Saturday, March 24, 2018

in an alternate universe

President Trump's tactics in foreign policy could work. By raising the prospect of unilateral American military action against North Korea, despite the horrendous costs, he might make Kim Jong-un more willing to accept some kind of diplomatic outcome. Maybe the DPRK "peace offensive" is not just to buy more time to build warheads and missiles but maybe also to negotiate a settlement.

Maybe Trump's disparagement of NATO can serve as an added incentive for member countries to spend more on the common defense.

Maybe the prospect of a collapse of NAFTA will lead to improvements for some U.S. trading sectors.[Though it is hard to imagine Trump defending any compromises, anything less than total surrender by Canada and Mexico. He signed, but loudly criticized, the compromise spending package.]

Maybe the threat of tariffs on aluminum and steel will prompt concessions on other trade issues with friendly nations now given a few weeks to lobby and plead.

Maybe the threat of $60 billion in other tariffs to punish the Chinese for thefts of intellectual property and related trade actions will lead Beijing, which has shown amazing restraint so far, to take steps to reduce its trade deficit with America.

Maybe the threat to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal will succeed in getting the other signatories to pressure Iran for additional restraints on its missile programs and maybe modest changes to the nuclear provisions.

I can envision a world in which many of these outcomes are possible. But the world we do live in also includes a president who is unpredictable, inconsistent, and unreliable. Why should any foreign leader trust that Trump would keep any agreement he signs?  Why should even our closest partners expect Trump to follow through on commitments that become politically unpopular? The U.S. president is weakening his own leverage and undermining his own policies by his radical behaviors.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

we've been warned

I've stayed more optimistic than many of my academic colleagues when assessing the future of American government, politics, and democracy. I guess because I have witnessed the triumph of good governance [Watergate], of civil rights [1964-65],  of grand budget bargains [1990], of responsible congressional oversight [Hughes-Ryan], I am willing to believe that our system can overcome anger, gridlock, and polarization. After reading the sobering analysis How Democracies Die, by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, I am far less confident.

Their basic argument is that democracies die far more often from slow erosion than sudden coups. There are usually warning indicators: rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game; denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; toleration or encouragement of violence; and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Even democratically-inclined politicians may morph into autocrats for what they see as higher goals. How easy it often is for them to "capture the referees," buy off opponents, and rewrite the rules of the game.

The key conditions for preserving democracies, the authors argue, are mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. We are losing the first because more and more voters and politicians say that their opponents are threats who must be stopped at all costs. We are also losing the second as more and more norms of political behavior are tossed aside. Abuse of the Senate filibuster is one example; the repudiation of the filibuster by questionable parliamentary tactics is another.

I used to think that hyperpartisanship and extreme party polarization could be changed only by the voters, by rejecting the rhetoric and tactics of the demagogues. Now I'm persuaded that it requires political leaders who reject the extremists early and often, excluding them from their parties even at the risk of losing an election. Those were the tactics of the few examples Levitsky and Ziblatt give of nations that avoided extremism when their neighbors were succumbing. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

books that changed my mind

I was exchanging reading recommendations with a friend and realized that there have been a few books in recent years that actually changed my mind regarding what I thought happened in history. I read a lot of disappointing books -- too shallow, too heavy, too incomplete -- but I generally enjoy revisionist historians, especially if they have a provocative thesis and ample evidence. So here's a short list:

World War I: I'm now persuaded that Russia shares much of the blame for the start of the Great War by its policies to dominate Turkey and by mobilization during the July 1914 crisis. After deep dives into long-hidden Russian archives, Sean McMeekin showed that even Barbara Tuchman got the sequence wrong by relying on the falsified memoirs of the Russian Foreign Minister. McMeekin's books on Russian diplomacy and the July crisis changed my view of German war guilt, though Austria-Hungary still deserves shared blame with Russia.

FDR's boldness: I had long admired Franklin Roosevelt's strategic bravery in maneuvering the United States in support of Britain and against Hitler, believing that he was just ahead of public opinion, skillfully pulling it along. Lynne Olson''s Those Angry Days persuaded me that, much of the time, FDR vacillated, doing less than many of his advisors urged and hoped. He still was a great leader, just not quite as bold as I had thought.

Slave Power's influence on foreign policy:  I never thought that slavery and its perpetuation had much impact on American foreign policy until I read Matthew Karp's eye-opening history. Karp details how the South dominated key foreign policy posts and consciously advocated policies to protect and even extend slavery in the decades before the War of the Rebellion. Defenders of slavery really had a "deep state."

