Author: Cliff Bob (Page 1 of 2)

Did the NRA Kill the Arms Trade Treaty?

UN members last month failed to reach agreement on the Arms Trade Treaty after a month-long conference.  This is the latest setback in a decades old attempt to control the trade in small arms.  A broad network of states, NGOs, and the UN bureaucracy had pushed for the treaty and earlier measures.  In their view, proliferation of guns contributes to hundreds of thousands of casualties per year in conflict zones and to large numbers of shooting deaths in countries at peace.

But the international campaign to control the illicit trade in small arms has long faced skepticism from certain states, most notably the U.S, but also Russia, China,  India, and others.  For an interactive map of state views on the ATT, click here.  Since its start in the early 1990s, the campaign has also faced outright opposition from NGOs such as America’s National Rifle Association.  The NRA and other American gun groups have joined with overseas counterparts to promote gun rights and the right to self-defense.  Most notable is the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA) and more recently the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights (IAPCAR).  The groups help one another in their own countries and work together to lobby states against international gun control.
It is this network, spanning governments and NGOs, that killed the ATT.  The Obama administration administered the coup d’grace, but other American politicians and civil society groups strongly influenced this decision.  Other states cheered them on, if only privately. All of this holds important  lessons for studying international policymaking and transnational advocacy.

The ATT had been billed as an alternative to a prior, failed try at controlling the illicit trade, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  This began as the Cold War ended and ethnic warfare became the fear du jour of the early ’90s (as terrorism is today), with gun proliferation blamed for much of the bloodshed.  The Bush administration gutted that attempt in 2001, using a UN conference’s consensus rules to allow only the nonbinding Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA).  The PoA was so weak that a key proponent of small arms control, Human Rights Watch, dubbed it a “program of inaction” and shuttered its campaign.  Nonetheless, this zombie policy—alive on paper but in reality dead—lurched along until 2006, when the U.S. finally killed the PoA completely at another UN confab. 

The ATT was supposed to be different, negotiated only by likeminded states and without the consensus rules that allowed key opponents to block an effective PoA.  In the Bush era, this seemed the best that could be achieved, given the close ties between gun groups and the U.S. administration.  But keeping America out of the ATT negotiations would have led to another form of zombieism—a key arms exporter not part of the treaty, notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. already has some of the world’s toughest export controls.  Thus when the Obama administration took office and expressed interest in the ATT, members of the ATT coalition opted to allow it in, accepting its demand that consensus rules again be followed and U.S. laws be used as a basis for negotiations.  (At the time, a number of activists raised red flags, warning that it could end with the ATT’s failure, but to no avail.)
From the start, American gun groups decried the ATT because of its supposed threat to American gun rights.  State negotiators did their best to reduce controversial issues.  And by the end of the conference last month, a cascade of some 90 states supported the text.  But opposition remained strong in many states, particularly to the marking of ammunition and to sales of guns to nonstate actors.  In the U.S., opposition was particularly ferocious, as encapsulated in a letter signed by 51 U.S. Senators, including Democrats, expressing “grave concern” about the “dangers” to U.S. sovereignty and individual rights under the Second Amendment.  The Senators, voicing the views of American gun groups, warned that the treaty’s draft text could force the U.S. to monitor and control domestic transfers, to maintain records of imports and shipments, and to increase regulations to prevent transfers to illicit or unintended end users.
Farfetched?  Although the intent of the draft was clearly to control the illicit international trade, its terms, if broadly construed, could be read in these ways.  And there is little doubt that in an issue as hot as guns, American control advocates would have read them in this way, to score points and influence judicial and legislative outcomes.  The real menace to American gun rights is doubtless small, given the power of the Second Amendment and the fact that, even if the U.S. had signed, the 51 Senators opposing the draft, meant that the ATT could not be ratified.  But the vehement opposition is nonetheless explicable as part of the bitter warfare between gun and gun control proponents in the U.S.
Ultimately, in an election year, the Obama administration bowed to these pressures and refused to agree to the final draft of the ATT.  Some gun groups celebrated this “grassroots victory” for the right to self-defense, but others, like a commentator at Ammoland, were more cautious: “We cannot view this as a victory for us because the Treaty has not been abandoned. Nor can we view it as a defeat for its proponents—merely a temporary setback.”
Indeed, it is likely that some form of ATT will be reintroduced at the next UN session, and it is possible that a substantial number of states will agree to controls.   Whatever the precise outlines of the final ATT, there are some broader lessons here:
  • States remain key players in transnational advocacy networks.  Focusing on the NGOs, as much of the academic literature does, is too narrow a perspective. 
  • NGOs and civil society networks nonetheless influence states, especially democratic states.  But they probably do so more through everyday lobbying at home, than by efforts in UN hallways or in some kind of transnational normative space.
  • International civil society, just like domestic civil society, is ideologically diverse and conflictive.  Conservative groups are powerful there, as activists in the trenches well know.  It is by no means the exclusive preserve of progressive groups, notwithstanding scholars’ focus on them. 
  • As a result, zombie policy and failed policy are far more common than policy successes—although, as the gun control case shows, one network’s failure is usually another’s triumph.  As scholars, we can learn a great deal by dissecting the corpses and living-dead that strew policy battlefields.  By contrast, to focus only on the relatively few policies that stagger, battered and bruised, off the field (typically to face further attacks in ongoing policy wars) is misleading.

Finally, the requisite plug:  For more on battles over transnational gun control—as well as lots more on conservative transnationalism, policy conflict, and zombie policy—see my new book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics.

Slow-Motion Srebrenica

The NY Times’ recent article on Obama’s “kill list” of American citizens and others suspected–not convicted–of terrorism includes much disturbing information on what our government is doing in our names.  The entire “kill list” process and Obama’s central role in it has seldom been presented in such detail in a mainstream publication.   It is necessary if ugly reading, even if it is written in something approaching a triumphalist tone. 
The “kill list” involves U.S. targeting of Americans and others for drone death worldwide. This is being done without “due process of law.”  Previously, due process of law has meant that an impartial decision maker hears evidence presented by the executive branch, before an American is convicted of — let alone executed for— a crime.  For the “kill list,” due process of law does not exist.  If the Executive branch, the CIA, or other “intelligence” agencies, suspect you or another American of being a terrorist, your right to due process of law evaporates.  All you receive is review by officials of the same agencies who fingered you in the first place and will okay your killing, ultimately Obama himself. 
Right to defend yourself?  Forget about it.  Right to trial?  No way?  Worry about blowback?  Not a care, for instance, about reaction to the Yemeni family of 8 obliterated by drone days ago.
To me, one of the most unsettling points in the article was the “explanation” for why drone attacks are asserted, by government officials, to kill so few civilians.  It’s simple really:  just redefine the word “combatant.”   Thanks to the Obama administration, it has now been defined down to mean  “all military-age males in a strike zone . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
And of course, Obama is now personally authorizing the assassination of individuals, whether Americans or foreigners, based merely on their behavior—and without their identities being known.  So-called “signature” strikes, make the situation even worse than it first appears.    
All of this reminded me of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.   Serb military forces under Ratko Mladic rounded up  “all military-age males” in the town, accusing them of support for or participation in attacks on the Serbs.  They then systematically slaughtered about 6,000, with no process of law.  Srebrenica, of course, was roundly and rightly condemned by the world community, not least Obama’s “atrocities czar” and one-time human rights champion, Samantha Power.
With Obama’s drone warfare, we appear to be doing the same thing, albeit over longer periods of time, in smaller batches of butchery, and using remote control weaponry.   As imperial hegemon, it seems, the U.S. is “permitted” to do this, even by those who profess to believe in human rights. 


The Trafficker-Terrorist Myth

Another Sunday, another military puff-piece from the NY Times. Yesterday’s issue promoted the idea that America is threatened by a drug trafficker-terrorist network emanating from Central America. The source of this idea is–no surprise–the U.S. military, our fearmongers in chief. But the Times unquestioningly reported their statements as front page news, as part of a longer article about the new Central American wars such propaganda is justifying.

According to Col. Ross A. Brown, commander of the military’s Central America operations, his mission is “disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.” Or as his boss Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan affirms, combating the drug cartels is “necessary to preventing terrorists from co-opting criminal groups for attacks in this hemisphere.”

What is one to make of this claim? What evidence or logic supports the “potential” of this trafficker-terrorist “nexus?” There is none. But Kernan supports his assertion by noting one “insidious” parallel between terrorists and traffickers: “They do not respect borders.”

