Monthly Archives: August 2011

Realism, Idealism, and Chaos in Libya

A Libyan rebel celebrates victory over Qaddafi in Tripoli.

The apparent victory of Libya’s rebels over the Moammar Qaddafi regime has sparked much celebration but has also raised troubling questions about what comes next.  Specifically, can Libya’s rebels avoid infighting, resist the temptation to seek bloody reprisals against former regime loyalists, and form an effective government that represents Libya’s people?  As foreign policy analyst and former National Security Council official James Lindsay notes in his blog: “These celebrations are as understandable as they are premature. The tyrant is leaving, but who or what replaces him remains to be decided.”

It is likely that there will be at least some period of post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya, and this chaos and uncertainty is viewed differently by the two dominant perspectives on world politics: realism and idealism.  Realists focus on the national interest and emphasize pragmatism, stability, and the maintenance of a balance of power.  They do not favor humanitarian intervention (unless it also promotes their country’s economic, security, or other interests) and they generally view the chaos and uncertainty associated with regime change as more problematic than the continued human rights violations produced by an entrenched, tyrannical, but generally predictable autocracy.  So for American realists, pursuing regime change in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, or elsewhere is a dangerous game that could result in worse outcomes (e.g., more anti-American regimes or chaotic safe havens for terrorists) than the status quo. 

Idealists, on the other hand, focus more on global concerns (including human rights and poverty) and view systematic human rights abuses and repression as a more serious problem than the chaos and uncertainty that regime change normally produces.  For idealists, stability is not valued if it is perceived as unjust, and transformation (albeit risky) is embraced as a viable policy goal.  Idealists are optimistic that democracy and peace can emerge from the chaos, while realists (as is the case on most issues) are more pessimistic about claims that the future will inevitably be brighter.  Noted realist Stephen Walt writes in his blog:

“Whether our intervention was necessary or wise, however, depends on how the post-Qaddafi Libya evolves.  We can all hope that the worst doesn’t happen and that Libya’s new leaders exhibit Mandela-like wisdom and restraint…But it will be no small task to construct a workable government in Libya, given the dearth of effective institutions and the potential divisions among different social groups.  And then there’s all that oil revenue to divide up, which tends to bring out peoples’ worse instincts.  As in Iraq, therefore, ousting a discredited dictator is likely to be the easy part, and the hard part is just beginning.”

What do you think?  Is stability or transformation a wiser foreign policy goal?  Or does it depend on the situation?  Are the “stay out” realists or the “get involved” idealists vindicated by the post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya?

Israel, Gaza, and the Challenge of Deterrence

Israeli medics evacuate a person injured in the attacks of August 18.

Thursday’s deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, allegedly perpetrated by militants from Gaza, illustrate the limits of deterrence.  Deterrence involves the use of threats to prevent undesired actions.  Deterrence threats take the form “don’t do X, or else,” where X is the undesired action and the “or else” is the threatened punishment.

Israel has relied on the threat of costly retaliation to prevent militants in Gaza from attacking Israelis, but recent changes in the security environment have made these deterrence efforts much more difficult.  Specifically, the chaos in post-Mubarak Egypt has reduced Egypt’s ability or willingness to police the Sinai Peninsula, opening up a vast new territory from which Gazans (who can easily escape Gaza through tunnels into Egypt) can attack Israel.

Successful deterrence requires the ability to pinpoint the actor who took the undesired action so that actor may be targeted for retaliation.  However, as noted in a Christian Science Monitor article on Friday, “Unlike attacks launched from Gaza – a small, densely populated territory run by Hamas – attacks launched from the Sinai are potentially harder to trace to a specific group, and thus harder to assign ultimate responsibility for.”

This problem of identification and accountability is the reason why some scholars and policymakers, particularly since 9/11, have concluded that we cannot rely on deterrence to prevent states from giving weapons of mass destruction to non-state, terrorist organizations.  That is, if a state’s leaders believe the weapons it gives to terrorists can’t be traced back to the source, they will not be deterred from doing so.  This, of course, is a key argument in support of preventive war, as articulated by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks.  Preventive war involves striking an enemy (or potential adversary) before the threat has fully materialized.

What other factors besides the problem of identification/accountability may undermine efforts to deter unwanted behavior in world politics?  Is there any way to overcome these problems?  When deterrence cannot be achieved, is preventive war the answer?

Famine in Somalia and the “CNN Effect”

A displaced Somali woman and her malnourished child. The current famine in Somalia has received much less media attention than the 1992 crisis.

On July 20, the UN officially declared a famine in two southern regions of Somalia, and “warned that without action, famine-level conditions could soon spread to the rest of the south.” As Robert Paarlberg writes in The Atlantic, the situation in Somalia is perhaps more dire than it was 19 years ago, when 300,000 Somalis starved to death. Not only is this famine worse, but the militant Islamist group Al Shabab is keeping needed food aid from the people, “distrusting food-aid workers as spies,” and spreading propaganda that “it is better to starve than to accept help from the West.”