The Revolutionary War:  I used to have a typical American high school student's view of our war for independence as a story of brave patriots, toughened at Valley Forge and led by George Washington, who finally triumphed at Yorktown. Two books have changed my understanding of that conflict. One was Andrew Jackson O'Shaunessy's study of British politics during the conflict, The Men Who Lost America. He argues that the British gave up for broader strategic reasons. Add to this Holger Hoock's Scars of Independence, which describes the local violence on both sides and the mistreatment of Loyalists during and after the war. The good guys won, but they won dirty.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

unqualified president makes good

It's hard to imagine the shock people must have felt on April 12, 1945 when they learned of the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the succession of Harry S[for nothing] Truman. He had been a Senator since 1934 and Vice President for almost 12 weeks, but his image was that of a hack politician, a failed haberdasher, a man small in mind, body, and accomplishments. He knew little about foreign affairs, nothing about the atomic bomb program, and had met only twice with FDR since being named his running mate.

Lacking much formal education, Truman was a voracious reader, especially of history. He was well aware of his shortcomings, and was determined to overcome them. A nearly day-by-day study of his first four months in the White House chronicles his efforts to become an effective president. A.J. Baime's The Accidental President is a dramatic story of a man whose qualifications were questioned but who, within those four months, acted decisively and humbly and wisely, and quickly won an astounding 87% approval rating in the polls.

Truman read the ponderous briefing books before meeting foreign leaders. He listened to disparate advisors. He was willing to make prompt decisions and not look back. He made some intemperate comments in private, but not in public. He wanted the assurance of many of his old Missouri cronies and appointed many to offices for which they weren't qualified. But he proved and earned his own qualifications for the presidency. Hurrah for Harry!

Friday, December 15, 2017

the wars after the armistice

The First World War was an enormous catastrophe, both for those directly involved in the conflict and for the rest of us who suffered from the failed peace and numerous other wars spawned by it. I've spent a lot of my professional life studying the outbreak and conduct of that war, but only little on its immediate aftermath. I used to think that, maybe except for the fighting and power struggle in Russia, the war basically ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

I was thus shocked to read a paragraph in Lawrence Freedman's excellent new book, The Future of War, a study of changing views and practices of war. He discusses fictional accounts of future wars as well as academic and governmental studies. By the way, the novelists often did much better than the professionals.

Freedman's surprising observation:

Between 1917 and 1920 Europe experienced some twenty-seven violent transfers of political power. In addition to the economic blockade of the defeated powers, maintained until peace terms were agreed and which led to misery and starvation, and the devastating impact of the Spanish flu on a weakened population, some four million people died in Europe as a direct result of the wars that followed the armistice.
The "war to end war" failed to do that in the short run as well as in the long run.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

how many wars are we in today? 19

The White House released its twice-yearly war powers report to Congress this week, listing nineteen conflicts in which U.S. armed forces have been deployed "equipped for combat."  In addition to the 16 conflicts listed in June, the president added operations in Lebanon, Djibouti, and the Philippines, for a total of 19 operations.

The report has fewer specific numbers than in the past, but it still serves as a checklist of activities that put American military personnel at risk. There's no mention of Korea or other nations where we have permanently based forces since those have been established and supported by Congress through regular laws.

Despite its flaw, the war powers act of 1973 has served it chief purpose of preventing American involvement in major, sustained military operations without congressional approval. The wars in Iraq, twice, and Afghanistan were authorized by Congress, and all other major military adventures were greatly limited in size and lasted no more than 3 or 4 months.  It's time, however, for a new authorization to deal with ISIS and affiliates.

using the military for "social experiments"

Another history lesson: we often forget, if we ever learned, that the U.S. armed forces have been a vehicle for social cohesion and national purpose throughout our history. Not always, not everywhere, and not without periods of backsliding. But as this useful summary reminds us, African-Americans were recruited and fought in the Revolutionary War and in each conflict thereafter.
This “social experiment” was, of course, driven largely by necessity; African-Americans were again prohibited from joining the Army or Marine Corps after 1790 — not the Navy, where many served as sailors during the disastrous War of 1812. Even Andrew Jackson raised two battalions of African-American soldiers for the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the last major confrontation in the conflict with Britain. The openness to build an integrated force in times of need reflected American commanders’ desire to advance a strong nation united in common defense of its Constitution.
Immigrants were also used in great numbers in World War I.
By the time the Treaty of Versailles brought the Great War to a close, half a million immigrants from 46 nations had fought in the U.S. armed forces — a whopping 18% of the country’s fighting force — in pursuit of expedited citizenship, according to the National Park Service. They fought alongside 350,000 African-Americans who served with the American Expeditionary Forces, including the 42,000 assigned to the 92nd and 93rd Divisions infantry units that fought during World War I alongside French troops.
The southern-dominated Army reimposed restrictions on African-Americans during the interwar period, but accepted their inclusion to meet the demands of World War II.

The article does not mention other "social experiments," including the efforts to provide opportunities for less-educated enlistees and draftees in the 1960s.

Even though many in the military resisted providing service opportunities for African-Americans, and women, and gays, the services saluted and obeyed when civilian leadership insisted, and I believe the results have been worthwhile.