What a profound insight! Surely that explains everything! And the Times dutifully bolsters the claim with allusions to oh-so-scary bête noirs du jour—Honduras’s “vast ungoverned areas” where homicide rates are some of the “highest” in the world. [Notes to Times editor: What do you mean by “ungoverned”—something like the locales all over America where countless citizens consume illegal drugs daily? Might this insatiable American demand for drugs have just a little to do with Honduras’s homicide rates?]

But it seems too much to ask the reporters of our most important newspaper to think about this claim, rather than assume, following the military’s suggestion, that all things evil must go together. Yet now that the trafficker-terrorist “axis of evil” is being used to mutually reinforce two senseless wars, the logic of this connection cries out for examination.

Sure, the few “terrorists” who are genuinely trying to harm the U.S.—as opposed to countless wannabes who spout off about doing so in blogs or emails—might dream of drug-trafficker profits. But why would drug-lords agree to share the wealth? Last I checked, they are not charities.

And why would kingpins want to work with terrorists? For one thing, the vast majority of the bozos we inflate into terrorist “threats” are laughably incompetent. They’d never make it in the sophisticated drug empires that we’ve stupidly created through our War on Drugs.

In any case, working with terrorists would threaten the traffickers’ profits. There are few better ways to cure an addict than the possibility of his supplier blowing himself up on delivery.

Worse yet, forging such a link might lead to even more U.S. resources being thrown against the druglords. It might even convince more Americans to decriminalize drugs—the greatest blow that could be struck against drug traffickers. No, if nothing else, kingpins are savvy businessmen. Why would they want to destroy their own best market or make their operations more difficult than they already are?

What of Kernan’s claim that terrorists might “coopt” criminal groups? As any military man should know, cooptation is a weapon of the powerful—yet terrorist group are far weaker than drug cartels by all measures except bluster. Any terrorist’s attempt at cooptation would likely be met by the traffickers’ own deadly force.

No the trafficker-terrorist “potential nexus” should be seen for what it is–yet another transparently illogical excuse for projecting American military force in places where it will do no good.

* * *

But don’t look to the Times to point these things out. Indeed, the article is another example of “stenographic journalism,” slavishly reporting the propaganda of the powerful as “news.” The article’s focus is how the U.S. is using the “lessons” from a decade of counterinsurgency to fight the War on Drugs.

Normally, the word “lessons” would suggest that we have in fact learned something. So what exactly have we learned? According to the Times, the main lesson of COIN was to move troops from “giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.”

But what have been the results? A decade after our invasion of Aghanistan, much of the country remains a no-go zone for American troops. Only our drones dare patrol it–bravely raining death upon “suspected insurgents,” aka, all too often, civilians. The Afghan troops we have so skillfully and expensively trained are riddled with recruits who regularly turn their weapons on Allied troops. President Obama, fearfully shuttling into Bagram Air Force base (yes, a “giant base”) by dead of night, has inked an agreement for another decade of futility in the graveyard of empires. And, surprise, Afghanistan remains a major source of drugs for the world. Or, as the article so coyly puts it, the U.S. has “lowered expectations of what Washington can do to halt heroin trafficking there.”

So much for the supposed lesson that “forward bases” can work to fight drugs in Honduras. Inadvertently, however, the Times highlights the real lessons our leaders have learned. The “new offensive” in Central America is “emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

What a coincidence! A new battlefield opens as others dwindle. But wait, the War on Drugs, first declared in 1971 by Richard Nixon, is hardly new. Still, it serves its purpose–just as the War on Terror doubtless will for decades to come. Anytime America wearies of one theater for military extravagance, it can always shift to another eternal “threat.”

Indeed, as the Times trumpets, Honduras “showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops . . . and narrowly defined goals.” And the most important lesson of all: these “small-footprint” operations, may be fought “with little public notice.” After all, why should the taxpayer need to know about the millions the State Department lavishes on our incorruptible Honduran allies for machine guns and “air support” without which, one Honduran honcho admits, “we can’t do anything?”

Fortunately, however, the U.S. military has evidently chosen to post its best and brightest to lead the fight on this pressing new front. That would be Col. Brown. He commanded the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Third Squadron in southern Baghdad in 2005-06. As the Times reports, without irony, in 2005-06 Iraq was “so violent that President George W. Bush ordered an increase in troop levels to retake the initiative.” It is unclear whether Brown’s Central America deployment is a promotion or a demotion.

Whatever their fighting credentials, however, Brown and Kernan at least know how to deploy “psy-ops”–against the American people. Hence, the trafficker-terrorist “potential nexus.”



The Global Right Wing

 My new book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, has recently been published by Cambridge University Press.  It is available on Kindle for $12.10, Nook for $14.74, and as a paperback for $21.59.   For a free chapter, chapter excerpts, contents, and more please visit my website

The Global Right Wing explores the vibrant world of conservative activism.  It examines how America’s National Rifle Association (NRA), its Christian Right, and many other right-wing groups have shed their parochialism to become powerful international players.  They now join their ideological enemies–human rights, environmental, and global justice NGOs–in forming transnational networks and using international institutions. 

The Global Right Wing shows how these networks come into conflict with left-wing groups, at the UN and in numerous countries worldwide.  The book documents the global battle over gay rights, highlighting formation of the “Baptist-burqa” network spanning conservative believers of multiple faiths.  A chapter examines the network’s clashes with human rights and gay groups at the UN.  Another shows how legal advocacy groups in the network have fought hate speech laws in Sweden and implanted American-style “defense of marriage” laws in Romania–then used the results back in such U.S. battlefields as California’s Proposition 8 fight.

The Global Right Wing also chronicles the battle over gun control at the UN, in Brazil, and elsewhere.  In these fights, the NRA and the global firearms network, are motivated by moral as well as material concerns.  They seek to spread the Second Amendment gospel–against a network of gun control, human rights, and development groups promoting contrary norms. 

With these cases as evidence, The Global Right Wing proposes new theory about NGOs, transnational activism, and norms.  
I show that “boomerang” strategies often prompt ideological foes to mobilize and throw conflicting boomerangs.   I argue that normative activism is not unidirectional.  Nor is it only a matter of positive approaches such as persuasion, grafting, and framing.  For every frame, there is a contrary one–usually one as powerful as the first.  For every moral megastar promoting one’s cause, your foe is likely to tar you with a moral monstrosity.  In pitched normative battles, opposing sides match each other tactic for tactic: they honor the institutions their foes shame; they sever the grafts their enemies fashion; they deride the authorities their adversaries esteem; and they blemish the celebrities their opponents flaunt.

On this basis, I urge scholars to turn their attention to all sides involved in transnational activism, not just the left.  I also recommend that more observers analyze the negative tactics that activists on both left and right repeatedly deploy–advancing themselves by attacking their foes.  

It’s time to return the passion to our studies of transnational activism!  Not only is this a key to understanding, but it also makes our scholarship much more interesting, even fun (check out some of my footnotes).   The Global Right Wing is written in a style accessible to students, activists, and anyone fascinated by the nasty and nitty-gritty of real-world politics. 

Finally, as an added bonus for those interested in bibliographic innovation–and aren’t we all?–The Global Right Wing is to my knowledge the first book to include an online, “active citations” bibliography (Moravcsik 2010), available at my website.  At a click, you can see the online sources I used–to check whether you agree with my quotations and interpretations.   What if my urls go dead?  No problem.  For sources from which I quoted directly and which are not easily available at a major research library–i.e., press releases, NGO reports, posters, etc.–I have created online links to relevant excerpts.   All of this is not mere citational gimmickry.  It is a serious attempt to allow other scholars to easily check my interpretations of key documents and thereby improve reliability and replicability in qualitative research. 


Etch-a-Sketching the Egyptian Arms Deal

A few sensitive souls expressed dismay this week when a Romney official declared that the campaign would “reset” itself for the general election after the primaries. Virtually all of the shock was insincere and hypocritical. The “Etch-a Sketch” approach is hardly news for anyone who understands election politics in the U.S. or just about anywhere. In fact, the only newsworthy aspect of the statement was its refreshing openness–but of course the Romney campaign furiously backpedaled from it.

 Of greater interest is another example of Etch-a-Sketch politics this week. Only a few months ago, the Obama administration had threatened to withhold military aid to Egypt based on its indictment of American NGOs for supposedly interfering in Egyptian politics. Also behind the threats perhaps was a new American law requiring that the State Department certify Egyptian progress on human rights before dispensing military aid.

This week, however, the administration reversed course, approved $1.3 billion in aid, and avoided application of the new law.

A major reason: election year politics in the U.S. Withholding military aid to Egypt might have cost jobs among some of America’s neediest–its military contractors–or cost large amounts of American taxpayer money.As the New York Times reported:

A delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign and involved significant financial penalties, according to officials involved in the debate.

