Category: US Foreign Policy (Page 1 of 10)

How do you kill a zombie argument? Middle East studies edition

I’ve started practicing mindfulness, partly to deal with the stress of being a Professor and parent of small kids in a pandemic, and partly to reduce the number of times I become unreasonably angry over bad policy arguments. I experienced a major setback this week, when I encountered yet another evidence-less argument on Saudi-Iran relations. What’s worse, it looks like this zombie claim is not only refusing to die, but it is–in zombie apocalypse fashion–replicating itself and spreading.

The offender was this article in Slate by Fred Kaplan. Reports have emerged of secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intended to ease long-standing tensions between the two countries. According to Kaplan, “by all accounts, this shift was spurred by recognition that the United States is moving away from the Middle East.”

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Not everything outside the Pentagon is “soft power”

As someone who works on religion and politics, I encounter the term “soft power” a lot. Most of the time it’s in a good way; soft power is a means to advocate for policies that draw on our values but still advance our interests. But, occasionally, the term frustrates me. Too often it’s used as a catch-all to address any foreign policy that doesn’t involve military force or economic sanctions. If we want to advocate for a broader set of foreign policy tools, we need a better set of terms to describe them.

Soft power

Soft power was famously introduced by Joseph Nye in a 1990 Foreign Policy article. He argued that it is the ability to get others to “want what we want,” rather than merely doing what we want. It amplifies, or even replaces, conventional “hard power.” Since then, scholars have tried to test it, policymakers have advocated for its use in US foreign policy, and skeptics have questioned the usefulness of the term or whether it really matters.

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Trump’s Budweiser Putsch

US President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives to a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Emily Holland, an Assistant Professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College & Hadas Aron, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.

This week’s violent takeover of the Capitol Building has fueled the ongoing debate on the future of American democracy. For several years analysts have argued that the United States is undergoing the same process of de-democratization as countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. However, the comparison to European populist de-democratization is misleading. The difference between Trump and European counterparts is that the latter do not rely on post-election violence to hold onto power, instead they rig the system long before the election. This week’s events demonstrate what is at stake for American democracy. Unlike  in European countries, the elimination of checks and balances is not the main concern. The real danger for the United States is out of control anti-system political violence that brings to a boiling point polarization and racial tensions.

Democratic breakdown or decline in places like Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Poland, has inspired theories on how democracies die, comparing the United States to failing democracies around the world. But in these countries, populist insurrection is far more subtle [and effective] than the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill. Populist leaders have successfully transformed political institutions, concentrated political power, broke down opposition, and dismantled democracy, with little overt violence and often without large-scale election fraud. Trump also attempted these strategies, but mostly failed because of the dispersed power structure of the United States, and his own incompetence.

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The True Meaning of a Hot Christmas Prince

In the spirit of holiday cheer and Paul Musgrave’s great Foreign Policy piece “The True Meaning of Christmas Movies Is a Cozy American Worldview” as well as our common poli sci curse of “being unable to enjoy anything without analysing it to death”, here is my take on that red and green scourge that clogs your Netflix queue as well as your cable. I have watched a fair amount of those in my day (for research purposes, obvs), but might be missing something, so correct me if I am wrong. I can’t refresh my memory right away, as those movies lack dinosaur subplots and that’s the only type of videos my toddler would let me watch. Jurassic Prince: the Royal Baby, anyone?

You might guess what kind of plots a lot of those holidays movies feature: a hard-working (white) American woman gets swept away by the lukewarm charms of a vaguely European royal from an invariably Romanian castle. He teaches her about cucumber sandwiches, she shows him how to bake Christmas cookies, sticks it to the local stuffy female suitors and they live happily ever after. In other words, as Paul observed, the true meaning of Christmas can be found with the help of “cute but not hot” foreign dude with a received pronunciation accent in a quaint Ruritanian setting. The cuteness but not hotness trope seems to be a deliberate choice, just look what Hallmark did to Sam Heughan, yes, this Sam Heughan:

If you squint your eye, you would probably be unable to distinguish between all those bland, combed over to the left dirty blonds with blue eyes and personalities that usually don’t go beyond the ability to procure a Christmas tree for the hallway. They are hardly prime examples of the real American heroes that protect the country at Christmas in the Nakatomi Plaza.