But this creeping humanitarian disaster has, as yet, attracted much less media attention than the 1992 famine or more sudden recent disasters such as the tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti.  This media “blackout” has hampered fundraising by aid groups, notes a recent New York Times piece entitled “Off Media Radar, Famine Garners Few Donations”:

“Relief organizations say the discrepancies underscore the pivotal role the media plays in spurring fund raising after disasters. The famine in Africa has had to compete with the wrangling over the debt ceiling, the mobile phone hacking scandals in Britain, the killings in Norway and, in Africa itself, the birth of a new country, the Republic of South Sudan.  `I’m asking myself where is everybody and how loud do I have to yell and from what mountaintop,’ said Caryl Stern, chief executive of the United States Fund for Unicef, a fund raising arm for the organization. ‘The overwhelming problem is that the American public is not seeing and feeling the urgency of this crisis.’”

Beyond stimulating greater private donations (the focus of this article) can the media actually drive governments to intervene in humanitarian crises?  This question surrounds research on the CNN effect–the alleged ability of the media (particularly television news) to arouse public attention and compel government action.  Alleged examples of the CNN effect include the 1992-94 U.S. intervention in (and withdrawal from) Somalia and U.S./British intervention in Northern Iraq (1991).  But political scientists disagree about whether such an effect exists and how strong it is; for a good review of this research, see this article by Eytan Gilboa in International Studies Perspectives. As Gilboa notes, despite ongoing debates among policymakers, journalists, and scholars, the empirical evidence supporting the CNN effect is “mixed and confusing.”  There does appear to be a correlation between heightened media coverage and intervention, but whether this is a causal relationship (and the direction of causation) remains unclear.

Will large-scale intervention to deal with this humanitarian crisis only occur when the media places it on the agenda of policymakers?  Even if media coverage dramatically increases, would the United States and other great powers necessarily get involved?  What are the limits of the CNN effect?

The Lack of Women in Foreign Policy Circles: Causes and Consequences

Hillary Clinton was preceded by Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, but is this a glaring exception to a "good old boys" club? How prominent are women in the foreign policy establishment?

A recent article in Foreign Policy entitled City of Men highlights the “staggering absence” of women in the United States foreign policy community (including the State Department, Defense Department, the military, think tanks, and academia).   Some of the key findings from author Micah Zenko’s research are as follows:

* only 23% of international relations professors are women

* only 16% of the Pentagon’s 129 “senior defense officials” are women

* the percentage of female officers does not reach 20% in any U.S. military branch (ranging from 19% in the Air Force to 6% in the Marines)

* women make up 22% of the senior leaders at the State Department, 29% of ambassadors abroad, and 29% of senior foreign service positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

* women hold only 21% of the policy-related positions at foreign policy oriented think tanks

Why are women so woefully underrepresented at these institutions?  Zenko suggests three reasons: (1) women may be less interested in researching and writing about hard power, the predominant method used in foreign policy, (2) this gender imbalance reinforces itself as men (consciously or unconsciously) select other men for key positions and women feel uncomfortable in these male-dominated settings, and (3) women may be less willing or able to take on these extraordinarily time-intensive jobs given that they are frequently the ones bearing a disproportionate share of the burden in raising families.  An article by former U.S. foreign service officer Patricia Kushlis suggests reason #2 may be the primary culprit; she cites the experiences of a foreign service officer who found that “nice girls” were labeled overly pliable and assertive women were labeled pushy and unstable in their evaluation reports.  In a follow-up piece Zenko noted that several women told him the problem was not a lack of interest in hard power solutions, but in the “predominant Washington-centric focus” of America’s foreign policy community.  One of Zenko’s colleagues told him “Women are more likely to see the other side´s point of view,” and “Women see less of a zero-sum game.”

This brings us to the question of consequences.  How is the lack of women in key foreign policy positions–in the U.S. and elsewhere–affecting international relations?  Liberal feminism argues that women and men will behave generally the same when they reach the pinnacle of power (such scholars cite Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and other assertive female leaders to debunk the notion that having women in charge would somehow make the world a more peaceful or understanding place).  But difference feminism argues there are real differences in the way men and women approach world politics.  Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, cites the work of Anne-Marie Slaughter to suggest that “our increasingly networked, horizontal world may privilege the brains and societal training that women — who are prepared to be relationship-builders and nurturers — receive.”   Hurlburt also notes that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly built a “special circle of relationships with other women leaders” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “hasn’t shied away from saying that her gender makes her more determined to speak out about war-time atrocities committed against women in Congo and more focused on how women’s equality and opportunity can lift up entire societies economically and politically.”

What do you think?  What difference would it make (if any) if women gained greater representation in the foreign policy establishment?  What is the solution to this gender imbalance, and how long would it take to achieve?

