Feb 06

Both during the campaign and since he’s taken office, the Trump administration seems to have forgotten one major consequence of its “tough talk” regarding Iran. Putting countries “on notice” can cause war.

Trump--and the media he despises--have failed to mention that a potential war could cost thousands of Americans their lives.

We bring this up because, unfortunately, we have to respond to the President and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn putting Iran “on notice” for both supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen and testing ballistic missiles. Our simple reminder/hot take is this: war with Iran could be disastrous. Five years ago, we wrote 30 blog posts on the subject and then summarized those in a paper for The Small Wars Journal titled “The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”.

Bottom line in the middle/TLDR: Iran is larger--in population and landmass--than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. Though their military is a fraction the size of America’s, they possess a lot of asymmetrical responses that could down our ships or planes--like speed boats armed with torpedoes and caches of anti-aircraft missiles--and multiple ways to attack/destabilize other countries in the region, should America try to pursue military options against them. Read the full paper to get a sense of how a war with Iran will not look like the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

We can’t predict how a future war could go, so assuming it will be bloodless or painless, as much of the Trump administration/politicians/the media do, puts us all in danger. As the President (recklessly) talks tough about Iran, commentators and reporters need to frame the risks of war accurately.

(As we wrote about last week, the Trump administration creates so much news, we’ve decided to to respond to some headlines, when relevant, with our own unique takes. Last week, we discussed the “Muslim ban”.)

Feb 02

When we started the blog, we made the decision not to “respond to the headlines”. Frankly, there’s plenty of other websites that handle that just fine. We were also mostly non-partisan to start. As we’ll explain in a few weeks, that’s not relevant anymore.

As almost everyone heard, last Friday night, Donald Trump issued an executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, his first steps towards a “Muslim ban”, as Trump called it on the campaign trail. We could point out that the ban is cruel (which it is), could hurt the economy (which it will), will hurt America’s standing across the globe (which it has) or that it is ineffective (in the sense that it is already being used by terrorists for recruitment purposes), but others have already made all those points.

But we’d rather point out the fact that this bill is needless. Other commentators have pointed out the executive order targets refugees, who have largely not been involved in terrorism (you have a 1 in a 3 billion chance, rounded down, of being killed by a refugee). Or that the executive order targets seven specific countries none of whom’s nationals have committed terrorist acts on U.S. soil.

But we’d take this argument a step further: Terrorism itself is exceedingly rare. Only 3,400 Americans have been killed by terrorism in the last forty years on U.S. soil. That’s almost nothing.

But this sort of ban only occurs if the population is deathly afraid of terrorism. Fear is the emotion that drives terrible executives orders like this. Fear is what allows good Americans to support hurting the innocent. Fear is what keeps us from winning the “war on terror”. Politicians and the media need to contextualize violence and stop saying we live in a “dangerous world”. We need to stop overreacting to terrorism.

Or else dangerous policies like this will keep getting enacted.

Feb 01

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

Today, we wanted to just out some “quick take” thoughts on our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”. These are the ideas that didn’t fill up an entire post, but are still worth sharing.

Quick Take #1: Is this the rise of the autocratic world order? Probably not.

One of the hot takes over the last few years has been the praise for China’s economic growth. China went from one of the poorest countries in the world to an economic juggernaut, and it hasn’t succumbed to democracy in the process. Combined with Russia’s meddling in global elections (definitely supporting far-right candidates in former Soviet bloc nations like Ukraine and Hungary, most likely hacking America’s election, possibly intervening in other democracies we don’t yet know about), this has helped lead to the “autocracies on the rise” narrative. If an illiberal America joins that group, we could have a new world order centered autocracies and dictatorships.

Not so fast. Ignoring that America isn’t an autocracy or illiberal democracy yet, as I wrote about last week, and ignoring that the EU isn’t dead yet, this hypothesis forgets how bad autocrats are at governing. Sure they can consolidate power, but they usually destroy their economy in the process. Example 1: Russia. Example 2: Egypt. Example 3: Cuba. Example 4: Venezuela. I could go on. And for three of those countries I just mentioned, the autocrats held onto control mainly through oil wealth, not good governance.

China is a miracle because it grew without democracy. But democracy is always right around the corner with China (Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong Umbrella Movement). In one election, America could right the ship (left the ship?). So no I don’t see a bright future for autocracy.

Quick Take #2: Free trade drives huge economic inequality.

The one clear problem with free trade is that the gains aren’t distributed evenly throughout the economy. When the free trade movement coalesced in the 1990s, we saw huge economic growth globally and billions were lifted out of poverty. But the upper 1% did even better. In America, despites decades of economic growth, median income growth has stalled. Globalization is a winner take all phenomenon.