After all, it is still a cozy fantasy of an American dream, so one should be extra careful with the kind of baubles you decorate your imaginary Christmas tree. You should especially make sure that your foreign Nutcracker is not going to be too threatening to the homegrown ornaments, that you might still want to get back to if those pesky royals don’t let you blog. Yes, you read that right, I argue that those vanilla foreign princes should not be too imposing of a masculinity construct to diminish the appeal of the domestic commoner beaus.

As Paul rightly points out, the key demographic for those Christmas movies are women. Women who just need a reasonably forgettable dude with whom they can take care of the chores around the house. While there is a history of orientalizing, exoticising, and eroticising women for the male gaze, also in the spirit of the (not so cozy) American dream, the female gaze around Christmas seems to need a little fairy-tale respite that would not create unreasonable expectations and upset the balance in the household. That’s why those foreign princes are just cute, but not sizzling hot dishes that would tarnish the image of the cozy American worldview.

And if they do, John McClane will welcome them to the party. Pal.

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Voldemort, Trump, and the other usual suspects of Putin’s press conference

Klimentyev, RIA Novosti.

Sing it with me: It’s the most Putinist time of the year! For the 16th time the Dear Leader addressed the nation and the world from through their TV screens during a carefully choreographed almost 5-hour long annual press conference that could count as a State of the Union Q&A. there were some adjustments to the usual format: the lidded cup was still there, but almost no journalists in the actual room with Putin, his answers were televised from his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo. It’s almost impossible to go through all the press conference and not bore the readers to tears by the ritualised legitimation theatre, so I will concentrate on some of the IR-y stuff.

One of the most anticipated questions were about the bombshell investigation about Navalny’s poisoning that seems to point to a group of FSB operatives who had been tracking him for three years. Never fear: Putin successfully dodged every attempt to even get him to say Navalny’s name on TV and accused him of working for the CIA. Putin did, however, admit that He-who-must-not-be-named was under surveillance, but, apparently, if “we wanted to [poison him], we would have succeeded”, but instead he “let him be treated in a Berlin clinic on the wife request” instead. Interestingly enough, it didn’t even occur to Putin to deny the fact that Navalny was under surveillance or the fact that his security services are allowed to commit extrajudicial killings. 

What about Putin’s old friend Trump? I am not sure that any American Late Show missed the opportunity to report Putin’s telegram to President-Elect Biden where Putin is looking forward to “interactions and contacts”, but Trump, in fact, was barely mentioned during the press conference. Putin did assure that Trump has become an integral part of American political life and given that “50% of the population support him” there was no reason for him to seek asylum in Russia like Edward Snowden. The usual anti-Westernism, however, was on full display: Putin berated the NATO for expanding eastwards despite their promise not to, accused the UK for flying spy planes and, of course, accused the American State Department for vengefully leaking financial documents that alleged that his (ex?) son-in-law bought some company shares for a hundred bucks, instead of paying the market 380 million. Or, as Putin phrased it, “we are white and fluffy compared to you”, “prickly and aggressive types”. 

Putin also did not miss the chance to scold the “failure of the multiculturalism project” in Europe in relation to Samuel Paty’s murder in Paris. After implicitly praising the law that “protects religious feelings” in Russia (yes, the one that got Pussy Riot a 2-year sentence for asking the Mother of God to chase Putin away), he condemned murder as a response to those wounded feelings. He praised the multi confessional legacy that Russia inherited, because “there was no religious repression. In the Soviet Union, [all] priests were persecuted, but not selectively”. Yes, absolutely, all religious leaders were indiscriminately persecuted, especially the current Patriarch, who was posted to Geneva in 1971 as the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches. smh.