In other words, this major foreign policy decision, which one might naively have hoped would hinge on strategic or perhaps even human rights concerns, was in fact driven by domestic jobs in battleground election states. It works this way: American taxpayers pay for military aid to our good friends and fellow democrats in the Egyptian army. If for some reason, the government decides not to send the aid, the U.S. government must pay penalties to the American arms companies who manufacture the arms for Egypt. Either way, the American taxpayer foots the bill.

Meanwhile, the biggest winners in this game of Etch-a-Sketch are America’s underprivileged government contractors, worthy citizens like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. You’ve got to love our sacrosanct system of military and corporate welfare!


Climate Change and the Axis of Fear

A few years back, when global warming was near the top of the national and global agendas, a surprising new activist suddenly took the field: the  Pentagon.  In 2009, it called climate change a “threat” to national security.  In 2010, it lauded the climate with its ultimate recognition, inclusion in the Quadrennial Defense Review.  All of this was uncritically conveyed by journalists on the Pentagon and environmental beats.

Recently, the first effort to test whether climate change in fact has security implications was published by the Journal of Peace Research.  Its bottom line:  

“Only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, the climate changesecurity nexus was always speculative  Yet that did not stop the military from jumping on the warming wagon as yet another way of justifying its bloated budgets. More interestingly, at the time, environmentalists widely saluted the Pentagon’s entry into the climate wars.  Here is Sierra Club President Carl Pope in a 2010 press release, complete with hyperlink to the Quadrennial Defense Review:

“In another reminder of the national security and international implications of climate change, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review highlights the risks posed by climate change for the first time ever.  While the Pentagon’s report considers the longer-term risks of climate change, we can’t escape the fact that each and every day we continue to send $1 billion a day overseas to buy oil–much of it from hostile nations.  It’s time we started spending that money to create jobs here at home.”

Who can blame the Sierra Club?  With a heavy-weight institution taking a stand on global warming, environmental fears could be stoked and perhaps even legitimated.  After all, if even the military is taking part, who could deny the pressing need for action?  With the Pentagon on board, new research dollars would also flow, making this move a boon for academics and government contractors as well.  

I don’t claim that global warming is invented.  But I do worry about the threat inflation being used to justify actions against climate change and about the strategic alliances, tacit or otherwise, environmentalists strike to achieve their goals.  The Pentagon is no friend of the environment, as anyone who’s watched the grindingly slow clean-ups of numerous, highly-polluted military bases well knows.  Lending activist legitimation to the defense establishment is likely to be a net-negative for environmental quality.  

Of course, for better or worse, real action on climate change is no longer imminent in the US or most other countries.  A broader lesson remains, however:  The axis of fear is endemic to our politics.  It is the strategy of choice for true believers on all sides of all issues as they seek to sell their causes to the public.  In the incessant competition to draw attention and support, the temptation to inflate threats is ever-present and difficult to resist.  

Alliances of convenience are the order of the day, and the Pentagon, with its oversize booty, is consort of preference even for those who should know better.  So we have environmentalists bedding down with the big boys with their big guns over global warming.  And now we have human rights activists lusting after the big boys with their little drones, notwithstanding the weapons’ mounting toll in lives and liberties at home and abroad.  The Pentagon, always eager for new conquests, similarly keeps its insatiable eye out for anyone hustling the cutting edge of terror, literally and figuratively.  

In all this, the new climate change research offers a breath of rationality.  Now, if only we could fight the axes of fear that pervade any number of other issues:  cyber warfare, hot zone diseases, and most of all terrorism.  All are similarly ripe for careful analysis of actual “threat” levels and concerted efforts to question the politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, and activists who hype them.


Urination Distraction

Over the past few weeks we’ve had to endure military brass and top government officials falling over themselves to condemn American GIs – first for urinating on dead Afghans, and more recently for beating a sheep. Earlier in the Iraq and Afghan wars, we’ve suffered through pious denunciations of soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib or laughed as they targeted “dead men” with drones.

How noble the sentiment!  Criticizing ordinary servicemen who do not abide by the rules of engagement or who break the laws of war.  In fact, however, most of the official condemnation has ulterior motives.

The real purpose is not to shame or punish the soldiers, appropriate as that is.  Rather it is to advance and legitimate the war effort, with all its attendant inhumanity and cruelty.This is clearest in statements that decry the incidents for comforting the enemy and incensing civilian populations.  Such effects are indeed likely.  But those who issue this kind of condemnation are in fact suggesting that what is really wrong is not the incidents themselves, but the release of videos about them.  As long as such occurrences were kept quiet, there’d be little to complain of.

The same cover-up logic explains why the government has gone to such lengths to attack those, like Wikileaks, that release such information.  Conversely, to answer Charli’s recent question, those who send such videos to the press are certainly protesting and are hardly “fools.”  Meanwhile, those who originally took the videos and sent them to their friends are simply engaged in an age-old war custom, flaunting trophies.  And those who urinate on corpses or cheer as they blow up supposed enemies are acting like men have always acted and will always act in war. 

But there is a deeper explanation for the sanctimonious slamming of our errant troops.  Too many such incidents cut against the well-honed spin that the U.S. military is a thoroughly professional fighting force.  Even while they train soldiers to kill, military leaders must keep up the claim that our soldiers do so humanely!  Only the exceptions – the vicious, the stupid, or the exhausted – would break the rules.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.  

Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.



Creeping Illiberal Democracy

 The Washington Post had a fine op-ed this weekend by law professor Jonathan Turley asking the provocative question, Is the U.S. still the “land of the free?”  He gave 10 compelling reasons that it is not.   

Turley’s op ed has the legal issues well-covered.  He also draws telling comparisons between U.S. laws and practices—and similar ones by countries that the State Dept annually condemns as human rights violators.  

True, in the U.S., most of the new policies don’t affect most of “us”—at least if we are not Muslim, politically militant, or poor.  On the other hand, the result of these new policies is that only the whim of our great leaders protects the rest of us from the same arbitrary and abusive practices now regularly rained down upon others.  Worse, with Barack Obama having promoted, implemented, and deepened many of these Bush-era policies, there is now little chance that a change of administration will lead to a change.  Sadly, the elevation of “security” over individual rights now enjoys broad bipartisan support.

These developments should be of concern to all citizens—though the fears of “terrorism” trumped up by our leaders have damped dissent.  From the standpoint of political science, they also raise interesting questions:  First, why is the U.S. human rights record so little studied by IR scholars?  I don’t have the statistics to prove this, but it would be useful to ask the question—and, more important, to remedy this situation, as John Tirman has started doing at least with regard to casualties of America’s wars..  

Second, these developments might breathe life into a line of research that, to my knowledge, has gotten too little attention:  the transition from liberal to “illiberal democracies.”  I have not followed this literature closely since Fareed Zakaria’s decade-old Foreign Affairs piece and more recent, if looser, book.  Zakaria focuses on new democracies that don’t provide their citizens with civil liberties protections.  

But there are also questions about how and when citizens in democratic countries forfeit long-held rights and legal protections.  The following questions are just some of the fascinating and important ones that might be asked:

What factors lead to the forfeiture of long-established rights?  Who leads the assault and why?

To what extent is this the result of consent by the citizenry?  What role have political leaders played in generating “consent?”  How have they done so—and why?

How, if at all, can we step back from illiberal to liberal democracy—in which individual rights are more securely protected against the power of the state?

It is perhaps trite to end with the words of concentration camp survivor Bishop Martin Niemiller, but they are worth remembering, considering—and acting upon:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.


Pentagon as Economic Dynamo: Not

The Pentagon is remarkable for its ability to contrive reasons to justify its bloated budgets.  In recent years, it and the gaggle of contractors, analysts, and journalists that support it have found military-security risks in everything from “hot zone” diseases to global warming.  But with looming budget cuts, the defense establishment is being forced to downsize, albeit modestly.

To protect itself, it has now taken to fear-mongering.  Some of this is the usual:  the supposedly dire threats we face abroad – e.g., from distant, 10th rate military powers like Iran or Pakistan or al-Qaeda, or from major trading partners like China.  All of this, of course, is stated with a straight face even while our military spending dwarfs that of other nations combined.  Somehow, however, and even with the natural geostrategic advantages provided by two oceans, the U.S., at least in the eyes of our panicky military brass remains forever UNDER THREAT.

In addition to such perennial hyperbole, the Pentagon now warns that cuts will have nasty domestic consequences, raising unemployment and killing economic innovation.  It’s hard to argue that major military cuts might lead to job losses, not only among uniformed servicemen but also among the hordes of government contractors who’ve grown fat on defense budgets paid for by taxpayer dollars.

