Tag: rant

An Academic Woman’s Rant of the Week: Negotiation

Sorry, faithful Duck readers, for the radio silence – I’ve been traveling for much of the last month and then – ugh – just started teaching a daily undergrad class.  I promise – real blog posts are coming!  In the meantime, I wanted to fill you in on some information I’ve been digesting in the last month.  The information should be enough for all of us to “rant” about.

Continue reading


Wednesday Morning Election Reaction

One nice thing about a status-quo election: it doesn’t leave international-affairs experts with a great deal to prognosticate on. It will be interesting to see if the administration does, indeed, show more “flexibility” on BMD cooperation with Moscow and if it makes a push on Israel-Palestine. We should see a fresh wave of talent coming into the administration. While the money right now is on John Kerry for Secretary of State, I’m more interested to see if people like Colin Kahl come back into the bureaucracy.

My main reaction last night was relief. And pride that the people of Maryland endorsed same-sex marriage at the ballot box. But the 2012 election makes clear how far the GOP has strayed into the epistemological wilderness. In 2009 the Republican elite made a decision to destroy Obama by blocking his center-right agenda. On issue after issue, the Democrats had adopted Republican policy positions: on health care reform, on the war on terror, on reducing carbon emissions via “cap-and-trade,” and on immigration reform. As the joke during the closing days of the 2008 campaign went, the difference between “socialism” and “faith in free markets” amounted to nothing more than a slightly higher rate on income in excess of $250,000.

The GOP doubled down on this rhetoric. The conservative movement adopted the strategies of the 1990s that they’d deployed against the Clinton Administration. These strategies, however, played out in a different context.

Continue reading


It’s All Our Fault

I’ve had it. Recently I was asked to review a book that will not be named for a journal that will not be mentioned. It was by an author with a pretty good reputation with an excellent press on a subject that I am well informed on. (I won’t mention names. Dan can take him or her to the woodshed later.) I thought I would be doing the field a service and forcing myself to read what I thought would be an entertaining book that I might not otherwise have the time to read. The problem: it is f&ck*ng mess.

Actually that really isn’t the real issue. The real problem is that I am absolutely positive that this book will receive great reviews and probably win a prize. It has glowing blurbs on the back by luminaries in the field that are entirely unjustified and indicate either 1) they have not read the book, or 2) they have read the book but are friends with the author, or 3) they have not read the book, are not friends with the author but have all suffered major brain injuries within the last year. But it is the kind of thing that passes for good qualitative research in international relations right now. And that sucks.

I will be more specific, presenting what I see as the faults of this book, but which really characterize many if not most books in this vein. I will offer them in a positive light, as admonitions for young scholars to do better work, with enough profanity to capture my indignant rage and serious intent.

1) Do not be a bad historian. If you are going to do macro-historical work that relies on comparative case studies, be ready to read at least one goddamn primary document. I am really, really tired of seeing book after book that relies on secondary sources. This is academic hearsay. It is not admissible. And do not, under any circumstances, quote some historian’s conclusion as evidence for your argument. Get off your ass. Do the work. Historians’ work has all the problems that ours does. They are not the Pope.

If you write a book in international relations on a subject where the country’s official secrecy act is no longer in effect and you do not use primary sources, you have no excuse. And even if there is such a law, that probably means it is a relatively contemporary subject. People do have mouths. They can be interviewed. So unless your subject is how it feels to be part of a mass genocide or the politics of public policy towards the deaf and mute, this rule applies to you.

2) Do not be a statistician, much less a bad one. Show causality. The whole point of doing qualitative work, as opposed to statistical, is usually to trace a process. So get out your pencil and trace it. Don’t simply engage in some kind of half-assed correlative argument that this factor is present when this factor is present so you are right. We want to see not just the smoking gun, but the casings, the bullet, the body, and the hand on the trigger. This will probably require some reference to primary documents. See #1. If you ‘t do that you are just a statistician with a small N and no math skills.

3) Do not fall in love with your own ideas. This way your theory and evidence will match. Almost every book or article starts with an idea that is interesting to its originator, and the problem is that idea is a hard one to break up with. Almost any initial hunch is wrong in some way, even if there is also probably something to it. My first book looked for a common partisan alignment on foreign policy across countries. Didn’t exist. My second book looked for the role that identity played in U.S. multilateralism. None.

But it is very clear when you read a lot of academic work that that love never dies and authors will do anything to maintain that relationship. They will twist the truth, ignore obvious inconsistencies, or make excuses for their argument. Don’t do that. Marry. Get divorced. Marry new trophy spouse. Let the initial idea take you into unchartered waters and see where it takes you because that is inevitably somewhere new, but also more interesting.