In any case, to quote an Icelandic (!) journalist, it’s just some mass media that don’t like Russia and there is a war against Putin. Other countries are in a much worse shape because of the pandemic compared to Russia. An obligatory reminder from Putin about the real bad 90s so you would see how good you have it these days, here’s some extra cash ($60) for your children and happy holidays.

I sincerely hope that for some they will be.

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Restraint requires more than “ending endless wars”

Voices calling for restraint in US foreign policy are getting louder. A bipartisan community has grown tired of the tired consensus on America’s role in the world and–thanks partly to the excesses of the Trump Administration–has had some success in shifting policy debates. I am generally sympathetic to this community, but worry that they are focusing too much on “ending endless wars.” We should also encourage a broader sense of humility in America’s foreign policy.

“Restraint” as a viable foreign policy orientation came together in the past few years, although it’s been building for some time. Libertarians like the Cato Institute and academic realists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been calling on America to adopt more modest goals for the world; this has been directed at both Republicans (like George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism) and Democrats’ interventionist tendencies as part of hawkish liberal internationalism. Peter Beinart, initially a cheerleader for muscular liberalism, later expressed regret.

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America’s Democratic Shortcomings and the “Liberal International Order”

This is a guest post from Manuel Reinert, a PhD candidate in international relations at American University and consultant with the World Bank.

As the COVID-19 crisis illustrates, international cooperation is crucial to address global issues. International organizations (IOs), created in the so-called rules-based “liberal international order” (LIO) after WWII, have been extensively involved in the response. The United Nations (UN) launched a global humanitarian response plan. UN’s agencies, principally the World Health Organization (WHO), have provided worldwide data, guidelines, and technical support. The World Bank deployed fast-track financing for pandemic-related challenges in emerging economies and approved a coronavirus vaccine financing plan, and the International Monetary Fund made its $1 trillion lending capacity available to member-states.

Multilateralism nevertheless failed in many ways. The G20 and G7 hardly offered a unified front and the WHO’s response was heavily criticized. In particular, the United States (US) accused the WHO of covering up the initial epidemic at China’s behest. The feud culminated with the suspension of US funding and announcement of complete withdrawal. Hindsight allows for evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the WHO’s response. Like other IOs, the WHO has modest resources for a broad mandate: its competency depends on the leverage member states leave it and how much politics they play. In fact, China’s growing influence within this organization is linked to the recent US disinterest in IOs. Multilateralism is not perfect but remains essential to manage such crises, not to mention critical global challenges such as climate change.

According to its proponents, the LIO is organized under guiding principles, including: multilateral institutions, open markets, liberal democracy, and leadership by the US. Liberal internationalists denounce the rise of authoritarian powers and receding democratic values to explain the decay of these principles. They also blame Donald Trump for deserting the LIO leadership. Under his administration, the US has indeed abandoned major international accords such as the Paris Agreement on climate and the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), blasted the role of IOs, and adopted an aggressive diplomacy, apart from some notable exceptions. Consequently, numerous analyses have been announcing the ‘twilight’ of the LIO and preparing for what comes next. Others have claimed that this order was doomed to fail, while the eternal debate on American involvement in world affairs is regularly reignited.

Most of these analyses are missing two important components. First, they attribute the demise of the LIO to external factors and a strategically flawed foreign policy, while failing to see that such weakening is directly linked to America’s democratic shortcomings. The Trump presidency is the symptom of institutional dysfunctions that make the US less democratic. This decline is the result of rigid institutions that disproportionately favor a conservative minority.

Second, they negate the extent to which the US has used this order and escaped its rules when convenient. America has a history of ambiguity towards multilateralism: even if Donald Trump took the subversion of rules-based institutions to a new level, the trend did not start with him. The conservative minority has regularly eroded the LIO foundations. Ultimately, America’s ability to improve democracy will be decisive to advance multilateralism and a genuinely rules-based international system.

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Coffee and TV: Election Edition

“They haven’t counted the votes in Pennsylvania and Michigan yet”.