But that’s a good thing!  If in fact it happens – and, unfortunately, that remains a big if given the proven power of the military-industrial complex to defend its narrow self-interest – ex-soldiers and ex-contractors will find other ways of getting along.   Sure there will be some temporary pain for the displaced, but this will in the end help the larger economy and certainly the government’s budget picture.

As for innovation, the New York Times’s Binyamin Appelbaum has a front-page article today about that issue – one that’s worth reading as much for its misjudgments as for anything else.  

The article strives for balance, including a number of different viewpoints on how much impact military spending has on economic dynamism.  But its take-away lines, signaled by its original headline, “A Hidden Cost of Military Cuts Could Be Invention and Its Industries,” are that the Pentagon has an “unmatched record in developing technologies with broad public benefits – like the Internet, jet engines and satellite navigation – and then encouraging private companies to reap the rewards.”

“Unmatched?” Really?  How can one possibly make such a statement without placing it in context?  But for the Pentagon’s pull on the purse strings, those contracts might have been administered through other government agencies, rather than the military.  And they might well have been far more efficient.  Alternatively, the money sucked out of the private economy by taxes to fund the military might have been used for R & D directly, by investors and entrepreneurs.  And what of the countless amounts of R & D spending that have ended in nothing – or nothing better than a more efficient killing machine, usable only in wars?

Nowhere in the article is there anything but assumption that only the military, as some kind of beneficent and far-seeing midwife of invention, could have fostered these and other innovations.  Nowhere are there convincing arguments that most if not all of these developments wouldn’t have been made either through some other government R & D agency or through the market itself.

The article’s claim that 59 Nobel Laureates have received funding from the Navy fails to impress.  The fact that future Nobelists took money from a rich vein of governmental fat says nothing about whether the Pentagon’s influence led to their prizes.  It certainly doesn’t justify the claim that the military has had a “remarkable record of success.”

Nor does Appelbaum provide a convincing explanation for this unproven success.  One factor he raises is the “Pentagon’s relative insulation from politics which has allowed it to sustain a long-term research agenda in controversial areas . . . [n]o matter which party is in power.”  This view is myopic.  Certainly Congressmen are reluctant to halt weapons programs – because they are strategically sited in every Congressional district around the country.  That is not insulation from politics.  It is the very essence of politics, and for that reason leads to vast amounts of waste.

One expert is quoted as saying that the Pentagon is superior to other government agencies because “they are the customer. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes.”  But the Pentagon buys its products with taxpayer money, not its “own” money.  It feels little pain when, for instance, boondoggle aircraft carriers like the Gerald M. Ford, have billions of dollars in cost overruns.  Cosy relationships between the military, contractors, legislators, and journalists make for few if any incentives for economic efficiency.  Worse still, many new weapons systems have had poor safety records, resulting in injuries and deaths to our servicemen.

The article, to its credit, includes quotations from economists who raise such fundamental questions, showing just how inefficient Pentagon expenditures are compared to other government spending.  Yet Appelbaum fails to see that these studies call into question his bold claims.

Meanwhile, Appelbaum’s view is backed only by those who don’t appear to have thought enough about the issues.   One expert says he’d “like to see a lot less weapons and a lot less focus on them, but [defense spending is] not all about that.”  According to him, “If catalyzing innovation is going to be an important part of our economic strategy, then we better be careful how we handle” the military budget.

But if we really care about innovation in our economy, why would we ask the Pentagon to take part, much less take charge?  A shocking 55% of all government R & D spending is allocated to the military.  In fact, the military is a remarkably poor vehicle of economic dynamism – hardly surprising since, of course, that is not its mission.  If innovation is our goal, why not better fund government agencies tasked precisely with the goal of innovation?

One answer seems to be provided by another expert who is said to believe that “the Pentagon [has] an inherent advantage in funding research and development” and is quoted as saying that “War matters more.  People take it more seriously.”  In other words, only the Pentagon can convince our short-sighted Congress to provide money for long term R & D.

How sad.  But the bright side for the future is that if less tax money is squandered on the Pentagon, there will be more funds for private sector investment.  True, some innovations that require long-term R & D might be missed without a government hand in the process.  But if as a result the U.S. loses its competitive edge, Congress might even see fit to provide such funding to new agencies aimed precisely at creating technological advances – not to a Pentagon tasked with fighting wars.

Other economists are cited as arguing that Pentagon spending saves money by providing security within which economic growth can occur.  Even if true, that claim, of course, says nothing about whether the Pentagon is a good place to spend America’s innovation dollar.  It also assumes that there are threats severe enough to jeopardize growth.  Yet the spate of warfighting that the US has engaged in since the end of the Cold War has cost trillions.  And one of the main reasons we engage in so many of these operations is not because our nation’s security is truly threatened—but because we can, because we have the overblown military forces and high technology to do so.  Worse still, there is a good argument that these wars have created more enemies than they have destroyed.

My heart bleeds for the thousands of workers in Northern Virginia and around the country who have fed at the Pentagon’s trough for so long.  But why should they be any different from the rest of the U.S. economy, which must suffer through the adjustments that our economy periodically requires? The Pentagon and military contractors have for decades been a bastion of privilege – a protected little socialist republic within our capitalist state – immune from the laws of economics.  After a decade of gluttonous expansion, there is now a modest effort to rein it in.   

I look forward to the possibility however small of more cuts – and to the increased innovation and dynamism it is likely to spark in our economy.


Transnational Battle over Gay Rights

The transnational battle over gay rights took an interesting turn last week when the Obama administration announced that it would work hard to promote gay rights worldwide. The gay community welcomed the news. But more strategic thinkers also raised questions. As Neil Grungras of San Francisco’s Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration cautioned:

“In countries where U.S. moral leadership is not high and where increasingly Western values are [seen as] negative . . . there is a real danger people can use this issue and say, ‘No, we are cleaning up here, we are going to reject this American imposition of decay.’” As an example, Grungras pointed to last year’s gay pride event at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. This sparked large demonstrations against the U.S., gay rights, and homosexuals.

Also of interest is the reaction from American religious conservatives active in the fight against gay rights. They decried the Obama initiative, and vowed to oppose it. In the past, they have scored successes. They have formed a “Baptist-burqa” network of religious conservatives, both state and nonstate, including Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and more, spanning the world, just like the gay rights network. They have successfully blocked major new UN initiatives on gay rights and excluded gay activists from participation in international institutions. They raise rival norms, primarily to religious freedom and cultural autonomy, as a means of attacking gay rights. And they are supporting the backlash against gay rights in many countries, especially in Africa.

This may be a rearguard action, but there is little doubt that it has and will slow the progress of gay rights around the world. True, there have been major, hard-fought advances for gay rights in some countries in recent years. But many countries remain indifferent or, if anything, have become more overtly hostile as gay rights advance. Uganda’s horrific Anti-Homosexuality Law, complete with death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality,” is an example.

Scholars who study such issues sometimes ignore “retrograde” networks, in favor of studying progressive new norms and their moral entrepreneurs. Yet in the transnational battle over gay rights at the UN and in many countries, opponents are powerful and important. One can’t understand the politics of gay rights without examining their sworn enemies. One can’t appreciate the framing of a “new” norm without noting its rivals’ frmaing. One can’t explain the shifting policy outcomes without analyzing the bitter conflict among hostile sides.

Beyond gay rights, this is true of countless other policy issues, from global warming to global health. One side’s solution to what it portrays as a pressing crisis will itself be a problem for another group, generating fervent opposition activism. One side’s initiatives are invariably matched by a rival’s counterpunch.

[SELF-PROMOTION WARNING!] For those interested in transnational battles over gay rights and other issues – as well as the implications for understanding global public policy more broadly – my book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics – is due out next month from Cambridge UP. [STORY IDEA for Brian Rathbun: Things PSers Like: Ironic attitude toward shameless self-promotion.]


RIP: Habeas Corpus . . . and Normative Power

The news that President Obama plans to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitting indefinite detention for Americans accused of supporting terrorism is a sad day for those who believe in basic civil and human rights. Equally, this move calls into question optimistic views about international norms and the power of human rights.

Glenn Greenwald and others cover the threat to basic freedoms in posts that are well worth reading. By comparison, the import for scholars of norms may seem minor but is nonetheless worth pondering.

Norms against indefinite detention have long been basic to human rights, along with prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial execution. Of course, we’ve seen those fall by the wayside too. National security, a norm backed by enormous material power, has made its dominance plain. However, in recent cases where the U.S. has engaged in torture or extrajudicial executions of American citizens, these actions have been purely executive, albeit with many a legislative, scholarly, and public cheerleader.

