Foreign Policy: Madmen in Authority


June 1, 2018

Foreign Policy: Madmen in Authority

by Harold James

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/madman-theory-m5s-italy-by-harold-james-2018-05

With concerns about Italy’s public debt growing, Italian populists have taken a page from US President Donald Trump’s playbook and threatened to blow up the eurozone if they don’t get their way. The European Union must resist the temptation to engage in a dangerous game of chicken.

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The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes famously worried that, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Yet even without prescriptive theories, feigning “frenzy” or madness can also be a plausible, powerful, and rather contagious negotiating strategy. In the early 1970s, US President Richard Nixon adopted the tactic to convince the North Vietnamese that he had his finger on the “nuclear button,” and that they had better negotiate a deal to end the war – or else. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik and surprised him by proposing that the United States and the Soviet Union both destroy all of their nuclear weapons.

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Whether a crisis is escalating or de-escalating, the madman strategy’s effectiveness seems to depend on the extent to which a political leader’s “insanity” is ambiguous – so much so that even historians won’t know where to draw the line between sincerity and artifice.

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Donald Trump’s  “crazy guy” strategy is like Nixon’s madman theory, but dumber. The President and his staff are spreading the story that he is a “crazy guy,” as a way to browbeat North Korea and other nations in negotiations.

With President Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to a nuclear summit with North Korea, along with his bluster over new sanctions against Iran, the madman strategy seems to have made a dramatic comeback. It is now being adopted by many other leaders, and quickly spilling over into new domains, including debates about reforming the European monetary and political system.

Recently, the eurozone debt crisis, dormant since 2012, has looked as though it could erupt again. With interest rates so low, the Italian government’s massive public debt has appeared sustainable. But with financial markets increasingly jittery over political developments in Italy, it is easy to imagine a world in which interest rates rise and remain elevated, in which case the Italian debt could pose a serious threat to the eurozone, and even to the global economy.

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Luigi Di Maio, the Italian Five Star Movement leader

Investors’ fear of another eurozone debt crisis have been spiking since the populist Five Star Movement and right-wing League party failed to form a government after months of post-election gridlock. The M5S/League coalition, which won a combined parliamentary majority in the March 4 election, have clearly taken a page out of the Trump playbook, hoping to use Italy’s debt to extract concessions from the EU.

Will it work? The first, and most basic, component of the madman strategy is an ability to introduce a level of uncertainty that is damaging to other countries. This is why the strategy doesn’t really work for smaller countries, as Greece’s new government in 2015 quickly learned after dabbling in brinkmanship with its European creditors.

Assuming a country is big enough to rattle global markets (as Italy clearly is), three other factors determine the success of a madman strategy. For starters, its government must be able to convince everyone else that it is being driven toward “insane” acts by voters. The idea is that it is actually irrational for a democratically elected government to act prudently if doing so means inviting punishment from voters who are committed to myopic but deeply felt positions. In the case of Italy, populists capitalized on voters’ disenchantment with a center-left party whose pro-European stance had failed to deliver results.

There must also be a visible division between “hawks” and “doves” within the madman government. In any negotiation, the other parties will offer concessions to strengthen the doves, knowing full well that a failure to do so will enrage the hawks, who will then move forward with their doomsday plans. With Trump, this dynamic exists within a single personality that is prone to violent, unpredictable swings between openness and anger. But it also exists within Trump’s cabinet, with John Bolton, the hardline national security adviser, playing the role of the hawk.

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In the case of the M5S/League coalition, a hawk was needed as a counterweight to Italy’s pro-EU president, Sergio Mattarella. That is why the populists’ choice for Minister of Economy and Finance was Paolo Savona, an 81-year-old economist whom the former Italian economy minister Vincenzo Visco has described as “radically and suicidally anti-German.” When Mattarella rejected the nomination, the M5S/League quit the talks, precipitating the current crisis.

Finally, to succeed, a madman government needs to have a plausible war plan for causing a general disruption. For example, the M5S/League coalition suggested that it might issue a parallel currency, which lent further credibility to its threat of pursuing fiscal expansion in defiance of EU rules.

As more governments, parties, and leaders come to imitate the madman strategy, the scope for agreement in any negotiation will narrow, and will become more likely. In fact, hardline German economists have already responded to Italy’s political crisis by circulating petitions to block any eurozone reform that could be regarded as a concession.

But exposing the dangers of the madman strategy will not be enough to defeat it. Voters also must be convinced that better alternatives are available, and that European integration can still safeguard their interests. In the months before Italy’s next election and the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019, EU leaders will have some – but not much – time to show that European integration is about more than political paralysis and economic stagnation.