A couple of years ago, I conducted a Gary Steyngart-esque experiment and watched Russian TV for a day, to find out in what kind of information bubble a regular Russian person lives. This year, I can’t use the remote because I bit all my nails during the American election week, but also the borders are closed, so both Russia and a Russian TV are beyond my reach. Never fear, I fired up Ye olde Tube to see what’s happening with the American elections in the Russian media.

Let’s flip to one of the most odious guys on Channel Two – Dimitry Kiselyov, aka “let’s burn gays’ hearts”. His Sunday evening program’s segment on the American elections was called ominously “Pulp Fiction” (like the Tarantino movie). Kiselyov accused the American elections right off the bat to have a criminal feel to them, where “the majority of mail-in ballots are miraculously for Biden”. According to Kiselyov, Trump was winning in 48 states on election day, but then suddenly was missing just a couple of thousands of votes to win. Mail-in voting can “allow fraud”: “dead souls” registered to vote and over 100% voting registration. Kiselyov continued to lie that it’s possible to come and vote without an ID and vote twice, and some precincts use “voting machines where you just press a button and it’s impossible to tally the votes at all”. Kiselyov’s main evidence (apart from the right-wing “judicial watch”) is Trump’s own statements and the fact that social media started marking his tweets and posts as potential misinformation. Kiselyov was particularly incensed that major news networks “shut his mouth” when Trump tried to claim victory during his address in the briefing room. 

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Leader Personalities: Trump vs. Biden

This is a guest post from Ryan Beasley, Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews, with research interests in political psychology and foreign policy: Juliet Kaarbo, Professor at the University of Edinburgh, who works on personalities, parliaments and parties in foreign policy; and Consuelo Thiers (Twitter @Consuelothiers), a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, who is completing her doctorate on beliefs and emotions in enduring rivalries.

For those of us who study leaders’ personalities and how they affect their actions while in power, President Trump has really been a blessing, if well-disguised.  For many of his opponents, turning a corner on the Trump Presidency is not just about changing his policies but also quieting his persona, removing the centre-stage megaphone of political office from the hands of a man feverishly keen to use it (even when actually feverish).  The gregarious and agreeable Joe Biden – perhaps average, risk-averse, and vanilla to his detractors – will surely be different. We wanted to be sure.  

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Why are we so quick to dismiss the UAE-Israel peace treaty?

In September, the UAE and Israel signed “the Abraham Accords,” normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel. The Trump Administration presented this as if it was equivalent to the Camp David Accords, a ground-breaking peace agreement that would transform the world. Much of the Middle East policy community, however, met it with a shrug. I’m not sure I’m joining in on that shrug. While it’s true Trump exaggerated and misrepresented the deal, as he is wont to do, I worry a sneaky “common wisdom” has developed among observers that may obscure the significant impacts of this agreement.

The deal came together over the summer, although there have been signs of a potential shift among Gulf Arab states towards Israel. They share a common enemy in Iran. Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018, while the UAE’s US Ambassador wrote an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper hinting at possible normalization. Billed as a peace deal (even though they weren’t really at war) the two states agreed to normalize diplomatic ties and expand economic cooperation. While some saw it as a betrayal, other seem to see it as a relatively inconsequential event.

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U.S. Political Scientists Must Work To Support Free and Fair Democratic Elections

This is a guest post by Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can follow him at his blog at Democracy in Dark Times.

Democracy is a central and arguably the central theme of contemporary American political science research and teaching. This is certainly true in the “subfields” conventionally designated as “Comparative Politics,” “American Politics,” and “Political Theory.” And even where it is not the central theme, as in most “International Relations” inquiry, it is an important theme.

By far the most broadly influential endeavor in U.S. political science—the teaching of “Introduction to American Politics,” a staple of undergraduate teaching at virtually every academic institution in the U.S.—centers on the dynamics of the U.S. political system, the nature of its constitutional democracy, and the complex dynamics of public opinion, party organization, political campaigning and competitive elections.

