Feb 13

When you consider the war on terror, the rough calculus has always been, “To keep Americans safe, the military does things (“direct action” in military jargon) that result in people being killed.” To keep Americans safe from terrorists abroad, America fires missiles from drones, but those drone strikes sometimes kill civilians (foreigners, obviously). To keep Americans safe from Saddam Hussein, we launched the second Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in that war and thousands of Americans, but we “kill them there before they kill us here”, as Senator Tom Cotton has described it. So following this logic, the Navy SEALs on SEAL Team 6 raided a compound in Yemen to find intel to keep Americans safe.

They also killed an eight year-old girl.

So Americans sacrificed the life of an eight year-old girl for our own safety.

Keeping in mind that this real life “trolley carscenario is morally dubious at best and morally bankrupt at worst, this tactic won't help win the "war on terror". We’ll write more about this raid later (and many more like it to come if this mission is a sampling of the future) but it is important to, for now, just point out how stupid it is to kill women and children. But we don’t need a new post to say that, we have a bunch of older ones:

- Killing Civilians Pisses People off: Why Accuracy Matters

- Don’t Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

- Let’s Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes

Through all these posts, one thing argument shines through: killing women and children almost always makes you look bad. No matter how skilled someone back at the Pentagon or White House is at justifying why eight year-old kids had to die to keep Americans safe, the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries don’t buy it. Killing children is the worst. This isn't the most original take, but one that can't be repeated enough.

Some other thoughts:

Also, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the U.S. to conduct operations there. This means that, even if you buy the counter-terrorism importance of the U.S. raids, this mission jeopardized that.

Some hot takes, from writers we respect, tried to question how much blame should be put on President Trump for this raid. Well, he halted all immigration from seven nations so he could review vetting procedures of refugees; he could have taken the same step here. Since an American SEAL and many other civilians lost their lives in this raid, we would argue that having a good process to vet potentially risky military operations would be just as wise.

And does anyone think that, had Hillary Clinton become President, Congress wouldn’t be calling for an investigation? Would this not be Hillary’s new Benghazi? So where are the Republicans calling for accountability now? Or was Benghazi more about politics than policy? (Yes.)

Feb 08

(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.)

Since the election, it’s been pretty trendy for journalists and pundits to quote paragraphs from articles they pre-wrote about Hillary's “inevitable” election win, and then explain what they either got right or wrong. I, Eric C, can do the same. Last year, I wrote a number of draft posts on violence, the media and pessimism as part of our “World is Getting Safer” series and in one of those posts I wrote the following:

“In some ways, it’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many conservative Americans believe they’re “losing their country”. Everything is falling apart as white people become an (allegedly) oppressed minority in this country, as evidenced by a lack of support for the police in shootings, income inequality, the push for immigration reform, and political correctness.

“The solution? Support Donald Trump in the polls.

“Ah, but Donald Trump rising in the polls? That’s actually a sign of imminent demise for liberals! Our political system is falling apart! The cycle turns over on itself, with self-reinforcing feedbacks loops that keeps making people feel the world is getting worse."

Well, pretty spot on, except Trump didn’t just rise in the polls, he won the election.

As we wrote in the introduction to this series, the 2016 election results reinforce one of the core theses of the blog: the world is as safe as it has ever been, but the media (left, right and center) and politicians (Democrats and Republicans) believe the opposite. Because of the overwhelming yet completely unjustified sense of pessimism across the political spectrum, many Americans wanted a change.

Yesterday, we called this the “Invisible Golden Age”.

So, to repeat as we have so many times before, the world is safer than it has ever been. In the last fifteen years, nearly a billion people were lifted out of poverty. The crime rate is still at a forty year low. Ebola--the disease that made everyone pessimistic in 2014--was under control by 2015. Though wars continue in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, global war is a fraction of what it was even fifty years ago. Even abortion rates in America are going down. And issues like income inequality, prison populations, climate change and improved during the Obama Administration. Hell, it seems like Steven Pinker is legally required to do one interview a year trying to explain this to people.

So how did we come to this point? The blame belongs to both politicians and the media, who failed to adequately explain to the American public how truly great things were both short term (during the Obama administration) and long-term (since the rise of the classical-liberal world order). We’ll start with politicians today, then hit the media next.

The Best Analogy for the "Invisible Golden Age"

When I think about how much we’ve written on “The World is Getting Safer”--not to mention Steven Pinker, John Horgan and countless others--and how little it seems to seep into the general consciousness of Americans, the best analogy I can come up with is global warming, except global violence rates are going down while global temperature keeps going up.   