The NDAA, however, enshrines indefinite detention for American citizens in law passed by Congress and to be signed by the President. The magical incantation “terrorist” is all that’s been needed to throttle a core rights protection.

What has been the power of norms in this case?

It’s doubtless true that the human rights norms I’ve mentioned have more defenders than they once did. There are today many more NGOs who promote and support them than there were in the 1950s, the last time the U.S. passed similar laws (against the Communist menace, only to reverse them decades later after severe abuses). Today, there have been many voices, both domestic and international, raised against the indefinite detention provisions.

But in the end, these fell before trumped up security norms and terror fears. Many Americans appear all too willing to trade basic rights (and trillions of dollars) for an illusion of security against a minuscule threat. I am continually stunned when I hear American citizens saying we don’t need a judiciary to check the Executive in these cases because the President has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution. So much for the judicial branch, so much for checks and balances, and so much for the power of centuries old domestic norms and laws.

Particularly striking in the debate over detention and the broader one over Obama’s civil liberties record is political opportunism. Many Democratic Party leaders who screamed that George Bush was acting unconstitutionally and illegally in the early years of the GWOT, have now fallen into line behind Obama’s continuation and expansion of Bush policies, including extrajudicial executions and now summary arrests. It’s striking too that we have seen so few resignations from top posts in the Obama administration even from those regarded as staunch defenders of basic rights. So much for the independent influence of norms.

More broadly, this suggests that other human rights norms are equally fragile and contingent achievements, with little if any independent strength. Of course, anyone witnessing the erosion of these rights over the last decade already knew that. All such norms exist at sufferance of state actors. To the extent states follow them, it is because the “norms” do not run contrary to their core interests, because a sufficiently large threat has not been invented to justify their subversion, or because the states are too weak to challenge them. Any real belief in state “habitualization” and the power of norms as such must be questioned.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to promote and resurrect the crucial values and freedoms we have lost. But the only way to do so is through political organizing and activism–through material rather than normative means.


Clashing Networks and Foreign Policy

Anne Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner had an interesting debate last week on the role of nonstate actors in foreign policy. AMS stakes out a “modern/liberal-social” position highlighting the role of nonstate actors, whereas DD takes a “subtle realist” view, maintaining the priority of states and national interests. DD sums up their differences this way:

I’m skeptical about the viability of transnational interests to effectively pressure multiple governments to adopt a common policy solution, and I’m super-skeptical that these groups can supply broad-based solutions independently of national governments.

My own take is that DD underestimates the extent to which transnationally-linked domestic coalitions affect policy, but that AMS takes too narrow a view of the civil society actors involved. I agree with DD that nonstate actors alone will not provide “broad-based solutions” themselves–although I don’t think that AMS would go that far anyway.

Most international issues do not pit states against nonstate actors, with each lining up on different sides of the issues. Rather, what we see are networks on each side, usually with states representing key components. Keck and Sikkink made this point years ago in a book that revived the scholarly debate on transnational relations. But the presence and importance of states in networks is often overlooked. States must be a major part of network studies because, in the end of course, they make policies.

On a day to day basis within networks, however, states are not necessarily the leading forces. When it comes to projecting the ideas and rallying the interests that go into policy outcomes, civil society actors play key roles. Acting as interest groups within states, they seek to shape governments’ preferences. Acting as NGOs across state borders and in international institutions, they exchange ideas, personnel, and money, affecting both domestic and international policy.

Notably as well, these networks are not all “progressive,” although most of the scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on human rights, environmental, and global justice groups. Rather, there is huge diversity among transnational advocates, with powerful right-wing networks fighting the left. Nor is it simply the case that conservatives ally with states to oppose changes in the status quo. In the ongoing battles that comprise most of international policy making, all sides support or reject change at certain times.

Finally, the means by which policy change happens transcend the staid “logics” of persuasion—framing, shaming, grafting, deliberation, dialogue, etc.–on which much of the literature has focused. Network members do use such tactics. But these are invariably countered by opposition networks. They smash frames and deploy their own equally resonant ones. They shame the shamers and honor those who the other side seeks to embarrass. They sever grafts while making their own.

In other words, these are policy wars, not one-sided persuasive campaigns aimed at changing state policy or public opinion. The tactics that opposing sides use extend well beyond the rhetorical. They seek to exclude one another from key institutions. They invent their own institutions to keep the other side out. They seek to silence one another’s voices. And they attack one another ferociously, for misunderstanding, misstatement, and downright evil.

I’ll take a few cases that I’ve written about in my forthcoming book. Admittedly, these are not frontline national security issues, but I’d say they are nonetheless important parts of international and domestic politics in many countries.

Gay rights has advanced tremendously in Western states over the past few decades. This has been led not by governments but movements that have effectively organized and been able to achieve political and cultural change. There has been substantial transnational interaction within the gay rights movement, with domestic groups learning from one another, receiving assistance, and exchanging personnel. They’ve also been active at the UN trying to affect policy.

All the while, however, they have faced resistance from a transnational coalition of conservative religious groups, what I call the “Baptist-burqa” network. In some countries, this has helped keep gay rights off the political agenda completely. In others, it has led to continuing conflict whose outcome remains unclear. At the international level, at least with regard to UN policy on gay rights, it has kept “progress” slow and minimal. The fight has been far from pretty, with the two networks and their national components engaging in all sorts of mudslinging and competition. The current stalemate at the UN stems from the respective power of these opposing networks, in particular their ability to affect state policy choices, even if in the final analysis it is states that vote on the policies themselves.

Small arms control is another issue pitting network against network. Human rights, gun control, and development organizations organized transnationally in the 1990s, seeking to stem the global trade in weapons. But they immediately faced opposition from a transnational coalition of gun rights groups, led by America’s National Rifle Association (NRA). The two sides, complete with powerful states on each side, have fought over controls on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) since then. In these battles, the nonstate actors on both sides have helped shape state policy, through both domestic and international politicking. The failure thus far to achieve significant controls stems in large part from the power of the gun network to influence ideas and policies in a number of states. This is an outcome every bit as important as policy change—and stemming significantly from civil society activism and clashes.

In other cases that AMS mentions, such as the landmines treaty and the ICC, networks of states and nonstate actors achieved much—but could have achieved much more but for the power of opposing states within larger ideological networks. The U.S. government was a major impediment to reaching the goals activists originally hoped for. But this was a U.S. government strongly influenced by NGOs and activists—and the outcomes are in large part a result of their ideas and sway.

Other interesting recent works that show the power of these kinds of networks, and especially their clash, include Orenstein’s on pension policy and Teles and Kenney’s on free market activism.

What about “major” international policy? DD puts it this way:

The kind of non-state actors that Slaughter embraces have not been shy in engaging issues like climate change, Israel/Palestine or macroeconomic imbalances — but I haven’t seen any appreciable change in global public policies as a result.

John M. Owen has written a fascinating new book arguing that clashing ideological networks have been a key basis for regime change for centuries. I’d argue that some of the most important foreign policy developments of the last decade stem from powerful civil society interests, affecting state policy. The role of neo-conservative networks in sparking the Iraq War is Exhibit A.

Regarding climate change, I see this issue not as involving a clash between powerful states and environmental groups but as one which again pits network against network. On both sides, there are an array of powerful states, corporations, foundations, and NGOs, supporting divergent views. The failure to reach agreement on climate change policy is a testament as much to network as to state power.

On Israel/Palestine, I’d argue that a major reason for the situation we now see is the power of internationally-linked domestic interests–in the US, a loose but real agglomeration of civil society groups, the Israel Lobby as Walt/Mearsheimer define it. Its activism has shaped perceptions of America’s national interest, notwithstanding increasing efforts to reshape that view by other civil society actors.

The end of all this interaction may not be easily predictable, certainly not in the way that structural realists purport to predict outcomes. Henry Farrell makes this point in talking about cross-border “contagion” and the unpredictability of policy outcomes that result. The “contagion” metaphor, however, with its overtones of hot zone diseases spreading spontaneously and uncontrollably only explains part of what is happening.

Often there is deliberate, strategic interaction among like-minded groups within different states. They seek to shape policy both within their own and other states, using demonstration effects at home or abroad to push for their own favored policy outcomes more broadly. True, as HF states, we may not be able to predict outcomes as easily as in a billiard ball world. But I agree with AMS here that we need to pay attention to these interactions.