Most of this teaching is not emphatically normative. But it is normative nonetheless, as a perusal of most syllabi or prominent textbooks will attest. The 2015 Brief Edition of Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics, written by Christine Barbour and Gerald C. Wright, for example, leads with a chapter on “Power and Citizenship in American Politics” that centers on the distinction between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Without some such discussion, what sense is to be made of American political institutions?

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Love, Loathing, and Loss: America’s COVID-19 Response and the View from Canada

This is a guest post from Jennifer Mustapha and Eric Van Rythoven. Mustapha is an Assistant Professor at Huron University College in London, Ontario and studies the politics of the War on Terror, globalization and development, and Southeast Asian regional relations. Rythoven teaches International Relations and Foreign Policy at Carleton University, Canada.  His work has been published in Security Dialogue, European Journal of International Relations, and Journal of Global Security Studies, among others. 

For many observers America’s catastrophic response to COVID-19 is a far-off spectacle rendered all the more inscrutable by the country’s power and position. For Canadians however, the experience is more akin to watching a close friend spiral into a crisis of shockingly irresponsible behaviour.  Not only is their tragic circumstance a threat to the safety of others, but we face the added grief of knowing that someone we care about has chosen such a destructive path.  

We write this because America occupies an invaluable place in the Canadian political imaginary. It is the ubiquitous ‘other’ that haunts almost every thought and conversation in Canadian politics – and it is failing in a way that has stunned the Canadian public and policymakers. But America is also our kin – a bigger “sibling state” that we live in perpetually close proximity to –and Canadians are struggling to reconcile our familial relations with its increasingly rapid descent into darkness. In this blog post we offer some preliminary thoughts on what this failure looks like from a Canadian perspective. We organize our discussion around three sentiments – love, loathing, and loss – that summarise the conflicting, and often contradictory, feelings Canadians are experiencing from this side of the border.

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Beyond the Open Skies Treaty

Guest post by Sandor Fabian is a PhD candidate at the University of Central Florida and instructor of record at the NATO Special Operations School. His research is in security studies with a focus on new concepts of conflict, U.S. foreign military aid, and counter hybrid warfare. Follow him at @SandorFabian2 and Doreen Horschig is a PhD candidate and teaching associate at the University of Central Florida. Her research is in nuclear security with a focus on public and elite opinion on nuclear weapons and norms of weapons of mass destruction. Follow her at @doreen__h

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COVID-19 is accelerating the power transition between the U.S. and China

This is a guest post from Collin Meisel and Jonathan D. Moyer.

Collin Meisel (Twitter: @collinmeisel) is a Research Associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. At Pardee, Collin works with the Diplometrics team to analyze international relations and build long-term bilateral forecasts for topics such as trade, migration, and international governmental organization membership.

Jonathan D. Moyer (Twitter: @moyerjonathan) is Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. For the last 15 years, Jonathan has used long-term, integrated policy analysis and forecasting methods to inform the strategic planning efforts of governments, international organizations, and corporations around the world, including sponsors such as USAID, the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the UN Development Programme.

As COVID-19 disrupts life the world over, many of the pandemic’s long-term consequences remain uncertain. However, using multiple long-term forecast scenarios, one geopolitical consequence is beginning to come into focus: COVID-19 is accelerating the transition in power between the U.S. and China. Despite assertions from political scientist Barry Posen that COVID-19 “is weakening all of the great and middle powers more or less equally,” economic and mortality projections suggest that China will see material gains relative to the U.S. that could translate into broader geopolitical gains.

Quantified in terms of the distribution of relative material capabilities, China’s forecasted gains are roughly the magnitude of the current relative global capabilities of Turkey.

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Too Soon for a Coronavirus Commission

This is a guest post from Erik Dahl, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the author of Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond (Georgetown, 2013). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Naval Postgraduate School or the U.S. Department of Defense.   

As many parts of the United States begin to slowly reopen amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, there are increasing calls in Congress and from emergency management experts for a national commission to examine how well we were prepared for, and responded to, the global crisis. Congressional committees are beginning to hold hearings about the pandemic, including testimony expected soon from Dr. Anthony Fauci, and pressure will likely build for a more extensive investigation. Supporters argue that a commission is needed in the same way national investigations in the wake of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 helped us understand how those disasters could have happened. 