4) Do a proper literature review. Make sure you have exhausted all the different ways that someone might go about explaining your explanandum and deal with them. Decisively. Do not pretend they are not there. It is rude and also lacks academic integrity.

5) Avoid the two-by-two table. It is a common joke at academic talks that all the great arguments involve two-by-two tables. I am instantly skeptical of every piece I ever read with a 2×2. 90% of the time they are terrible. I think that qualitatively-oriented academics are sensitive about the criticisms they get for lacking parsimony and generalizability and seek to armor themselves by creating simplistic typologies instead of learning math. That is stupid. Embrace context or go to stats camp.

I do both quantitative and qualitative work, but my best work is the latter. We can complain all we want, and I have, by the dominance in the field of certain ‘isms’ and methodologies, but we have to bear part of the blame. They have a point about our fuzzy conclusions and lack of rigor. We do a lot of really bad work, and we have to get better.

This has to be a personal code. The fact that I am reviewing a book with one of the best presses in the business that makes all of these mistakes indicates that there is no professional incentive to do any of this. Only Dan checks people’s footnotes. It must come from your own sense of personal integrity. But I will be watching…..


A Nitpicky Critique of The Fat Tail’s Application of IR Theory

A while back I started reading The Fat Tail, a book about political risk by Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer (who also pens The Call for Foreign Policy) and Preston Keat, but couldn’t really get into it. I recently picked it back up and have been plowing through. I am reserving my final judgment until I’ve had a chance to complete it. However, one area has already irked me enough that I wanted to post a (rather long) comment: their treatment of international relations theory.

In Chapter 3, Bremmer and Keat outline a number of frameworks and theories that political risk analysis can (and should) consider when conducting a forecasting exercise. On page 47, the authors briefly outline the three major strains of international relations theory and attempt to illustrate how they might be applied to questions of political risk by asking how each theory would guide a US response to Iran’s nuclear program. First up, realism:

[Realism’s] foundation is premised on the conviction that states exist in an anarchic world, one with no international force or institution capable of arbitrating disputes between and among them (me: so far, so good). As a result, states exist in perpetual fear of being attacked, overtaken, or conquered by rival states (the “security dilemma”).

That last part is not correct. What they describe follows from the condition of anarchy states find themselves in. The security dilemma describes the process by which two states, neither of which have any desire or intention of initiating military hostility with each other, create conditions that facilitate conflict since the steps states take to increase their own security (e.g. expansion of military capabilities) necessarily decreases the security of other states. State A arms in order to protect itself, which leads State B to arm itself in order to protect itself in case State A decides to attack State B, etc, etc. The fear itself is not the security dilemma; rather, the actions taken as a result of anarchy (which includes fear of conquest) lead states to actually decrease their security by feeding arms races and spirals of insecurity. To be fair, the authors do describe this dynamic but they never correct the earlier misstatement regarding the security dilemma.

Ok, ok, minor point you might say. My real bone of contention lies with how they try to apply realism to their chosen scenario. Bremmer and Keat suggest that realists might provide two conflicting policy prescriptions to deal with Iran’s nuclear program:

One might argue that it is irresponsible to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and insist that it must be prevented at all costs and by any means necessary.

I am not so sure. While there are various strains of realism, most would agree that states are rational actors that look to maximize their interests (or, at a minimum, their security). As such, it isn’t clear why realists would see a nuclear Iran as utterly unacceptable. Unless one lacks faith in the logic and power of a nuclear deterrent, a nuclear Iran posses little threat to the United States. Regionally, Iran would have to contend with Israel and their nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, simply gaining a nuclear capability would not propel Iran on a path of potential parity with a declining US. As such, I can’t see any rationale for a preemptive attack from the hegemonic war literature.

Another might argue that Iran’s neighbors should develop nuclear arsenals of their own to restore the regional balance of power–and, therefore, the region’s stability.

Yes, except that already happened–when Israel acquired a nuclear capability a few decades ago. Furthermore, the authors couched the discussion in terms of what the US should do. I fail to see why the US needs to encourage any regional players to develop nuclear weapons when the US could deploy their deterrent directly against potential Iranian action. (Yes, extended deterrence in the nuclear realm is not straightforward, but it is more realistic than promoting additional proliferation.)