Interestingly, the gains of globalization aren’t distributed evenly within the international system either. Or distributed evenly between businesses. Some poor countries just cannot get growth started and fail to benefit from open borders. Some national companies will fail to compete with multinational behemoths.

Inequality is a feature of the system, but fortunately one that could be corrected. The easiest solution is also the hardest: the uber wealthy nations and people of the world should directly transfer their wealth to the poorest. Super simple; super hard. But we’ve done huge wealth transfers before and that investment always pays off in multiples.

Quick Take #3: The "liberal world order" isn't perfect.

A hot counter to my articles last week is, “Yeah, has war really gone down? Is the liberal world order really so good?”

This argument would point to 9/11, then two American wars in Central Asia/Middle East. Then how, following the Arab Spring, the dictatorships were largely successful in crushing democratic uprisings. And that China has provided a model that seems like an alternative to democracy.

The world isn’t perfect, but the liberal world order doesn’t promise perfection, just progress. (We’ve debated before whether or not America’s actions make the world safer in general.) We’re talking about a broad trend of less war and more democracy. I would have loved to see democracies flourish in the Middle East, but we just haven’t developed the right strategy, tactics and institutions to help that messy transition. America could do much, much more, but we need to re-win the intellectual argument first.

Quick Take #4: This is an opening for China.

We have a theory about how you know if your sports team (Go Bruins!/Lakers!/Niners!) picks the wrong coach: does your rival team’s fans like the hire? Because if your rival team likes your pick, it’s probably because they thinks they’ll do a bad job.

I thought of this listening to Fareed Zakaria’s opening segment a few weeks ago. He made the point that China is cheering the election of Trump, since they feel his anti-trade stances will create an opening for China economically. Unfortunately, we agree with this assessment. Again, if your economic rival likes your pick for President, you probably picked wrong.

(I should caveat that Michael C doesn’t feel that China is a “rival”, certainly not an “enemy” and I agree. Too many countries are labelled negatively. Still, if America boycotts free trade, China stands to gain and they are an economic rival of America.)

Quick Take #5: The return to manufacturing? Why not a return to farming?

That’s really what’s so silly about the promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. The only reason people want the jobs back is because their parents did it. But all our great-great-grandparents were farmers, and we don’t want a “return to farming”. Progress has decreased the need for certain types of manual labor. First farming, and then manufacturing. What we want is good jobs, not specific types of good jobs.

Jan 30

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

One of the most surprising narratives about the 2016 election is that Americans hate trade. Both Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the far left blamed free trade agreements for America’s employment issues, focusing their ire on both NAFTA and the doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. (Though they largely forgot about TTIP, which could be bigger than the TPP.)

Except, overall, most Americans actually support free trade agreements, at least according to 6 different polls.

Americans probably support free trade agreements because the facts back up that free trade makes the world a better place. Just listen to Fareed Zakaria interview the guy who led the talks for the TPP. Or read these Vox links:

- If you consider all people deserving of good lives, not just Americans, then it’s a good thing that trade lifted 1 billion Chinese people out of poverty.

- NAFTA barely impacted employment in America. (Though it probably affected the Midwest, which is actually just another argument against the electoral college.)

- Overall, trade has decreased the cost of goods for most Americans, especially poorer Americans. (Ironically, ending free trade will probably hurt the poorest Americans, especially red states, while hurting “coastal elites” or the top 1% less.)

- Manufacturing, over the last few years, has actually been increasing in America. This fact seems to undercut every other argument against free trade.

- And even if manufacturing returns to America, automation is a greater threat to blue collar jobs than trade deals.

But I don’t support all trade agreements unconditionally; I support good trade agreements. Some have criticized trade agreements as not doing enough to support workers or protect the environment. Or they give too much power to corporations. And I agree.

However, if the alternative to bad trade deals is no trade deals, that means you still don’t have protection for the environment or workers. Plus, you now have the potential for huge tariffs which could cripple the global economy. Of course, trade deals will still happen, with or without America. From NPR (emphasis mine):

WENDY CUTLER: A lot of other TPP countries...are now actively figuring out their plan B.

NORTHAM: That plan B could involve trade deals with China, says Meredith Sumpter, an Asia specialist at the Eurasia Group...

...China wasn't a part of the TPP. But it is already leading another free-trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, involving 10 Asian countries. About half of the countries involved in the TPP are signaling interest in that deal.

SUMPTER: Moving toward the RCEP would be an easy answer to trying to find something to replace the TPP. However, the RCEP is actually a much lower-quality trade pact than the TPP.