Just as with those previous cases, such an effort will be needed eventually to help the country heal from the current crisis. But history suggests it is too early now to begin that process, because early efforts to investigate national calamities tend to produce more heat than light.    

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Bridging the Gap in National Security Studies

This is a guest post from Paul Johnson, who is an operations research analyst with the US Army. His personal research ranges on topics from political violence and militias to security force loyalty and design.  The views expressed here do not represent the perspective of the US Army or Department of Defense.

Given this forum’s focus as an outlet helping bridge the gap, this post discusses ways that academics working on national security-related topics can make themselves and their work more accessible to potential end-users, as seen and experienced from the author’s perspective as a national-security practitioner.

A Wide Variety of Vital Contributions

Previous articles on this topic (e.g., see here and here) have pointed out a variety of contributions that scholars can make to applied work, including:

  • Theory, which provides an idea of how to view an emerging event or string of events, helping users “see the forest for the trees.”  From an analytical perspective, being able to point to a solid body of social-science literature backing up a framework — especially a literature with fairly settled empirical findings — increases the credibility of that framework for application to real-world problems.
  • Data, which may be quantitative or qualitative.  Publically accessible social science datasets often find their way into analytical usage in national-security settings as the best available data on a topic of interest.  Similarly, the perspective of area specialists, also known as subject matter experts (or “smees”), on a given country or set of countries can provide highly valued information.
  • Forecasts, which can be as simple as a most-likely-outcome statement.  Bonus points for willingness to take a stab at a probability point-estimate for that statement, and more points for being explicit about uncertainty.
  • Advice about what to do in a given real-world situation.  Since most empirical scholars focus on establishing ceteris-paribus relationships across a large number of cases, practicing applying that work to a specific case usually requires a bit of a mindset shift, but adopting that mindset is necessary for any applied work.
  • Analytical methodology, which finds its way into applied work through a variety of means. Some of these means include PhD students being hired into federal government, ongoing professionalization for current civil-servant analysts, and academics working as government contractors or other forms of participation on a per-project basis.
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Trump’s Coronavirus Response Shows How Much Leaders Matter

This is a guest post by Richard W. Maass, an Associate Professor at the University of Evansville. His research focuses on international security, US foreign policy, terrorism, and diplomatic history. He has a forthcoming book on how democracy and xenophobia limited US territorial expansion (Cornell UP, May 2020).

The international experience of COVID-19 will have many implications for international relations. Scholars have already begun discussing its implications for IR theories, hegemonic stability theory, and measures of state capacity. When all is said and done, I think the central lesson will be how much individual leaders matter.

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no, Realism cannot explain the international Covid-19 response

As the world rushes to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, international relations scholars have a lot to say. We are not public health experts, or pathologists. But we can speak to the way states respond to common threats and the political process needed to formulate an effective response. One common reference is the realist idea of self-interest driving state behavior and undermining collective action. Yet, while realism as an inclination can explain what’s going on, Realism as a scholarly theory cannot.

Many scholars and general observers of international relations have reacted with frustration at state responses to Covid-19. The Trump Administration delayed testing and has provided insufficient information or help to states and communities. Britain’s Boris Johnson vacillated from doing nothing to locking down the country. China failed to be sufficiently transparent during the early stages of the pandemic.

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Deconstructing the blob

“The blob” has become a common term during the Democratic Primary. The DC foreign policy establishment, so the argument goes, has an overwhelming effect on all who engage with it, sucking them in and spitting them out as appendages to its militaristic, status quo policies. There is some truth to this idea, but it has come to encompass too much, and the term is losing its value. It may be worth deconstructing what we meant by “the blob” and having a real, direct, debate on Demcratic foreign policy.

The Rise of THE BLOB

One of the more popular phrases flung around in the Democratic Primary (at least on the foreign policy side) is “The Blob.” The phrase was coined by Ben Rhodes, a speechwriter turned top national security aide in the Obama Administration. The blob is the “foreign policy establishment.” This includes “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties.” Basically, the blob represents the Washington foreign policy consensus pushing for a robust military presence around the world. Kind of a less refined version of Bacevich’s “Washington Rules.”