The similarities are uncanny. Is there a scientific consensus? Yes, the people who study both (either climate scientists or political scientists) agree with a near universal consensus that the underlying facts say the world is getting safer/global temperatures are increasing, with some minor quibbles over the details. Is the trend a straight line? Nope, in either case. Most years the world gets a lot hotter; some years the temperature stays the same. Most years see a decline in violence; some years see spikes in war deaths or murders. (This applies to most rates of violence.) Do huge groups of people not believe what scientists tell them? Absolutely, in both cases.

The main difference between global warming and the world getting safer? Both Republicans and Democrats believe the world is in awful shape. (Though now that the Trump administration is actively misleading the public on violence, terrorism and crime rates, Democrats may realize the mistake they've made buying into this narrative.)

Blaming the Far-Left for Liberal Despair

You can (partially) blame the left flank of the Democratic party, who constantly complained that Democratic policies didn’t go far enough. On issue after issue, Democrats, led by Obama, made huge policy gains, but left-wingers (of which I am one) undercut their own success:

- Consider the Affordable Care Act. Some on the left felt it didn’t go far enough, wishing instead for a single payer option, so they didn’t want to cheerlead for it, though it both lowered the number of uninsured Americans and finally limited the massive yearly increases in healthcare costs. It even led pollsters to have to change how they polled the question just to clarify what people were dissatisfied about.

- Consider Wall Street regulation. Many progressives feel Democrats didn’t do anything to rein in the large banks, so much so that Bernie Sanders made it his central campaign talking point during the primaries, the left-wing version of a border wall. In reality, Dodd-Frank severely curtailed the profits of banks. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker, “But there’s no avoiding the deeper conclusion: regulations have simply made banking less profitable than it once was.” And it severely limited the chances for another crash. But ask yourself, how many Bernie supporters know this? Or care?

- Or look at the prison population. There’s no doubt that one of the central injustices of the last few decades has been America’s insane expansion in its number of prisoners. During Obama’s administration, the prison population finally started dropping. Did that fact make the news? Did it make the news compared to the countless think pieces talking about this injustice? You see, even when we make ground on an issue, the negativity overwhelms the progress.

Some of this is, possibly, a good trait to have. Democrats are never satisfied. They want more progress and improvement for all. But this is a recipe for dissatisfaction. It left an opening for Republicans politically, who constantly and consistently criticized Obama. When liberals joined that chorus--on the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street regulation, immigration, climate change, and criminal justice reform, and more--it sounded like no one was satisfied, even though both sides were arguing for opposite things.

And now, two weeks into the Trump administration, we’ve already seen Republican begin the process to repeal Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are protesting like Hell to keep these very bills, even though many people spent eight years complaining didn't do enough. But some gains are better than nothing.

By failing to celebrate victories or general world improvement, Democrats let Republicans win the debate on the future of the country. Republicans painted a picture of America as a dystopian hellscape caused by Obama, which Democrats never adequately rebutted, creating an enthusiasm gap between their supporters. (I should clarify: this is one of many, many factors that cost Democrats the election. We actually have a huge post on the topic coming.)

It should be noted that Republicans don’t return the favor of not celebrating their victories. Indeed, just a week after the election, 49% percent of Republicans “already felt the economy was improving” compared to 16% the week before, which almost breaks your mind if you think about it too hard. And consumer confidence jumped to a 15 year high. Or you can read President Trump’s tweets, taking credit for good economic news he had nothing to do with. And conservative media has proudly celebrated Trump’s first few weeks in office. Democrats, during Obama’s first few weeks, were already arguing with one another over Rick Warren speaking at his inaugural.

The end result? It feels like Obama (and Democrats) had a mixed legacy, when really it was an extraordinary run.

Blaming Centrists for Not Defending the Liberal World Order

You can look at the previous section as an indictment of those on the far left for being too critical of the Democratic coalition, focusing on short-term (Obama’s administration). Consider this section an indictment of moderates, focusing on the long-term wins of classical liberalism. If you look at the period of peace and prosperity since the end of World War II, we’re living in amazing times.

As I wrote about last week, a majority of Americans support trade agreements, because the facts support trade agreements. But ask yourself, when did you hear politicians make a cogent argument defending trade agreements? Instead, politicians from both sides of the aisle capitulated to the loudest anti-trade voices of their parties. It’s not just that the mythical “elites” took the gains of globalization for themselves (though in countries controlled by right-wing politicians, they did); it’s that they never explained how far we’ve come and, more importantly, why.

This could extend to a whole host issues, from the importance of international institutions, foreign aid, and more. Overall, the classical-liberal world needs more supporters arguing for its cause. And explaining how the world has achieved such amazing prosperity, both in America and Europe.