NORTHAM: The TPP was touted as the gold standard of trade pacts because of its stringent rules and protections for things such as labor, the environment and intellectual property - not so with the China-led trade deal, which just focuses on lowering tariffs.

So by pulling out of the TPP, we went from having a trade deal with some (albeit questionable) protections for the environment, workers and IP to none. By not having a seat at the table, it looks like America (and liberal activists) just made things worse for the environment, workers and the global economy.

I doubt that was their intention.

Jan 26

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought-Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

The definition of insanity is mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior. It’s not, as far too many people repeat (and as Einstein almost certainly never said) doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. (That’s why you shouldn’t rely on bumper stickers for legal or mental health advice.)

And frankly, is the opposite a better definition of insanity? Couldn’t insanity be “when things are going great, deciding to do something different”. Like say, electing an unqualified failed businessman disrupt international institutions during a time of peace?

Yesterday, I wrote that, contrary to the conventional narrative, democracy was not under threat. Well, to be fair, it is always under threat. Autocrats or dictators or military juntas will always try to seize power. It has been that way since Athens in antiquity. Yet the idea of democracy is NOT under threat. Only the most fringe-y of fringe elements in America and Europe (and the government of China) would honestly make that argument.

But I will make the argument that the “liberal world order”--what I call “liberalism in foreign relations or IR”--is under threat. Others have made this argument, but it is important enough to say again. To prevent future global disasters--like World War II--and to reinforce human rights--in opposition to the Soviet Union--and to spearhead the greatest improvement in quality of life in history, the United States and Europe created a liberal international system, featuring:

- The spread of democracy as the ideal form of government

- The spread of market capitalism as the ideal economic system

- The spread of free trade between states

- The rise of international institutions to prevent war and support free trade

- The spread of human rights as a legal and moral norm

The last 70 years have been the most successful in human history and we’re about to screw it all up.

The liberal world order that defeated the Soviet Union has led to the spread of democracy and free trade around the globe. Yet the democratic underpinnings of the order have now sown its own demise. Despite decades of peace and prosperity in Europe, Britain voted to leave one of the biggest international organizations, the EU, which could affect both defense and free trade. Donald Trump is notably hostile to free trade deals and alliances, like NATO. President Trump has also expressed a disdain for democracies and an admiration for strongmen leaders. Other European countries appear poised to also leave or change their relationship with the EU, and Donald Trump is goading nations into making this disastrous choice.

This threatens all that we have built.

Why is this so dangerous? Yesterday, I referenced Kenneth Waltz' Man the State and War, one of the foundational texts of international relations theory. In it, Waltz describes three “images” to discuss the causes of war. Roughly, they are people (as in individuals), states (as in the type of governments) and the international system (how the states interact with one another). Yesterday, covered the second image, the type of states; in general, the more democracies we have, the less wars are fought.

(We never discussed the first image, the “personal level” or individual leaders. If Al Gore had become President, I doubt America goes to war in Iraq. Since Trump is President instead of Hillary Clinton, we do think war is more likely. We will have an entire series on Trump related to his foreign policy.)

But Waltz argues that the third image is really the most important. The conduct of states towards one another--the concert of states--can either make a beautiful symphony (peace!) or a ruinous cacophony (war). And while realists can argue against this, the run of the liberal world order for the last 70+ years has been the most successful eras at averting international crisis and interstate war in human history.

The previous system hit its high point after the Thirty Years War. By high point, I mean the most number of wars for the most sustained period of time. The “balance of power” so treasured by realists that was created after the Thirty Years War culminated in the second Thirty Years War between WWI and WWII (and too many wars to count in the interim), with regular continental wars (Napoleonic, Seven Years, Franco-Prussian, Spanish Wars of Succession, and more). Yeah, I’m not a realist but even realists have to admit that the global hegemony of the liberal world order during the Cold War has been more successful than their system.

The liberal world order is self-reinforcing: more democracies leads to more free trade which leads to more international organizations to manage it, all of which discourages war, which promotes more free trade, which makes more democracies and makes war less likely and so on. Yet the system can go in reverse as wars cause dictatorships in their aftermath that discourages free trade which removes the need for international institutions and so on.

What worries me about the liberal world order isn’t just the rebukes in the form of Brexit votes, Donald Trump’s election, or far right candidates winning elections across the Western world: it is what is to come. I can see a world where we have two great autocracies--Russia and China--buttressed by a democratically elected leader who allies with them, Donald Trump. I worry that if he erodes the international institutions and global trade system that have undergirded the system, it could take decades to bring them back.