Otherwise, we might soon be reacquainted with the madman strategy’s grim side. Before his abdication in 1918, German Kaiser Wilhelm II did not need to pretend to be unstable; he really was. With a penchant for saber-rattling speeches and outrageous newspaper interviews, he had something in common with America’s Tweeter-in-Chief.

In another disturbing historical parallel, he often boasted about his ability to reach agreements with the Russian and British monarchs, to whom he was related. In the event, as the crisis of diplomacy was escalating in July 1914, he suddenly announced a grand new peace initiative. But it was too late. The game of chicken had spread, and the world’s leading powers hurtled together toward catastrophe.

*Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of the new book The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, and Making the European Monetary Union

Foreign Policy: The World Wants You to Think Like a Realist


May 31, 2018

Foreign Policy: The World Wants You to Think Like a Realist

From Europe to Iran to North Korea, the world doesn’t make sense anymore — unless you put all your illusions aside.

By Stephen M. Walt

 Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are pictured at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo December 11, 2016. (TERJE BENDIKSBY/AFP/Getty Images)

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are pictured at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo December 11, 2016. (TERJE BENDIKSBY/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump has shown himself to be many things thus far — willful, vain, dishonest, impulsive, narcissistic, ignorant, etc. — but “rational” and “strategic” aren’t words that leap to mind when contemplating his foreign policy. Realism also emphasizes external factors, such as balances of power and geography, and downplays the role of individual leaders. But the Trump Presidency is an eloquent and worrisome reminder of the damage that individual leaders can do and especially when they are convinced that they are “the only one that matters.”–Stephen M. Walt

 

 

One of the ironies of contemporary U.S. thinking about foreign policy is the odd status of realism. On the one hand, realist theory remains a staple of college teaching on international relations (along with many other approaches), and government officials often claim that their actions are based on some sort of “realist” approach. But Washington remains for the most part a realism-free zone, with few genuine realists in positions of influence. Moreover, the realist perspective is almost entirely absent from the commanding heights of U.S. punditry. This column, and the consistently insightful writings of people such as Paul Pillar or Jacob Heilbrunn, does not make up for realism’s exclusion from the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal.

 

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Instead of relying on realism, both Republicans and Democrats tend to view foreign policy through the lens of liberal idealism. Rather than see world politics as an arena where security is scarce and major powers are forced to contend whether they wish to or not, America’s foreign-policy mavens are quick to divide the world into virtuous allies (usually democracies) and evil adversaries (always some sort of dictatorship) and to assume that when things go badly, it is because a wicked foreign leader (Saddam Hussein, Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin, Muammar al-Qaddafi, etc.) is greedy, aggressive, or irrational. When friendly states object to something the (virtuous) United States is doing, U.S. leaders tend to assume that critics just don’t understand their noble aims or are jealous of America’s success.

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I’ll concede that the Trump Presidency presents a particular challenge for realists. It’s not easy to reconcile Donald Trump’s incoherent and bumbling approach to foreign affairs with the idea that states pursue national interests in a more or less rational or strategic fashion. Trump has shown himself to be many things thus far — willful, vain, dishonest, impulsive, narcissistic, ignorant, etc. — but “rational” and “strategic” aren’t words that leap to mind when contemplating his foreign policy. Realism also emphasizes external factors, such as balances of power and geography, and downplays the role of individual leaders. But the Trump Presidency is an eloquent and worrisome reminder of the damage that individual leaders can do and especially when they are convinced that they are “the only one that matters.

Nonetheless, Trump’s singular incompetence isn’t sufficient reason to toss realism aside completely. For one thing, realism still helps us understand how Trump can get away with all this meshugas: The United States is still so powerful and secure that it can do a lot of dumb things and suffer only modest losses. More importantly, realism remains an extremely useful guide to a lot of things that have happened in the recent past or that are happening today. And as Trump is proving weekly, leaders who ignore these insights inevitably make lots of dumb mistakes.

In short, it is still highly useful to think like a realist. Let me explain why. Realism has a long history and many variants, but its core rests on a straightforward set of ideas. As the name implies, realism tries to explain world politics as they really are, rather than describe how they ought to be. For realists, power is the centerpiece of political life: Although other factors sometimes play a role, the key to understanding politics lies in focusing on who has power and what they are doing with it. The Athenians’ infamous warning to the Melians captures this perfectly: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have put it any better.