Where I differ with many who highlight transnational relations is in their taking too narrow a perspective on the groups, networks, and tactics involved. To reiterate, these networks centrally involve states, sometimes politicians, sometimes bureaucrats. There is not a full-scale power shift to nonstate actors. Second, these networks by no means push only “progressive” solutions to global problems. Rather, there are conflicting networks following and often deepening the ideological divisions of modern societies. Finally, because the stakes are so high for the groups involved, the tactics they follow are bare-knuckled and hard-hitting—just like politics in any other sphere.


Battlefield Normatica

Last week’s vote for gay marriage in New York state was a signal win for U.S. advocates.  Two weeks earlier, in a move hailed by gay groups and the Obama administration, the UN Human Rights Council  voted 23-19 to commission a study on “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”  Do these and other recent advances for gay advocates demonstrate that a new norm of gay rights is establishing itself on the global scene?

Certainly this seems to be the case, although the arrival of any “norm” is much harder to pinpoint than the promulgation of a new policy or law, such as New York’s.  Many more countries, and, in the U.S., states expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation than even 20 years ago.  And the lives of gay people are far more open and accepted today, influencing broader heterosexual culture.
Nonetheless, foes of gay rights remain powerful.  In the U.S., this is primarily the case with regard to gay marriage, which is likely to be a battlefield for years.  Internationally, the U.N. Human Rights Council vote was in fact only a small step, notwithstanding the fact that it received major media attention.  It did represent the first time that the Council as a whole had used the terms “sexual orientation and gender identity” in a resolution.  But foes were quick to denigrate the accomplishment.  They also vowed to fight any further steps, as they have been doing consistently at the UN and in many countries for years.
The broader point is that gay activists face powerful opponents at home and abroad.  And they too operate through networks that cross national and institutional boundaries.  What I have termed the “Baptist-burqa” network spans religious conservatives among many faiths, most importantly Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim.  It encompasses both states, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, and NGOs.  And it fights the gay rights network, which in turn fights back, on varied issues and in many forums worldwide.
Notably, these kinds of protracted and vehement conflicts are not confined only to gay rights.  They go well beyond culture war issues—to numerous others.  Josh Busby’s recent post makes the point that in the U.S. at least, how one stands on global warming has become something of a litmus test for party affiliation.  As Josh points out, there are Republicans who fear climate change (and different ones who support gay marriage) just as there are some on the left who remain climate skeptics.  But although the battle lines are sometimes blurry, on most global issues, groups of civil society “good guys” do not face off against “bad” old states or corporations.  Rather, contending networks encompass the gamut of international actors, both state and nonstate.
Those of you who know my recent work will know that this is a lead-in to a bit of shameless self-promotion for my forthcoming book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Okay, I’m a tiny bit ashamed–sorry).  That book will explore this network vs. network conflict, and the diverse ways that contending networks duke it out in varied institutions worldwide.  I still have one last chance to tweak the final product and would be interested in YOUR thoughts.

I hope that the book will serve as a corrective to the many studies focusing primarily on networks promoting change, even though real change is in fact rare and difficult.  A better approach to understanding how politics works, I claim, is to examine the ongoing conflicts—and to analyze powerful contenders in those conflict on a more or less equal footing.  How do they mobilize?  How do they affect and attack one another?  What tactics do they use, not just to promote themselves, but equally important, to torpedo their foes?  True there are differences between the strategies of those protecting the status quo and those seeking change.  But often it is not so easy to place antagonists in either of those boxes, particularly as time passes and policies change.
These analytic points are equally valid in international and domestic settings. Consider, for instance, the case of health care reform in the U.S.  The idea that all Americans should have some form of health insurance has been around for many decades.  But to have analyzed only those promoting this policy would have missed the vast bulk of the day-to-day politics that made this goal so difficult to achieve.  Even to examine the “political opportunity structure” for proponents would miss the fact that this “structure” is in large part the continuous creation of powerful political actors.  In that context, it is true, the Obama health care law was a milestone.  But of course, it came long after its original proposal, at very high political cost, and with the ultimate outcome still uncertain because opponents, now on the defensive, continue to fight on in the courts—and probably ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. 
All the more so in the international realm, where this kind of protracted policy conflict is endemic, where there are any number of institutions national and international in which “defeated” opponents can fight on, and in which normative talk is so cheap.  All the more reason then for analysts not to dwell on the few victories, usually at best partial and contingent.  To understand how the politics of norms works most of the time, one must look at the conflicts, the defeats, and the contending networks equally.  A few other analytic points I’ll throw out there for YOUR thoughts: 
Political scientists including myself have focused too much on “agenda setting.”  Certainly it can be a major accomplishment to draw media attention to an issue and even more so to put it on a governmental decision agenda.  But there is of course no guarantee that this will lead to anything–or at least anything anytime soon.   In fact getting one’s issue onto an agenda, invariably mobilizes contrary forces who work hard to get it off the agenda and their own ideas back on.
Political scientists and sociologists, including myself, have focused too much attention on “framing” as key to understanding policy change.  Yet there are a huge variety of frames out there, even within a single polity—and many of them are equally compelling (at least if one looks at them objectively).  Consider the supposed “master frame” of human rights.  It is so broad as to make it possible for all sides in many policy battles to tap it for their own uses.  Even more specific frames such as “harm to bodily integrity” often remain available for multiple sides to take up.
Political scientists, including myself, have focused too much attention on “persuasion” as the mechanism by which policy change happens.  Unless that term is given a broader meaning than normal, “persuasion” fails to capture the concrete combat that dwarfs most rhetorical efforts, even if it is often harder to see and study.  This includes efforts at excluding the other side from key institutions, at silencing opponents, at keeping others’ ideas off the agenda, at fighting back even after a policy has been established (see the continuing court battles over California’s Prop 8), and of course at raising money.
Finally, political scientists, in this case not including myself, have put too much faith in the power of deliberation to elevate the decision processes of leaders and citizens.  Recent work on deliberative democracy finally seems to be getting this criticism.  Many “target” audiences are beyond persuasion, due to self-interest or ideology.  And few promoters of ideas, whether new or old, truly want a free and fair debate.   Obviously such debate would be optimal–if it were possible to establish agreement on what that would mean, not in the abstract, but in an actual political conflict.  In reality, decisions are invariably made in the absence of the kind of deliberation political philosophers would prefer.
Gay rights is just one of numerous issues in which these normative battles play themselves out.  Those of us studying them ought to pay more attention to the fray itself, rather than primarily to those promoting change. 
Your thoughts welcome either on this blog or direct to me at 


Standing Up against the “Patriot Act”

It’s great to see a few of our elected representatives fighting back against the Democratic and Republican leadership’s attempt to renew the Patriot Act for another four years without amendment or even debate.  
I highly recommend reading a few of the statements and speeches by the handful of Congress people brave enough to stand up against the leadership of both parties.  Here is one of Republican Senator Rand Paul’s speeches from a few days ago.  Here is John Tester.  And here is Democratic Senator Tom Udall.  They make many telling points about the Patriot Act’s gutting of the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment–and the lack of meaningful debate that America has had about this. 
Their bold effort may be futile given the powerful political and economic forces behind continuation of the Patriot Act’s invasions of all Americans’ privacy and rights (not to mention the broad foreign policy effects).  But the attempt is worth paying attention to.
 For one thing, it is one of the most important issues facing our country.  Over the last 10 years, we have traded freedom after freedom for the illusion of “security” and the enrichment of the “homeland security” industry.  Even 10 years after 9/11, political leaders continue to use fear to empower the government, intelligence and military institutions.  Those tactics help generate the “I don’t care” or “I have nothing to hide” attitudes that too many Americans claim to have–but which, with a bit of probing and debate, often fall away. 
What is particularly sad is that both mainstream Democrats and Republicans avidly support these incursions on American liberties and stoke the fear-mongering.  Party loyalty—what Glenn Greenwald rightly calls “tribalism” by both sides–prevents all but the “fringes” of the parties from fighting back.  Yet just a bit of long-term thinking should make even hardcore loyalists think twice:  It is inevitable that the “other side” will hold the reins of power again soon.  Yet, for instance, Democrats servile to the Obama administration, think not about what might happen if Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman became President—and wield these very same instruments of government.
Taking a more optimistic view, another reason to pay attention is that this might, just might, be one of the early signs of an eventual ebb in attacks on Constitutional freedoms in the name of homeland security.  It’s true of course that these efforts to debate the Patriot Act are receiving relatively little coverage in the mainstream press.  It’s also true that the coverage is often biased.  The New York Times’ backpage story for instance headlines that the delay in reauthorizing the Patriot Act “could hinder investigators.”  Shudders!  Those always trustworthy government agents won’t be able to read our emails, listen to our phone calls, and monitor our financial transactions without warrants.  We face grave peril!  The Times’ headline could just as easily have read that the delay will restore Constitutional liberties. 
But possibly, just possibly, the pendulum will begin to swing back.  If it does, it appears this will require an unusual coalition of libertarian politicians on left and right to fight the establishments of both parties.