But the biggest worry is war. The best way to relearn our deep appreciation of the liberal world order is in the ashes of war. As the rubble clears from a disastrous inter-state war between first world powers, we will all know why we worked so hard to prevent it.

Let’s not let it come to that.

Jan 23

(To read the rest of our posts in"On Violence’s Most Thought-Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", check out the articles below...

- This is NOT the End of the End of History

- Yes, Liberalism (as an International System) Is in Decline

- Trade Works. People Like Trade. Goodbye Trade: The Real Problem with Abandoning the TPP

- Five Quick Takes on Brexit, Trump and the Rise of Populism

- Living in an Invisible Golden Age

- How Politics Created Our Invisible Golden Age)


So, you may have noticed that in the last year or so, we haven’t been blogging as much. The main reason is time. Michael C and I both work full time, and getting the extra energy to write can be difficult. We also work on other outside writing projects (including something new; coming soon!) and, well, until we’re writing full time, blogging consistently wasn’t a priority.

In light of the election on November 8th, 2016, this feels like a mistake.

There’s another factor to this blogging reticence, a feeling we’ve had for some time now: that we’re shouting into an empty room. Actually, the room isn’t empty; it’s packed with people and voices. But ours has been drowned out or ignored. Not by everyone, but by a fair number.

With the hindsight of this monumental election, this failure to get noticed takes on a higher importance. Our core theses on the blog haven’t been repudiated; they’ve been confirmed. We do believe we have an important message that directly repudiates Donald Trump’s world view. We believe that unless more people understand this message, our politicians will keep making poor decisions that will make the lives of us all worse.

What’s the main point we’ve been making that has gotten almost no traction in the wider world at large?

Thanks to the (classically) liberal world order--which includes the spread of democracy, the rise of free trade and the growth of international institutions--the world is as safe as it has ever been, but the media and politicians largely reject this view, choosing to portray the world as dangerous, and this leads voters to vote in ways that will make the world more dangerous.

This week and next, as we ponder the three major events of 2016--first, the Brexit vote, second, Donald Trump’s rise and win, and third, Russian influence to stop the spread of democracy--we will put these events in context of that bolded message above.

And we have other thoughts that run counter to the traditional narratives and explanations offered by most pundits. We’ll write about how democracy has still won the battle of ideas, how truly, truly safe and great a time it is to be alive, how classical liberalism (both international) is under threat, some counter-intuitive thoughts on trade deals, and how the media plays a role in all of this (maybe the most important role).

Like we said, our failure to be writing regularly about foreign policy over the last year was a mistake. And it’s not one we wish to repeat. After we finish “The Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”, we’re moving right onto how we plan to cover, analyze and oppose the Donald Trump administration.

We’ve got a busy next four years. Let’s get going.

Nov 08

The other day, I was thinking about a Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton had been sliding in the FiveThirtyEight forecast for a days, and it seemed more possible than ever that the unthinkable (electing a President Trump) was possible.

As I pondered a Trump presidency, for a moment I felt genuine fear. It seemed totally real that, under Donald Trump, a nuclear war is possible. For the first time in my lifetime, I wouldn’t trust the President with nuclear weapons.

That’s genuinely terrifying.

As we were thinking about what we should write for the election, I contemplated a post along the lines of “why veterans shouldn’t support Trump” or “the veteran viewpoint against Trump” but I decided not to. I mean, he has Representative Tom Cotton backing him, and he’s a veteran. Should we really tally up all the veterans to see who they support and choose our president that way?

Of course not. It’s like how Trump counts 88 flag officers (admirals and generals) backing him and Hillary counts at least 95. Or how Trump trots out General Michael Flynn and Hillary trots out General John Allen. It’s a wash.

Really what matters to veterans and soldiers is the same thing that matters to Americans: who will start unnecessary wars that put the lives of soldier and Americans at risk? We’ve written a lot about why you shouldn’t vote for Donald Trump. We’ve mentioned all the facts he gets wrong, all the moral codes he breaks and all the democratic norms he ignored, but we mostly ignored the larger philosophy of the two camp’s foreign policies. When you dig into the philosophies, you understand why you should vote for Hillary and why you shouldn’t vote for Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton is a foreign policy liberal. Liberalism in international relations (distinct from being a “liberal” or “progressive” in politics) is the deeply held belief of On Violence, the operating philosophy of this blog. This liberalism is about supporting democracies, human rights, free trade, and international institutions to decrease the frequency of war and increase the prosperity of everyone. Clinton largely supports liberalism (it’s why she advocated going into Libya and Syria). Her stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership notwithstanding, if On V had a gripe with her, it is that she (like most of establishment foreign policy types) worries too much about the short term and not the long term.