For realists, states are the key actors in the international system. There is no central authority that can protect states from one another, so each state must rely upon its own resources and strategies to survive. Security is a perennial concern — even for powerful states — and states tend to worry a lot about who is weaker or stronger and what power trends appear to be. Cooperation is far from impossible in such a world — indeed, at times cooperating with others is essential to survival — but it is always somewhat fragile. Realists maintain that states will react to threats first by trying to “pass the buck” (i.e., getting someone else to deal with the emerging danger), and if that fails, they will try to balance against the threat, either by seeking allies or by building up their own capabilities.

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Realism isn’t the only way to think about international affairs, of course, and there are a number of alternative perspectives and theories that can help us understand different aspects of the modern world. But if you do think like a realist — at least part of the time — many confusing aspects of world politics become easier to understand.

If you think like a realist, for example, you’ll understand why China’s rise is a critical event and likely to be a source of conflict with the United States (and others). In a world where states have to protect themselves, the two most powerful states will eye each other warily and compete to make sure that they don’t fall behind or become dangerously vulnerable to the other. Even when war is avoided, intense security competition is likely to result.

And by the way, thinking like a realist helps you understand why China is no longer committed to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “peaceful rise.” That approach made sense when China was weaker, and it fooled plenty of Westerners into thinking China could be inveigled into being a responsible stakeholder that would meekly embrace various institutions and arrangements created by others back when China was weak. But realists understand that a more powerful China would eventually want to modify any features that were not in China’s interest, as Beijing has begun to do in recent years. Bottom line: Thinking like a realist is essential if you want to understand Sino-American relations.

If you think like a realist, you wouldn’t be surprised that the United States has repeatedly used military force in distant lands over the past 25 years and especially after 9/11. Why? For one simple reason: Nobody could prevent it. Americans were also convinced their global role was indispensable and that they had the right, the responsibility, and the wisdom to interfere all over the world. But America’s dominant position was the permissive condition that made this overweening ambition seem feasible, at least for a while. As Kenneth Waltz warned way back in 1993: “One may hope that America’s internal preoccupations will produce not an isolationist policy, which has become impossible, but a forbearance that will give other countries at long last the chance to deal with their own problems and make their own mistakes. But I would not bet on it.” Good realist that he was, Waltz understood that the “vice to which great powers easily succumb in a multipolar world is inattention; in a bipolar world, overreaction; in a unipolar world, overextension.” And that’s precisely what happened.

If you think like a realist, the crisis in Ukraine looks rather different than the typical Western version of events. Western accounts typically blame Putin for most of the trouble, but realists understand that major powers are always sensitive about their borders and are likely to react defensively if other great powers start encroaching on these regions. Ever heard of the Monroe Doctrine? In the case of Ukraine, the United States and its European allies had been expanding NATO steadily eastward (violating pledges made to Soviet leaders when Germany reunified) and ignoring repeated warnings from Moscow. By 2013, the United States and European Union were making a concerted effort to pull Ukraine into closer alignment with the West and openly interfering in Ukraine’s domestic political processes. Because the Obama administration did not think like realists, however, it was blindsided when Putin seized Crimea and derailed the EU/U.S. effort. Putin’s response was neither legal nor legitimate nor admirable, but it wasn’t surprising either. It is equally unsurprising that these events alarmed the Europeans and prompted NATO to shore up its defenses in Eastern Europe, precisely as a realist would expect.

Thinking like a realist can also help you understand why the EU is in trouble. The entire EU project was designed to transcend nationalism and subordinate state interests within broader supranational institutions. Its architects hoped the separate national identities and interests that had torn Europe apart repeatedly would fade over time and a broad pan-European identity would supplant them. European unity was facilitated by the Cold War because the Soviet threat gave Western Europe ample incentive to cooperate, gave the Soviets’ Eastern European satellites an ideal to aspire to, and kept the “American pacifier” on the continent. But once the Cold War was over, nationalism returned with a vengeance and especially after the euro crisis hit. Suddenly, populations wanted their elected officials not to save Europe but to save them. Despite herculean efforts by a number of European leaders and EU officials, these centrifugal tendencies seem to be getting worse, as the Brexit decision, the recent elections in Italy, and the resurgent nationalism in Poland and Hungary all attest. Those who hoped that European integration would prove irreversible have trouble understanding how their noble experiment went awry, but realists don’t.