On to liberal institutionalism:

Liberal institutionalists share the realist belief in an anarchic world, but they believe that international institutions (such as treaties and organizations) can and do provide a framework that can mitigate the security dilemma…Neoliberal institutionalists argue that institutions can overcome fears of cheating and unequal gains and allow cooperation to emerge between states.

I think they do a decent job summarizing liberal variants of institutionalism here and how it differs from realism. What I disagree with is how they apply institutionalism to the Iran scenario:

[…] a neoliberal institutionalist could provide varied policy recommendations, though these would emphasize a multilateral approach to the issue, preferably one involving diplomatic consensus reached within existing international organizations like the U.N. Security Council.

Sure, maybe, but this is a rather unimaginative application. The other approach would be to focus less on gaining international consensus on punitive measures via global institutions and more on how the US could leverage (or possibly design) international and regional organizations in such a way as to alter Iran’s preferences for acquiring a nuclear capability. If neoliberal institutionalism is all about exploiting absolute gains in order to affect actor’s choices (as the authors suggest), I find it odd that their application doesn’t speak to this at all. Can institutions (global or regional) be exploited to increase Iran’s security, thereby negating one reason for a nuclear program? Can concomitant financial incentives be baked in as well, altering Iran’s ‘payoff structure’ so as to make it less likely that their program will proceed? Those are the questions I believe a neoliberal institutionalist would more likely ask.

Finally, constructivism:

Constructivism is a radical departure from both the realist and neoliberal institutionalist traditions in international relations. An outgrowth of literary deconstruction and postmodernism, it focuses on how ideas, social identities, and theoretical concepts are created and employed in strategic politics…The main idea is that nothing is foreordained in international politics and that strategy and geopolitics are heavily dependent on how they are conceptualized.

I admit that describing constructivism is difficult, mainly because it isn’t so much a coherent paradigm as it is an approach that has many variations and, in some cases, divergent applications. I could write an entire book on what constructivism is or isn’t. Instead, I’ll focus once again on their application of the theory:

Our hypothetical constructivist analyst could address the question of what the United States or the international community should do in the case of Iran’s nuclear arsenal in a number of ways–from recommending direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, to regime change in that country. Overall, constructivism is more a critique than a school of thought and does not lend itself to policy prescriptions.

So, basically, a constructivist could recommend pretty much anything in this situation? There is no way for a constructivist to use insights from that approach to decide between diplomatic engagement and regime change? I am not sure how much the authors have engaged the constructivist literature and/or thought this through. More than likely (and this is pure speculation) they felt obliged to throw constructivism into the mix and either didn’t think all that much of it (given the line that it is ‘more a critique’) or did not bother to grapple with the large amount of constructivist scholarship that attempts to both apply the theory to specific policy issues and empirically test the theory against competing explanations. One could easily have picked up a copy of the edited volume Security Communities, published in 1998, to get an idea for how a constructivist might approach the issue of a nuclear Iran.

What’s stranger is that Bremmer and Keat go on in the next section to laud praise upon the ‘foreign policy analysis’ approach. They cite Kennan’s famous X article as a great example of how to apply foreign policy analysis to a situation:

[Kennan’s article] detailed the sources of Soviet behavior as extensions of its Communist ideology and of Russian history. The article described how Russia’s geopolitical condition–as a flat, open landmass lacking natural barriers to invasion–left it perpetually insecure in the face of potential marauders…As a consequence, Kennan argued, Russia had always sought expansion, both to create buffers and to fulfill a sense of “manifest destiny.”

While Kennan was widely regarded as a foreign policy “realist”, the analysis above fits in quite well with variants of constructivism. A focus on a state’s past experience and ideology to describe it’s decision-making process and likely actions fits right in with most strains of constructivism. Additionally, by noting that Soviet policy wasn’t simply a result of the condition of anarchy, but rather followed from their unique history, experiences (particularly with other states), and their ideology at the time, Kennan is going beyond Bremmer and Keat’s realist discussion.

Are these descriptions and applications–spread across only a few pages–essentially straw men? Sure, and the authors admit as much in a footnote in the back of the book. However, even while dealing with straw men I think the authors could have done a better job describing and applying the various theories, if for no other reason than to provide readers with a better summary of IR theory and to help them think about how one might incorporate insights from these theories into their analysis of political events.

And thus endeth the rant.


Modern conservativism and all that…

Andrew Sullivan Conor Friedersdorf thinks that Mark Levin “offers a serious response” to Peter Berkowitz’s criticisms of his recent book. I disagree.
Here’s Berkowitz:

Indeed, one could scarcely devise a better example of the imprudence that Burke dedicated his Reflections on the Revolution in France to exposing and combating than Levin’s direct appeal to abstract notions of natural right to justify a radical reversal of today’s commonly held convictions about the federal government’s basic responsibilities.

