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.

Jan 24

(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.)

I have a quick thought experiment for you. Imagine it is a few months before the 2018 midterm elections. Donald Trump’s already poor approval ratings have deteriorated further. (Maybe he couldn’t fulfill his promises. Or a trade war tanked the economy. Or maybe we’ve deployed ground troops to another Middle Eastern nation.) Even in a gerrymandered and segregated electorate, the Democrats look poised to sweep the House and the Senate. (This isn’t that unusual; the out of power party often wins seats in a midterm election.)

Donald Trump, though, warns America of voter fraud and corruption, the same themes he had warned of in his Presidential run. This time, though, he now has both the solution and the power to do something: he is ordering a halt to the elections across America until he can determine they will not be corrupted. To buttress his argument and show this isn’t simply an action of the executive branch, he proposes that Congress pass an emergency measure to postpone the election.

My thought experiment is this: How many Republicans would vote for that measure? (I suspect Mitch McConnell would. It seems he’ll break any political norm to keep power in perpetuity.) But how many other Republican members of the House and Senate would vote for the measure that would end our Republic?

And for those even half-heartedly preparing their justifications for the above vote, stop. You can never justify stopping an election in a functioning democracy. Or even a non-functioning democracy. If you give a President the ability to postpone one election for any reason, well, they will find find a reason to postpone all elections. Look to dictatorships in Africa (like the Congo right now) or South America (in the past) to see this in practice.

I bring up this hypothetical because one of the “hot takes” following the Donald Trump election was that we had witnessed the end of the “end of history”, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama being one of the most influential articles turned books of the 1990s. (The other? The Clash of Civilizations, which was read as gospel post-9/11.) I’ve counted at least four major articles and the author himself speculating on this topic. Many more mentioned Fukuyama in relation to Trump and/or Brexit.

The reasoning goes something like this: The End of History and the Last Man was about the triumph of democracy, free markets and classical liberalism more broadly. Brexit voters opposed free trade. They are also leaving one of the most important international institutions. So does Donald Trump. He also has autocratic tendencies. Combined with his flagrant disregard for Constitutional norms, Trump could seize power, ending our Republic. Matt O’Brien in Wonkblog has a good description:

“[Donald Trump's] gone back and forth and back again on almost every issue. But if he's serious about jailing his political rivals, about cracking down on the free press, about potentially abandoning our allies, about encouraging them to get nuclear weapons of their own, and about ripping up free trade agreements, then the liberal international order that has bequeathed us a relative Pax Americana the past 70 years will be no more. It'll be the end of the end of history.”

O’Brien combines two different key elements of “The End of HIstory” and today I want to focus on the parts about democracy, what Kenneth Waltz would have called “the second image” or the internal structure of states. (We’ll talk about the liberal world order, the international system, in my post tomorrow.)

My opening thought experiment actually proves that we aren’t in the end of the end of history--though it is terrifying to wonder how many Republicans would even consider voting for such a measure. Even in the outlandish scenario above, Trump could never justify his hypothetical takeover of American politics without denying he’s become an autocrat. Even as future Trump postpones the election--daring people to fight him and, from the playbook of most dictators, justifying his takeover of politics--he’ll sing the praises of democracy. Donald Trump’s most fervent supports drape themselves in the flag, patriotism, democracy, freedom and the Constitution. Donald Trump would have to echo those themes.

We see this “draping myself in the Constitution even as I spit on it” in Republican efforts to decrease voter turnout. Republicans justify voter suppression in the language of strengthening our democracy. They claim they want the democratic vote to be pure and untainted. In actuality, their policies disenfranchise potentially millions of eligible voters, a direct violation of the Constitution and the spirit of democracy.

And while Francis Fukuyama’s original argument was that the liberal world order was here to stay, the most important part to me has always been that liberal democracy triumphed as an idea. We forget this, because it seems so remote to us today, but in the 1930s, it wasn’t just that Hitler took power from his democracy, but that many pundits and politicians doubted democracy as a system. Many German citizens voted for the National Socialists to end the Weimar Republic, which they considered a failed experiment. In the 19th century, many people feared a capitalist system and wanted the return of monarchy and mercantilism (or agrarianism). Communism proposed an alternative system of politico-economics, but it failed as a theory, and hence Fukuyama wrote his book.

We see this in dictatorships of modern times. Vladimir Putin still holds rigged elections to justify his rule. So did Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. So does Bashar al-Assad, during a civil war no less. So will Recep Erdogan in Turkey. The only countries that have been immune have been Saudi Arabia (which just crushes all dissent with outlandish wealth) and China (who, of course, flirts with democracy every 20 years or so). In fact, the China example is the best counter: it’s people see the value of democracy and it’s leaders fear the ideology’s power.

Democracy has bested the alternatives. So has market capitalism, really, with some bumps. Yes the fringe of the fringe (the racist alt-right) has proposed a return to monarchy, but no one takes that seriously. Democracy has triumphed as an idea, even in dictatorships.

So yes, we have seen the end of history.

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.