Donald Trump has rejected every pillar of liberalism: supporting democracies (he loves strong men or dictators), human rights (he supports torture and mass murder), free trade (he will erect trade barriers) and international institutions (his attacks on NATO and the UN). But it goes further than his rejection of liberalism: Trump rejects nearly every other major foreign policy philosophy as well.

Take realism. While it seems like Trump fits in as a realist with his focus on US interests and avoiding foreign entanglements, he can’t seem to find a realist who supports his beliefs. One of the biggest names in realist thinking--Stephen Walt--refuses to endorse Trump. (My gut is that John Mearsheimer does as well.) There are also plenty of realist thinkers on this list of 122 international relations Republicans who refuse to endorse Trump, and it was hosted on a realist website. Realists usually understand that Trump is close to realism, but know that in practice Trump’s brand of diplomacy, his economically disastrous trade ideas, and Trump’s ability to overestimate and underestimate US power (at the same time) violate realism in practice.

Any other philosophies are out too. Isolationism? Donald Trump has said he would intervene to stop ISIS in Syria and would do so with the help of Vladimir Putin. Neo-conservatism? Again, Trump doesn’t believe in remaking the Middle East with democracies, so probably not. Constructivism nee idealism? Donald Trump doesn’t have time to understand what this viewpoint even means.

So what is Donald Trumps foreign policy ideology? Selfishness bordering on narcissism. He’s unconstrained by any morals or ethics (advocating torture) while he only cares about winning, for himself. He admires other rich or powerful individuals, but only because he envies them. He’s not rational enough to be a realist so he’s just an unconstrained egotist.

And that’s where the danger from the beginning of this article comes from. Donald Trump is a complete liability if he were to take over the office of the President. Since he has no guiding principles in foreign policy, he could do anything, which makes him a complete liability with nuclear weapons and our military.

Nov 07

When we decided to write up our posts on this election, Michael C asked who these articles were for. Who did we want to convince? Which was a good question, since Eric C initially wrote up a series of “devastating” posts endlessly mocking Trump. But what good does that do, except further reinforce what Hillary partisans already believe?

Yesterday, we made the case for Clinton because Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to President. But the worst thing he has done is subvert democratic norms in America. He has challenged the legitimacy of the Constitution, and if he were elected, has a chance to permanently harm America.

If you’re a moderate or liberal who is still considering voting for a third party candidate, we’d politely ask you to first consider the damage that could be done to our democracy by helping elect Trump.

First, Donald Trump spent the primary campaign encouraging his supporters to use violence against their political enemies. I know, this feels like it happened ages ago, but it is easy to forget that, in his early speeches, Donald Trump would pine for the days when people could get beat up at rallies. And then his supporters would punch people at rallies. Since his official nomination, Trump has continued with calls for violence. Zack Beauchamp details the possibility of violence, especially among armed militiamen, on election day. Perhaps this doesn’t need to be said, but advocating armed revolution to stop a legitimate election should terrify everyone in America.

Second, Donald Trump has challenged American’s right to vote. Going hand in hand with Donald Trump’s threats for violence are his calls for his supporters to “monitor” polling places, using racist dog whistles to refer to minority communities. The Republican party, as a whole, has limited voter’s access to the polls in nearly a dozen states. The threat is two-fold. It erodes faith in our electoral system while challenging one of the most basic tenets of the constitution: the right to vote.

Third, Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns. True, there’s nothing unconstitutional about this. But every major party candidate has released their tax returns since the 1970s. His refusal to do so limits the public’s knowledge about him and threatens to destroy this practice entirely, limiting the knowledge future voters will have about Presidential candidates.

Fourth, Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to jail his political rival. While the entire country, rightfully, excoriated Trump over the leaked Access Hollywood tape, more concerning to On Violence was Donald Trump’s promise to put Clinton in jail during the second Democratic debate. This is what happens in third world countries. This is not how democracies work.

Fifth, Donald Trump refuses to concede the election if he loses and claims the election is rigged. Or to put it another way, he’s undermining faith in America’s electoral process. The foundation of our democracy is the right to fair and just elections to establish the will of the people. Donald Trump, by refusing to say he’ll accept the results, subverts the entire system by which this country exists.

Why should voters support Clinton? Because Donald Trump represents a threat to our democracy. One could argue that he isn’t that big of a threat, since he probably won’t win, though poll numbers appear to be tightening.  

But if even a small chance of victory risks ending the country, then it is one we have to avoid.

Because make no mistake: Donald Trump is a threat to the future of the country.