Taking some time to understand what’s happening in Congress now—and to support debate about the Patriot Act—can only help.  Maybe someday this blot on our Constitution will actually be repealed.


Must Men Be Pigs? The C*jones Conundrum

Last week was full of bad news for those of us with c*jones:  One of my co-genders, who just happened to run the IMF, caught redhanded (or something) after assaulting a chambermaid; another, the very model of a manny-man rather than a girlie-man, fessing up to having sired a child with an employee over a decade ago. This week a one-time Presidential front-runner facing indictment for using campaign money to cover up news about his own love-child.

Maybe I’ve just missed it, but it seems that most of the justifiably angry responses to these events have come from the distaff side:  Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, etc.   Deservedly so.  But men, especially those of us in the social sciences, should have our say too!  Silence does not mean that the vast majority of us condone these actions.  More likely, it indicates our embarrassment, even shame.  Let me take up the sword and kick these men while they are down.
There is no defense for what they have done.  (OK, admittedly DSK is innocent until proven guilty, but the many stories circulating about his past “exploits” paint a pretty damning picture.)  They thoroughly deserve all the opprobrium and ridicule they are getting.  The fact that they are put in electronic stocks for all the world to see is somewhat satisfying. 
But somehow, despite all the social punishments they receive, these appear to have only modest deterrent effects.  One might have thought that Bill Clinton’s protracted, worldwide disgrace would have scared off even the most reckless of the lot.  But of course Bill has long since been rehabilitated, and it’s obvious that his case has done little to deter. 
The world cries out for a better policy solution!  But first, of course, we need a few reams of high quality social science research.  So let me throw down the gauntlet here too.
To begin, a research question:  Not to put too fine a point on it, why can’t these men keep it in their pants?  Or to put this in social science terms:  Are they outliers?  Of course, I shouldn’t pick on DSK or the Sperminator.  There are so many more out there, from Sacramento to Rome, that it would be tedious to name them.  They’ve even given legitimate activities a bad name.  How many of you no longer dare stroll the Adirondack trail blithely smoking a stogie?   So, to put this in broader terms, given the right situation, is any man likely to do what these Bozos have done?  (Take that, selection bias!)
Some might say these are questions important only to psychologists—or tabloids.  But I see them as questions of politics—even international politics!  I once believed that a politician’s personal life should not be an important basis for deciding who to vote for.  But I have to say that the accumulated peccadilloes and outright crimes of the last decades are making me re-think that belief.  Bad judgment, risk-taking, and an inability to defer fulfillment in one field seem likely to spill into others, if you will.  Of course, that’s not to say that politicians with seemingly tranquil personal lives will not also make extremely bad decisions, as several of our recent Presidents amply attest.
But back to my research questions.  These come down to critical theoretical issues that social scientists must concern themselves with!  Thinking out loud (or, as we at the Duck are fond of saying, en blog), they concern the respective weight of identity (as married), networks (jointly formed during marriage), and the political institutions that new (and old) institutionalists are so fond of writing about.  How strongly do the bonds of trust, respect, and love created in marriage shape one’s identity?  To what extent do the broader networks in which married couples–even political couples–become enmeshed, keep them in line?  Or does institutional position so affect/infect the personality that those in lofty political, entertainment, or business positions are at higher risk of infidelity than others?
As a brief digression, let’s not forget our own institutions, fellow academics.  Anyone who works at an undergraduate teaching institution understands that, given students’ diverse dressing habits these days, even the most pointy-headed scholar faces daunting occupational hazards too.  (I’ve often considered contacting the producers of Most Dangerous Catch to suggest that they broaden their concept to the most perilous jobs in America—and film an episode in a typical college classroom devoid of the high school “nurse’s office” where the scantily clad can be sent for wardrobe refurbishment.)
Feminist scholars:  note that the prior two paras are written in gender neutral terms.   Are there examples of women in powerful offices, especially political offices, who have gone astray?
But back to my research questions!  Fundamentally, these go to the heart of the agent-structure debate, even if this glaringly obvious fact has only dawned on the most enlightened of the disciplinary cognoscenti.  Does the presidency (or governship) of your choice make the man–or does the man make the presidency?  Are people like DSK hapless victims of circumstance/structure/institution, as his lawyers seem likely to argue?   (Poor Arnold!)  Or, hard as it seems to believe, can they actually make choices, notwithstanding the structural conjuncture in which they find themselves?   Indeed there is a good chance of solving that hoary social science chestnut with a concerted, multi-year, multi-million dollar research thrust into these issues, if you will.
But back to my research questions!!  Perhaps they are misconceived, if you will.  Is there a hidden variable I am missing?  For instance, perhaps the inflated egos that typically go along with the quest for high office are coupled with a higher likelihood of super-charged libidos?  If so, we men may be fated to endure these kinds of embarrassing events perpetrated by our more successful members–from here to eternity?  

Most pressingly of all, why hasn’t political science paid attention to the c*jones conundrum?  For future research proposals, scholarly articles, and bestsellers, I hereby bleg your insights, theoretical perspectives, research designs, etc.


The Pernicious Myth of America as Global “Manager”

Does America’s having great power mean that we must “manage” the global system?  Fellow Duck Jon Western seems to think so.  He writes in Current Intelligence that a major reason for the U.S. to reduce its military spending is so that other countries can be better “satisfied with American management of the [global] system” and “global public goods.”  I do not want to pick on Jon, but I think that his views reflect those of much of our policy elite, both in government and nongovernmental roles.  They believe it is America’s right, responsibility, or fate to manage the world.

I disagree and think that such claims inadvertently strengthen the very trends Jon’s article speaks against—bloated American military spending.

  First, however, I commend much of Jon’s analysis, which was generally quite good on the need for achieving deep military cuts.  He’s right that much of the Republican party, Tea-Partiers and all, seem less than willing to make cuts.  He’s also right that a big part of the reason—and for most Democratic leaders feeling similarly—is that the military establishment has insidiously embedded itself in society.  The military, as an arm of the state, has an advantage over mere private recipients of state spending.  It can and has set itself up in every Congressional district—where private interests eagerly glom on, shrouding themselves in anesthetizing billows of “national security” double-speak.  All of this makes it difficult to cut “defense” spending, despite the obvious fat and waste.

