize perpetrators and even be conducive to peace negotiations; and a second camp which sees judicial interventions as deleterious to peace talks and claims that it creates disincentives for warring parties to negotiate and leads to increased levels of violence.

So who’s right? I think Kersten is when he says this:

It remains too rarely conceded that the Courts effects are mixed and, even more rarely, that they might be negligible.This points to the ongoing need to reimagine how we study and assess the effects of the ICC on ongoing and active conflicts. There is little doubt that the Court can have negative and positive effects on the ability of warring parties and interested actors to transform conflicts and establish peace. But this shouldn’t lead to a belief that the ICC must have these effects across cases. In some instances, the Court may actually have minimal or even inconsequential effects. As importantly, in many if not most cases, the ICC won’t be the be-all and end-all of peace processes. Even when the Court has palpable effects, peace processes aren’t likely to flourish or perish on the hill of international criminal justice.

Finally, I’m not sure what the Threat Assessment‘s drafters had in mind when they wrote that “overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond.” I suspect that statement is a nod in the direction of declinists who worry that a recalcitrant Russia and rising China spell trouble for the supposed Pax Americana, but that’s just a guess.

In any case, I think the assertion is wrong. Syria is the horror that seems to lurk behind this point, and there’s no question that the escalation and spread of that war represents one of the greatest failures of global governance in modern times. Even as the war in Syria continues, though, international forces have mobilized to stem fighting in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, two conflicts that are already terrible but could also get much, much worse. Although the long-term effects of those mobilizations remain unclear, the very fact of their occurrence undercuts the claim that international will and capability to respond to mass atrocities are flagging.

The Green Lantern Theory of State-Building

In a recent post on Human Rights Watch’s World Policy Blog, Hanan Salah nicely summarizes the poor state of state-building in post-Qaddafi Libya:

The main problem affecting both justice and security is that armed militias still maintain the upper hand. They have various agendas—financial, territorial, political, religious—and operate with impunity two years after the Qaddafi regime ended. Successive interim governments have failed to assert control over these militias, preferring to contract them as parallel forces to the army and police. Consequently, they retain a stranglehold over key security objectives, such as protecting Libya’s oil fields, making it ever harder for the government to break their financial dependency and hold on these lucrative opportunities. The structure of the militias and related armed groups, their shared interests, political aspirations, and the tribal nature of Libyan society are further complicating factors.

This passage gets at the chicken-and-egg problem that makes state-building so hard, not just in Libya but everywhere. “Justice and security” are the chief public goods a state exists to provide, but the provision of those goods depends on widespread obedience of state authority, and that authority is hard to construct.

What bugged me about Salah’s otherwise excellent post was the use of the verb “prefer” to indicate why this authority isn’t cohering faster in Libya. “Prefer” connotes choice, and I’m not convinced that the officials comprising Libya’s internationally recognized government have very much of that. They face an array of entrenched militias that are probably profiting handsomely from control of their various fiefdoms. Those officials supposedly command an army and police force of their own, but those organizations are still small and under-resourced. Worse, the revenue streams that could make the national army and state police stronger—including oil—are often controlled by the very militias those forces are supposed to be beefing up to defeat. Under these circumstances, how exactly are Libyan officials supposed to persuade these militias to cooperate? Give them a stern talking-to?

To be fair, Salah’s post is hardly the first place I’ve seen this line. Actually, I think it’s fair to say that this is comparative politics’ version of the Green Lantern Theory that Matt Yglesias coined to describe neoconservative U.S. foreign policy and Brendan Nyhan has since extended to the American presidency. In the Green Lantern Theory, political outcomes are mostly a matter of will. If the state doesn’t cohere, it’s because the people tasked with doing it lack the spine to fulfill their charge as duly chosen leaders.

If we reject the Green Lantern Theory of state-building and recognize that power is at least as important as will, it’s tempting to think that outsiders can goose the process with an infusion of armed forces, or at least the money and training an internationally recognized government needs to build up its own. The growth of the state is stunted, so a few costly doses of hormone therapy should do the trick. In fact, as Reuters reported, Libya’s prime minister recently made just this plea at an investment conference in London:

If the international community does not help in the collection of arms and ammunition, if we don’t get help in forming the army and the police, things are going to take very long… The situation is not going to improve unless we get real and practical assistance.

In fact, politics isn’t nearly as mechanical and modular as this idea implies. Before embarking on a new state-boosting mission in Libya, foreign governments would do well to take another look at Somalia, which has been the target of similar treatments for the past two decades. As Alex de Waal describes in a recent post on the LRB Blog,

[President] Hassan’s Western backers have not yet squared the circle of pouring money and guns into a client government to fight a counterinsurgency, and preventing that government from becoming rentierist, militaristic and corrupt. Rent-seeking pervades the whole system: the president or defence minister must bargain separately with each military unit to secure its loyalty for each operation. And even then, he cannot order a Somali unit to enter a ‘liberated’ town where the locals won’t welcome it. It’s no surprise that Somalis hedge their bets against the time when the [Somali Federal Government’s] international sponsors tire of a Sisyphean counterinsurgency and sell out their erstwhile proxies. Even if al-Shabab were defeated, it wouldn’t solve Somalia’s problems. The corrupt rentierist system of government, which gave rise to al-Shabab in the first place, would be more entrenched than before.

Much the same could be said of Afghanistan, too.

And this is the Great Frustration of applied social science: prescription doesn’t always follow from explanation. Even if we can understand pretty well why state-building is so hard, we still can’t figure out how to control it. Whether that’s a curse or a blessing will depend on whom you ask, and therein lies the essence of politics.

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