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Are the liberal internationalists wrong? On “being nice” and US foreign policy

I got an alert from the Foreign Policy app on my phone the other day: Tunisia had fired its UN ambassador after he opposed Trump’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan.” Tunisian foreign policy doesn’t usually make waves, but this caught my attention. It’s a sign that, while Arab states aren’t enthused about this plan, they are unlikely to push back strongly. It got me thinking about a bigger question: whether Trump will face any costs as the result of his unilateral and aggressive foreign policy, as liberal internationalists might expect. The answer seems to be no, and that has big implications for US foreign policy.

Anyone who was around during the Bush-Obama transition remembers the debate. Liberal internationalists argue the United States has an interest in compromising with other states and working through multilateral institutions like the UN. It’s not just “being nice,” it actually advances US interests better than unilateral actions. We increase our influence with other states, making it more likely they’ll cooperate with us in the future. And we decrease backlash against and anxiety over US power. So, the argument went, the neocon policy of George W. Bush will actually undermine US interests by making it harder to get things done internationally.

The Obama years seemed to validate this argument. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just being Barack Obama. America signed a ground-breaking nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the New START. The United States negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, and was part of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.

Then Trump came. He withdrew from the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement. There are signs New START is going to fall apart. Trump was skeptical of other international commitments, withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty and signalling he may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. The United States left the UN Human Rights Council. Trump was openly disparaging of NATO. And he was generally not nice in his foreign policy, bullying Canada and China over trade agreements, demanding South Korea provide more money for US troops based there.

Based on the logic of liberal internationalism, US influence should be waning. States will tire of Trump’s aggression and stop following US directions. America will find it harder to get anything done.

But…that’s not happening.

There are some signs of waning US influence. The UN General Assembly famously laughed at Trump during a speech, and NATO leaders mocked him behind his back. China seems to be increasing its sway over the UN.

But that doesn’t seem to extend to substantive complications in US foreign policy. Canada still went through with the new US trade deal despite irritation with Trump’s tactics. South Korea has been scrambling to keep Trump happy, even as they’re frustrated with his pressure. And as we saw, Trump’s unilateral and imbalanced Israel-Palestine deal isn’t provoking much anger among Arab leaders.

So what does this mean for liberal internationalism?

One could argue that America is just so powerful it can get away with behavior like this. But that would be an important caveat for liberal internationalism, which often argues that it’s in America’s interest to be nice.

One could also argue Trump is doing long-term damage to America’s influence. Basically, wait for it. This sounds uncomfortably similar to realist defenses of their predictions that the world will balance against a unipolar America, though. With two of three 21st century US Presidents pursuing aggressive unilateral policies, we should be seeing definite signs of strain by now.

But I think it is very possible that liberal internationalists are just wrong. It is not in a states’ interest to be nice in their foreign policy, especially when that states has the resources to be mean. And maybe, as the neocons argued, it is even necessary to be tough when dealing with other states if you want to maintain your influence.

So where does that leave everyone who opposes Trump’s foreign policy?

Well, we could point out that his approach is effective in advancing his Administration’s interests, but those are not necessarily America’s best interests. For example, Trump may succeed in getting NATO to “pay more” for America’s support, but that doesn’t actually help America much. The benefit of multilateralism and cooperation, then, is not that it advances America’s interests; the process of working with other states helps us better understand what those interests are.

Or it may provide further support for the growing restraint crowd. Maybe the only way to lead the world is to be mean. And if we want to be cooperative and helpful, we’ll have to sacrifice some of our expansive interests. So…we sacrifice those expansive interests. If the only way to lead the world is to act like Trump (or George W. Bush), then we must be satisfied with a more restrained foreign policy.

I’m happy to be proved wrong; please feel free to provide evidence of Trump facing real substantive challenges in foreign policy due to his approach.

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