What I take issue with in Jon’s article is the assumed goal of such cuts:  permitting America to better “manage” the world, through diplomats, NGOs, and a stripped-down military.  I had thought this was perhaps a throwaway thought in Jon’s article.  But he insists that  “As a simple function of power distribution, whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with the fact that the US will continue to be the central ‘manager’ of the system.”  If by this and his other statements, Jon only means that America’s large economy and military give our actions disproportionate weight, who can argue with the proposition?
But it is worthwhile to give the term “manager” its more usual meaning because a huge swathe of our foreign policy establishment clearly does.  Some of them may believe it is simply our destiny as the world’s largest power.  But this version of the management myth easily slops into more swaggering ones:  that our power makes it our responsibility to convey American peace, democracy, and prosperity to the world (Samantha Power and other liberal interventionists, perhaps?); or that it is our God-given right to do so (insert neo-con name of your choice).
Challenging such baseline assumptions—the “givens” of our foreign policy establishment in the political, economic, and academic realms–is the only way to create a more sensible foreign policy on a permanent basis.   
What are the problems with America seeing itself as “manager” for the world?  First, if we must “manage” the world, then just about any amount of spending is justified.  This mindset explains why we still have 52,000 troops in Germany, 49,000 in Japan and 10,000 in Italy—all of which are imminently threatened by hostile powers.  Right?  It also explains our continuing presence in Iraq (50,000), Afghanistan (100,000), and other highly-advanced countries who pose a dire menace to our very existence.  And let’s not forget bases and command centers abundantly sprinkled all over the globe—and overall military spending that is more than the rest of the world combined.
In fact, threats to American national security are small today.  Of course, there are perils to the personal security of individual Americans—the so-called terrorist “threat”—but those too are minute.  In this context, there are two tightly linked ways to justify continued huge military spending:  exaggerating the “threats” to create popular fears; and propounding the myth that America must be the world’s “manager”—its all-wise, all-beneficent custodian of civilization itself.  Our leaders of course have used both with great abandon for years.
Leaving threat inflation aside, part of the reason our leaders propound the management myth is sheer avarice.  There is nothing like a government job or contract to keep one fat and happy.  No doubt as well, both the greedy and those who are not, console themselves with the patriotic idea that America is  “under threat” or with the cosmopolitan notion that it is America’s burden to “manage” the world.
Second, there is the question of whether we are even up to the job however ill-defined it is.  Recent experience suggests that we are not.  It also shows that we are not doing terribly well at managing our own country, which presumably we understand better than anywhere else.  Worse still, when we try to supervise the world, we necessarily take resources away from America’s own very real problems.  Our own house crumbles while we vainly attempt to shore up others.  This is not to say that we should cut ourselves off from the world.  But engaging with far greater humility—without a managerial mindset—is a better way of doing foreign and domestic policy. 
Third, what are the effects of our making ourselves the A-Number One J.C. Dithers to the world?  The great majority of our “management” these days comes at the barrel of a gun.  And, surprise, surprise, those who get hurt, feel just a tad resentful.  In the end, our attempts at “management” not only cost us hugely but also increase the numbers who hate our policies.
But even leaving aside our predominantly militaristic management, how might other countries feel about being “managed” through less violent means—through our wise diplomats, our moral NGOs, and our pure-minded politicians?  The best way to think about this is to put the shoe on the other foot.  How would Americans react to our being “managed” by other nations?  Are we willing to say that if/when another country gains sufficient military or economic clout, they will have the right, nay the responsibility, to manage us?
Finally, there are the effects on ourselves.  A managerial mindset toward the rest of the world easily spills over into our own country.  Managers don’t like to be second-guessed, not least by their own people.  They like to . . . manage, with as little accountability as possible.  This is especially the case with regard to letting Americans know about the realities of our hugely expensive and often bungled attempts at management.  The result is erosion of individual civil liberties, huge increases in government secrecy, and a government-knows-best attitude that undercuts democracy at home.  Recent articles and posts by Jane Mayer, Steve Walt, Glenn Greenwald, and Adam Serwer provide extremely important illustrations of this.
Returning to the realm of practical politics and Jon Western’s article:  He is right that most Tea Party Republicans don’t dare challenge military spending.  But I am increasingly coming to believe that the few American politicians who are willing to do so are worth supporting, whether they come from the left or the right, whether they be Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul.
The myth of America’s global management is a key ideological underpinning of our highly militarized state.  Accepting that myth, even if one argues for reductions in military spending, is to cede far too much to those who would continue the bloat. 


In Praise of Straw Men

How many times have you been accused of making a straw man argument?  How many times have you deployed that rhetorical trump card against a foe?  In blogs, in debates, in academic conference rooms, the straw man charge is a tried and true way of undermining an opponent and advancing your own position.  To accept the claim that, yes, my argument is a straw man, is to admit defeat.

However, I come not to burn straw men, but to praise them.

To begin, I exclude outright distortions and lies about an argument.  Those should be called what they are—and merit dismissal.  Straw men are made of subtler stuff and useful.

At their best, they represent a paragon of social science–nothing less than a Weberian “ideal type.” As Max Weber argues, ideal types simplify complex realities. They help us see arguments in their purest form.  They make it possible to think abstractly.  And they are the backbone of theory development.

No one believes that ideal types really exist.  Everyone recognizes that the world is far messier.   But by their very artificiality, ideal types enhance understanding and advance debate.  Most important, they help us distinguish among arguments and ideas.  And here is where they blend into what is too glibly dismissed as “straw men.”

Every argument, every theory plays off others before it.  To accomplish this efficiently—that is, without repeating the entire previous argument in all its self-protecting nuance—one must build a negative ideal type, a straw man!  Drawing sharp distinctions facilitates scientific progress.  How else can you test a theory and verify its core ideas?  Even everyday debates benefit from the clarity provided by a straw man.

By contrast, muddy formulations are useless for advancing understanding.  Yet, sadly, ectoplasmic arguments are everywhere.  All too often in this age of instant books and blogs, they stem from sloppy thinking and rushed writing (never on Duck of Minerva, however!).  More troublingly, particularly in academia, they derive from fear—from the proponent’s dread of being proven wrong.  With enough stipulations, caveats, weasel words, hifalutin’ jargon, and impenetrable abstractions, one can avoid the unpleasantness entirely.  

Flimsy as they seem, straw men stand tall against such cant–assuming you can even determine what your opponent’s argument is!  No doubt reality is messy.  No doubt straw men ignore subtleties in an argument.  No doubt some straw men are “unfair,” especially to the arcane.  But the benefits far outweigh the costs.

So the next time someone tries to deflate your point as a straw man, fight back! Proudly declare the virtues of your scarecrow.  Point out that you accurately reflect the kernel of your foe’s position inside its couched and cowardly integument.  

But do more.  Stress the virtues of clear argument and strong opinion.  Hail the straw men!  Max Weber, rapier at hand, is on your side.


MIcro-Finance: Crisis and Response

For years, microfinance appeared to be one of the most promising means of fighting poverty and underdevelopment worldwide. With all the hype, it then became a kind of global movement—a hybrid combining social good with economic goods, morality with moneymaking. A few years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize committee hopped on the bandwagon and laureated Yunus.

Over the last year, however, MF has faced a growing crisis, primarily in parts of India and in Bangladesh. It has also apparently suffered from the economic downturn like much of the rest of the lending industry–of which it is clearly a part notwithstanding its social aspects.

In many ways this is a sad but predictable moment. After the oversell, reality always hits hard. For me, the interesting question is how microfinance as a movement responds to its crisis—and more generally how other social movements do so. (Some might quibble about whether MF should be considered a social movement, but I think of the term broadly—and don’t want to get bogged down in definitional squabbles.) To my knowledge this is an important but understudied issue—one that goes well beyond microfinance in its significance to activists and presumably to scholars.

In business schools and among corporations, a similar kind of issue seems to have been tackled previously. There have been a number of books written and fortunes made about “crisis management”–for companies facing major scandals or owning up to big errors. Think BP, Shell, Tylenol, etc. Of course the situation is different for an individual company than for an entire industry (e.g., nuclear power in the wake of Chernobyl or Fukuishima).

These business sources may provide some practical ideas for the MF industry and individual lenders to tackle their crisis. But, I’m wondering whether anyone can suggest ideas from political science or sociology that might be relevant to this kind of question: How does a social movement deal with a crisis, i.e., a series of events that calls its methods and even its goals into serious question? I have a graduate student researching the conceptual and empirical issues, but speaking off the cuff, it seems that there are a number of typical responses:

1) Deny, deny, deny.

2) Counter-Attack: go for the message as well as the messengers, especially their jugulars.

3) Purify: if #1 and #2 fail, rid yourself of the bad apples or bad approaches, best through public ritual. In a broad movement, rather than a single organization, this may be difficult. Distancing may be the most feasible approach.

4) Re-dedicate: loudly restate your belief in remaining principals and principles.

5) Re-authenticate: deploy your most authoritative “objective” allies to restate their deep belief in your principals and principles. A Nobel or two in your stable usually helps.

6) Divert: change the subject, by pointing to your many successes, preferably in realms distant from the one that got you into trouble.

7), 8), 9): Please add your ideas–both additional strategies and any relevant literature on the issues.


Cause and Effect in the “War on Terror?”

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?


Human Rights: The Last Utopia?

I’ve just finished reading Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and would highly recommend it to those interested in rights and norms.  I have written a review of it that will eventually appear in the American Historical Review.   Meanwhile, for those who just can’t wait, my main points:
Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia is an erudite and impressive intellectual history, portraying the core principle of contemporary human rights–that individual rights transcend state sovereignty–as a strikingly recent invention. . . .Moyn argues that early views of rights were welded to the state or the nation. . . . Moyn also dismantles the widespread notion that post-World War II revulsion at the Holocaust and formation of the United Nations gave birth to human rights. . . . For Moyn, the modern human rights movement rose only as other “utopias,” especially nationalism and socialism, fully revealed their failures. . . .He spends less time analyzing the sturdiness of this “last utopia.”  Not only has it attracted political movements it once eschewed, but developments of the 2000s make its triumph appear less secure than in past decades—something which in fact fits well with his argument emphasizing change and challenging teleology.  It is not clear that human rights are in fact the last utopia.  Particularly in the post-9/11 period, state-level utopias—or distopias—threaten the rights ideal.  Most importantly, renewed cries of “national security,” have called into question cherished principles such as freedom from torture and even freedom of conscience. . . . Within U.S. law and politics, international human rights remain an alien concept, even if domestic civil rights, grounded in the Constitution, are revered.  On both left and right, American exceptionalism and sovereignty still prevail over international rights principles. 

Overall, an insightful, challenging, and beautifully written book.
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