If you think like a realist, you might not be quite so outraged by the support that Iran and Syria gave the anti-American insurgency in Iraq after 2003. You might not like it, but you wouldn’t find their conduct surprising. Their response was classic balance of power behavior because the United States had just overthrown Saddam Hussein and the Bush administration had made it clear that Syria and Iran were next on its hit list. It made good strategic sense for Damascus and Tehran to do whatever they could to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq so that Washington couldn’t reload the shotgun and come after them. Americans have every reason to be upset by what these states did, but if more U.S. officials thought like realists, they would have expected it from the get-go.

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John Bolton’s Logic: War is Peace. He needs a new pair of glasses

And if you think like a realist, it is obvious why North Korea has gone to enormous lengths to acquire a nuclear deterrent and obvious why a country such as Iran was interested in becoming a latent nuclear weapons state as well. These states were deeply at odds with the world’s most powerful country, and prominent U.S. officials kept saying that the only solution was to topple these regimes and replace them with leaders more to their liking. Never mind that regime change rarely works as intended; the more important point is that any government facing a threat like that is going to try to protect itself.

Nuclear weapons aren’t good for blackmail or conquest, but they are a very effective way to deter more powerful states from trying to overthrow you with military force. And you’d think Americans would understand this, given that the U.S. government thinks it needs thousands of nuclear weapons in order to be secure, despite its favorable geographic position and overwhelming conventional superiority. If U.S. leaders think like that, is it any wonder that some weaker and more vulnerable powers conclude that having a few nukes might make them more secure? And is it so surprising that they might be reluctant to give them up in exchange for assurances or promises that might easily be reversed or withdrawn? Someone really should explain this logic to John Bolton.

Thinking like a realist also helps you understand why states with radically different political systems often act in surprisingly similar ways. To take an obvious example, the United States and Soviet Union could not have been more different in terms of their domestic orders, but their international behavior was much the same. Each led vast alliance networks, toppled governments they didn’t like, assassinated a number of foreign leaders, built tens of thousand of nuclear weapons (deployed on missiles, bombers, and submarines), intervened in far-flung lands, tried to convert other societies to their preferred ideology, and did what they could to bring the other down without blowing up the world. Why did they behave in such similar fashion? Because in an anarchic world, each had little choice but to compete with the other, lest it fall behind and become vulnerable to the other’s predations.

Last but not least, if you think like a realist, you’re likely to be skeptical about the ambitious schemes that idealists keep dreaming up to bring an end to conflict, injustice, inequality, and other bad things. Striving to build a safer and more peaceful world is admirable, but realism reminds us that the ambitious efforts to remake world politics always create unintended consequences and rarely deliver the promised results. It also reminds that even allies fear unchecked power and will have misgivings whenever the United States tries to run the world. If you think like a realist, in short, you are more likely to act with a degree of prudence, and you’ll be less likely to see opponents as purely evil (or see one’s own country as wholly virtuous) and less likely to embark on open-ended moral crusades. Ironically, if more people thought like realists, the prospects for peace would go up.

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University.

Trump’s true talent is marketing failure as success


May 28, 2018

Trump’s true talent is marketing failure as success

by Dr.Fareed Zakaria
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 “As talks fail, deals collapse and negotiations founder, Trump continues to tweet triumphantly about his great success. It makes one realize the President’s true talent. He has the confidence, bravado and skill to market failure as success. He can take a mediocre building, slap some gold paint on it and then convince people it’s a super-luxury condominium. Call it the Art of the Spin.–Fareed Zakaria

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s recurring criticism of his predecessor is that he just didn’t know how to make a deal. “Obama is not a natural deal maker,” he tweeted in 2016, complaining that there was no accord on Syria. “Obama will attack Iran because of his inability to negotiate properly,” he predicted incorrectly back in 2013. Trump was scathing about President Obama’s lack of legislative success, pronouncing him “unable to negotiate w/ Congress.” “We need leaders who can negotiate great deals for Americans,” Trump tweeted in 2015, and the implication was obvious — he was the ultimate deal-maker.

It is almost 500 days into the Trump administration. Where are the deals? Where is the renegotiated NAFTA, the bilateral trade agreements that were going to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new and improved Iran nuclear pact, the China trade deal? Trump’s record in Congress is even less impressive. He has not been able to strike an accord with Democrats on anything, from immigration to infrastructure. The world is laughing at us, as he would say.

Well, what must the world be thinking now, as it watches the Trump administration careen wildly on everything from North Korea to China? What must it have thought as it watched the master negotiator in a televised session with congressional leaders on immigration, where he seemed to agree with the Democratic position, then agree with the (incompatible) Republican position, all the while asserting that they were going to make a deal? They didn’t.

By now it is obvious that Trump is actually a bad negotiator, an impulsive, emotional man who ignores briefings, rarely knows details, and shoots first and asks questions later.

