Wednesday, June 13, 2018

wise retreat

Give President Trump some credit. He found a face-saving way to retreat from his threats of "fire and fury." The world can breathe a sigh of relief that there will be no catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula ... at least for a while.

Of course, we wouldn't have been on the edge of the precipice if Trump had followed the normal pattern of building support diplomatically for even tougher sanctions and Chinese pressure on North Korea. He wanted a dramatic event and he paid the price, in preemptive concessions, in order to get it.

This morning he even tweeted "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea" -- a statement that no doubt would surprise intelligence analysts.

Now he owns that statement. He has to deliver, either by concrete actions by North Korea or by changing the definition of a nuclear threat, such as saying that limits on testing of warheads and missiles accomplishes that goal.

Now he owns the Singapore declaration. He has to perform the still-secret promises he made, and he has to tolerate ambiguities in DPRK performance. He made the deal. He has that great personal relationship with Kim. He can't blame anyone else for failure.

The sanctions regime is collapsing and cannot be revived, much less made tougher. Even if North Korea fails to perform, too many horses will have left too many barns for the current restrictions to be re-instituted.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

bad faith diplomacy

Yes, at the G-7 summit in Canada there was "bad faith diplomacy," and "betrayal," and a "stab in the back." But the perpetrator was Donald Trump, not Justin Trudeau. Watch the Prime Minister's news conference and see for yourself.

Trudeau spent 12 minutes explaining and defending which Trump had agreed to sign prior to his departure. White House officials told the American press that fact. Of course Trudeau's argument was that, in spite of some differences, they agreed to the [pretty anodyne] language of the joint communique. That's what usually happens at such events.

It was only when an American reporter pressed him to respond to some of Trump's tougher language on trade that Trudeau repeated what he had told the president, that he thought the tariffs were unjustified. Trudeau repeatedly avoided the harsh language later used by Trump and his advisors and continued to say that he wanted to work with Trump on resolving trade questions.

What obviously happened is that Trump changed his mind, demonstrated bad faith diplomacy, and then betrayed his G-7 colleagues by withdrawing his support for the statement. He stabbed Trudeau who had done nothing to weaken Trump as he headed for Singapore. Outrageous!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

agency and accountability

I wonder sometimes if Donald Trump realizes that he is the president of the United States. He speaks so often as an observer of himself that I suspect he may not understand that he has real agency over events. On matters where he has the power to decide, he often temporizes with "We'll see."

Most shockingly, in his letter to the North Korea leader, he said:
You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.
 I'm glad that the president prays. I hope he also listens in case there is a response.

But God is not the commander-in-chief. God does not decide when and where to detonate America's nuclear weapons. That's the president's awful responsibility.

And if, God forbid [we need all the help we can get], American nuclear weapons are used against North Korea or Iran or anywhere else, the world should hold Donald Trump personally accountable for the disaster that follows.

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!