Economic Globalization Meets Shaky Economies: Fasten Your Seatbelts

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday, when the Dow plunged more than 500 points.

Dramatic developments over the last few days have once again highlighted the interconnectedness of the world’s economies and the ease with which economic problems in one corner of the globe can quickly spread to others. Globalization refers to the integration of markets, cultures, and information networks and it has accelerated in recent decades with advances in communication technologies and increased global trade.

As reviewed in this timeline from BBC news, the 2007-2008 global financial crisis began with the sub-prime mortgage collapse in the United States, but economic turmoil quickly spread to Europe and beyond as banks that had invested in mortgage-backed securities suffered serious losses.  Similarly, the debt problems of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal since 2009 led to a decline in the value of the euro and have thrown the entire 17-country eurozone into crisis.

On Thursday stocks plunged on Wall Street; the Dow fell over 500 points in the biggest single day loss since 2008. Interestingly, most analysts attributed the selloff not primarily to concerns about the American economy, but to fears about the solvency of Italy and Spain–the third and fourth largest eurozone economies behind Germany and France.  The threat of a “contagion” effect is highlighted in this explainer from CNN:

“…Anxieties over Italy’s economic future have led many to wonder what its default might mean for Europe and beyond, with the dreaded word ‘contagion’ on many lips. [Former IMF executive board member Domenico] Lombardi believes the current situation is serious. ‘If you affect Italy, you can really weaken the euro significantly,’ he says, describing it as the ‘weakest link’ among Europe’s big economies.  Worse, he says, the European Union, the IMF and the European rescue fund do not have enough money to bail it out as they did smaller European economies — sparking a potential domino effect. So far the crisis has been limited to Greece, Ireland and Portugal, he said.  ‘But of course if the crisis was to hit Italy, it would spread also to France, to the rest of the euro area, and of course you would have contagion to the U.S. through the banking system.’ The huge public debt held by the United States also would make it more vulnerable to speculators, he added.”

How Standard and Poor’s decision (announced late Friday) to downgrade the U.S. credit rating will affect the global economy is the subject of great speculation this weekend. Officials from the G-7 and G-20 groups of major economies are holding conference calls this weekend to plan for further turmoil in the financial markets.

Is there anything individual countries can do, in a globalized world, to limit the damage they may suffer from a possible global contagion, or are they and their citizens at the mercy of the world economy?  Could protectionist trade practices and other tools of economic nationalism safeguard the U.S. or would this only make problems worse?

Credible Commitment, Painful Triggers, and the Debt Ceiling Compromise

President Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011, which threatens automatic spending cuts distasteful to both parties.

The resolution of the debt ceiling standoff in Congress provides a nice illustration of the problem of credible commitment and the unusual steps that are required for political leaders to overcome this problem.

The problem of credible commitment is ubiquitous in domestic and international politics–it afflicts individual leaders, political parties, countries, ethnic groups, and IGOs–and it centers on the difficulty actors have in credibly (believably) promising to do something that appears not to be in their interests.  For example, Israel could seek to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians by promising that if the Palestinian state had no army or foreign troops on its territory, Israel would never reoccupy the Palestinian territories.  But given Israel’s military superiority, its past behavior, and its likely desire to reoccupy territories such as the West Bank if it perceived threats coming from those territories, this commitment is not inherently believable.

In order to overcome this problem and make an inherently unbelievable threat or promise believable, an actor needs to set up mechanisms that increase the likelihood that it will abide by its commitment.  This has been called a strategically self-imposed constraint, and it involves “tying one’s hands” in some way so that backing down from the commitment becomes difficult.  In the game of chicken, referenced in a previous blog post on the debt limit showdown, this would involve removing the steering wheel and throwing it out the window to signal that even if one wanted to swerve it was now impossible.

Public pledges to act a certain way create audience costs (particularly in democracies) such that backing down will make the leader look weak or untrustworthy to key constituencies and carry serious political costs.  In the case of the U.S. Congress’ promise to cut the deficit, public pledges were not deemed sufficient constraints and Congress resorted to an interesting “trigger mechanism” that will unleash automatic, deep cuts in the event Congress fails to agree on specific spending cuts.  Significantly, the automatic cuts would slash $600 billion from defense spending (anathema to Republicans) and $600 billion from domestic programs (a bitter pill for Democrats).  The hope is that these blunt automatic cuts would be so distasteful that even a bitterly divided Congress would keep its word and reach agreement on a plan to cut spending by $1.5 trillion.  As an Economist blog post summarizing the deal concluded, “The thinking is that these cuts would inflict such pain on both Republican and Democratic pet priorities that they will labour mightily to come up with an alternative.”

However, as one advocate of a balanced budget pointed out, “Anything Congress does, Congress can undo. They can’t really bind themselves. You really have to have a political will to make these things work or they won’t.”  Is this critic right?  Will this trigger threat prove effective, and if not, is there any way for Congress to bind itself?