Levin’s response?

Edmund Burke, who Berkowitz misunderstands and, therefore, wrongly cites for his proposition, supported the American Revolution (while rejecting the French Revolution). The American Revolution can hardly be described as a moderate reaction to England’s usurpations.

I should hardly need to elaborate the problem here. But I’m taking a break from academic writing, so I will.

Burke supported the aspirations of colonial Americans because he understood them to be claiming the rights they were owed as English subjects. The question of moderation concerns not whether the colonists resorted to arms, but their aims. The French Revolution, on the other hand, comprised a “whole cloth” revolution that sought radical changes in the character of government and society. The result, he predicted, would be quite bloody.

I understand that the struggle over how to understand Burke matters to conservatives. Burke is a crucial thinker for modern American conservativism, a “conservativism” quite different from its common European variants, insofar as it seeks to conserve a particular historical moment in the evolution of liberal thought and liberal order.

Thus, Berkowtiz and Levin–whether for genuine or rhetorical reasons–accept Burke’s rectitude ad arguendo. In matter of fact, I think Burke greatly underestimated the radical character of the American Revolution, and I am not convinced that, absent the French Revolution, the ideals of the American Revolution would have achieved their current global success.

Regardless, Berkowtiz clearly gets the better of Levin. Indeed, I don’t see Levin’s response as a serious rebuttal to Berkowitz’s concern: that the political program embraced by Levin-style conservatives is antithetical to Burkean conservative principles. That program calls for a massive transformation in the character of contemporary American political and economic life. This is precisely the kind of transformation that would raise the alarm for a contemporary Burkean conservative.

I emphasize the word “contemporary” for a reason. One can, of course, go back and read Burke’s description of all that is grand about contemporary English values (yes, I’m aware that Burke was Irish), measure the twenty-first century United States against it, and, as a result of the rather glaring differences, call for a return to “Burkean principles.” Perhaps Burke might do the same if transported to the year 2009 and set down in Washington, DC.

But in doing so, he would abandon a Burkean political philosophy. The ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ principles advocated by Burke include a respect for the wisdom sedimented in existing traditions, a skepticism of the capacity of human reason to design superior alternatives, a fear of the consequences for civil and moral life of radical political programs, and a resulting embrace of reformist measures that often amount to slow, deliberate, and gradual tinkering with existing institutions.

Levin also completely drops the ball with respect to Berkowitz’s warnings about the tensions between the self-regulating market and civil society, let alone conservative social order. Levin simply natters on about what conservatives believe:

But the Conservative believes that the individual is more than a producer and consumer of material goods. He exists within the larger context of the civil society — which provides for an ordered liberty….

The Conservative believes that while the symmetry between the free market and the civil society is imperfect — that is, not all developments resulting from individual interactions contribute to the overall well-being of the civil society — one simply cannot exist without the other

Yet no amount of nattering can disguise the overwhelming empirical evidence of the last 150 years: that unbridled capitalism profoundly corrodes conservative social mores, and that the “creative destruction of the market” often devastates civil society.

The problem isn’t so much that conservatives need to figure out what their principles mean in a “postmodern” order, but that the present-day conservative movements lacks a viable program for applying their principles to the post-1945 order.

We had the Reagan Revolution, which, as Sullivan Friedersdorf points out, left the welfare state intact and fiscal conservatism on life support.

We had the 1994-2006 period, which ultimately amounted to a giant exercise in crony capitalism, gave us the single largest expansion to date of the welfare state since Johnson’s Great Society, and enacted a decidedly anti-Burkean foreign policy.

Now we have the alternative embraced by Levin and his ilk, which offers a picture of the world as a struggle between two great abstract principles and advocates, in consequence of this Manichean vision, a revolutionary program guided by, as far as I can tell, a utopian vision of life in the early Nineteenth Century.

With the Democratic tide at its likely high-water mark, I think all of us–liberals, conservatives, progressives, moderates–have an enormous stake in the emergence of a conservatism worthy of the adjective “contemporary.” Let’s hope that behind the noise of conservative radio, the intellectual unseriousness of The Corner, and the neo-conservativism[*] of the Weekly Standard, such a program incubates in the fertile minds of thoughtful conservatives.

*Neo-conservatism once held the promise of being such a movement, but it traded in Theodore Roosevelt for George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