Blaming Conservatives for Fear-Mongering

When discussing terrorism and national security, my initial reaction is to reflexively blame Democrats for echoing Republican talking points about the state of the world today, citing both Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer describing the world as a “dangerous place” or that we live in “tumultuous times”. Or how, when Obama said ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat in his 2016 State of the Union, neither Republicans or Democrats clapped, though ISIS clearly doesn’t and didn’t pose an existential threat.

Of course, this would fall into the same logical fallacy I pointed out above, because when it comes to stoking fear, Democrats have nothing on Republicans.

This fear-mongering (there’s no better word for it) has been going on for years. For a quick primer, just check out our writing on the subject, including “Politicians STILL Don’t Believe the World is Getting Safer (And the Media Doesn’t Call Them On It)“, or our posts on Republicans during the primary, “Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer” and “ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv”.

This fear-mongering continues today. Donald Trump’s inaugural address was summarized by the two words “American Carnage” (more to follow in a few weeks). The Economist described General Flynn, now Trump’s national security advisor, as believing that, “Jihadism is an existential threat to the west, much greater than Russia or China.” Mike Pence just told Chuck Todd on Sunday, “But look, we live in a very dangerous world.

This extends to domestic policy as well. Republicans villainize entire minority and ethnic groups, with our President describing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers”, his administration blocking Muslim refugees from entering this country under the false pretense of security, conservative activists protesting the building of mosques, and conservative pundits describing African-Americans as “thugs”. When the crime rate started falling in the 1990s, the N.R.A. mis-leadingly started a campaign to stoke fear about crime across the country.

As a nation, we’re better than this.

Where do we go from here?

The irony, publishing this post now rather than four months ago, is that one could ask, “So, if convincing people the world is as safe as it has ever been would have turned the election, will trumpeting that message now help Republicans?” Not really. That question leaves out the “Why?” Why is the world as safe as it has ever been?

Because of trade. Globalization. International institutions and cooperation. Immigration. Shining a spotlight on police shootings. Criminal justice reform. In short, all the things Trump hopes to dismantle. And of course, his proactive policy choices could also endanger this invisible golden age, from the Muslim ban (which will inspire more terrorists) to building a border wall. More importantly: does anyone trust the President not to start wars?

In each case, by contextualizing the safety of today, we can (try to) stop these actions. Not only should we say this; we have to. Just this week, the President claimed the murder rate is at a 45 year high (it isn’t), both Sean Spicer and Mike Pence described the world as a “dangerous place” (it isn’t), and they claimed the media under-reporters terrorism (it doesn’t). To justify their policies, this administration will exaggerate violence; we hope to counter them.

President Trump may jeopardize this invisible golden age we find ourselves in, both domestically and internationally. And this needs to be said.

Feb 07

(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.)

What if you were living in a golden age of safety and didn’t know?

What if no one else knew either?

What if the prison population, for a long a time growing at an unjustifiable rate, started shrinking? What if these drops in incarceration were accompanied by a drop in crime?

What if the number of people living in extreme poverty across the globe dropped from over 40% to 10% in the last thirty years?

What if you lived in a society where women, minorities, the disabled and LGBT people had gained rights unimaginable fifty, a hundred or two hundred years before?

What if the percentage of people who died in wars was at or near an all-time low?

What if the same was true of crime?

And genocide?

And slavery?

And torture?

But what if no one knew? What if no one cared?

What if everyone said that, instead of a golden age, we lived in the worst years in human history?

What if major newspapers on the left, (“Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?”), right (“A Night to Bid Good Riddance to a Crummy 2016”) and center (“2016: Worst. Year. Ever?”) asked if the current year was the worst in history?

What if defense secretaries and intelligence officials consistently testified on Capitol Hill that the world was a dangerous place? What if the President described the country as “American carnage”? What if the Vice President called the world a dangerous place? What if the minority leader in the Senate called these “challenging and tumultuous times”?

What if you couldn’t even escape the negativity by listening to podcasts? What if everyone from the FiveThirtyEight to iFanboy talked about despair? What if Radiolab did a whole show on nihilism? What if you couldn’t even escape this feeling listening to NPR without the interviewer describing the world as a “time of great worry and consternation”?

What if the country’s most respected comedians made the same declaration, like John Oliver closing out his final show of the year? Or Trevor Noah?

What if comedians felt this way about every year that preceded it? What if people felt this way about 2015? What if “2014 was not a great year for people”? And 2013?

What if every year you felt like Peter Gibbons from Office Space?

But what if it weren’t true? What if the facts didn’t back it up? What if you were actually living in an invisible golden age and no one knew?

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.