Consider how the administration has handled the North Korea summit. First, the meeting was announced with great fanfare, with Trump soon lavishing praise on Kim Jong Un. Agreeing to the meeting was an enormous symbolic concession to the North Koreans, while getting almost nothing in return. This was to be a head-of-state summit, though there was little preparation and no determination that the two sides were close enough to have a serious negotiation at that level. Trump got excited enough to start hyping the prospects for a breakthrough agreement despite little evidence of any movement in the North Korean position. Next, Trump’s advisers embarked on a strange series of comments that seemed designed to threaten, scare and intimidate North Korea. Was this the plan? Did the administration regret its early overtures? Or was this all just incompetence? Is it any wonder that the whole thing has collapsed?

Trump has been even more ham-handed in his dealings with China. Just before entering the White House, he dangled the possibility of recognizing Taiwan. Beijing quickly shut down contact with the United States and, humiliatingly, Trump had to walk back his comments in a phone call with President Xi Jinping.

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The current trade talks with China are a case study in bad negotiations. It’s hard to know where to begin. The U.S. government does not seem to know what it wants. Some days it appears that Washington is fixated on the size of the trade deficit. Other days it focuses on technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property. The White House began its attacks by imposing tariffs on steel, which mostly affected American allies, ensuring that it had no partners in its attempt to pressure the Chinese. After insisting that no countries would be exempted, the administration once again reversed course and doled out exemptions to the top five steel exporters to the U.S, though it threatens to reverse itself again.

American negotiators leak furiously to the press to undermine each other’s positions and even squabbled among themselves in front of a Chinese delegation earlier this month. Trump himself seems to switch gears repeatedly. After his administration announced that it would punish ZTE, a huge Chinese tech company that committed serious trade violations, Trump suddenly changed his mind, citing concern for the impact on Chinese jobs. Imagine the outcry if Obama had backed away from pressure on the Chinese to help their economy!

On the legislative front, Trump chose to begin his presidency with the divisive issue of healthcare rather than a unifying one like infrastructure — and failed to get Obamacare repealed anyway. Oh, and don’t forget, he and son-in-law Jared Kushner were going to broker the ultimate deal, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. How’s that going?

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As talks fail, deals collapse and negotiations founder, Trump continues to tweet triumphantly about his great success. It makes one realize the President’s true talent. He has the confidence, bravado and skill to market failure as success. He can take a mediocre building, slap some gold paint on it and then convince people it’s a super-luxury condominium. Call it the Art of the Spin.

Fareed Zakaria: fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Ronan Farrow on What Ails American Diplomacy


April 28, 2018

 

Ronan Farrow on What Ails American Diplomacy

On April 16th, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the gold medal for public service to The New Yorker and the New York Times, for contributing to “a worldwide reckoning about sexual abuse of women” through their work investigating allegations of assault and harassment against the powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The stories on Weinstein that appeared in The New Yorker—which detailed not only the abuse but also the system of suppression and intimidation used to cover it up—were penned by Ronan Farrow. The day after the Pulitzer announcement, Farrow sat down with The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, to talk about the path that brought him to investigative journalism and about how his reporting connects with his lifelong interest in public service.

Farrow grew up with a number of adopted siblings, who came from “every corner of the Earth,” and he would travel with his mother, the movie star Mia Farrow, on humanitarian trips to refugee camps abroad. Such experiences caused him to develop an early interest in international advocacy. He remembers thinking, “I want to do something useful.”

Farrow had what he calls “a Doogie Howser thing”: he started college at the age of eleven, and was admitted to law school at fifteen, but he deferred admission for a few more years, while working at the U.N. By the time he was twenty, Farrow was working closely with Richard Holbrooke, a giant of American diplomacy, in Afghanistan.

Farrow has recently published his first book, “War on Peace,” about the state of U.S. foreign relations, which he sees as entering a particularly troubled moment. “We have been chipping away at diplomacy,” Farrow says, “and, when we do this, it is a disaster.” Under the Trump Administration, the diplomatic apparatus that allows the U.S. to communicate with its allies and its enemies alike has been taking “a nosedive.” In his conversation with David Remnick, which you can watch above, Farrow details his journey into the world of international relations, his candid interview with Rex Tillerson, and his prescription for salvaging the diplomatic profession.

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Chris Patten- On Il Fares The Land by Tony Judt


 

Tony Judt’s thought-provoking polemic flies the flag for social democracy and might make people reassess their own beliefs, says Chris Patten.