The Illusion of Change in the Former Soviet Union

Yesterday the Pew Global Attitudes Project, one of a great many interesting projects brought to us by the Pew Research Center, released a report detailing continuing downward shifts in confidence about democracy and capitalism in former Soviet territories. The report is filled with rich and interesting detail and is very much worth the reader’s time, but I’m particularly interested in one small fraction of the public opinion polling Pew conducted to come to its conclusions:

Two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians are unhappy with the direction of their countries and disillusioned with the state of their politics. Enthusiasm for democracy and capitalism has waned considerably over the past 20 years, and most believe the changes that have taken place since 1991 have had a negative impact on public morality, law and order, and standards of living.

Alright, this seems pretty straightforward: democracy bad, communism good. What is tangential but interesting is that the central reason listed for dissatisfaction with economic and political systems in the region sounds an awful like the dissatisfaction felt here at home:

Large majorities in all three nations believe that elites have prospered over the last two decades, while average citizens have not. In Ukraine, for instance, 95% think politicians have benefited a great deal or a fair amount from the changes since 1991, and 76% say this about business owners. However, just 11% believe ordinary people have benefited. The fall 2009 survey further highlighted the extent to which these publics are disillusioned with their political leadership. Few believed politicians listened to them or that politicians governed with the interests of the people in mind.

While Americans seem to share the sentiment of those living in Ukraine or Lithuania, they come to a very different conclusion. There is not shortage of talk about the failure of our system, but very little discussion of changing the fundamental rules and principles governing it (by the way I don’t this is a bad thing – I think individual actors are causing our problems, not institutions).

Perhaps most interestingly, while democracy gets a bad rap, the underlying principles and the institutions they produce do not. Most citizens of former Soviet republics still place tremendous value on, among other things, freedom of speech and religion, an independent judiciary, and honest elections. The Pew report does not explore the explanations for such a gap between affinity for the institutions and affinity for the system; this would be a very interesting question to explore in the future.


A Question of Questions

It isn’t every day that I agree with Peggy Noonan. In fact, I don’t agree with Peggy Noonan on most days. That said, in the spirit of bipartisanship that has been sweeping our country lately, I’ll admit it: today, I agree with Peggy Noonan. Ms. Noonan, a former special assistant to President Reagan and the architect of some of his most famous public remarks, penned a piece in the pages of the Wall Street Journal – where she is a regular columnist – about the dangers of cavalier attitudes towards national security policy. Her central question is ideal one for class studying national security in the “digital media age:” does the media’s treatment of national security issues in the Republican primary debate actually degrade the seriousness of our discussions and threaten our ability to conduct diplomacy in the future? In Ms. Noonan’s own words:

The videos each cable outfit now makes to introduce each debate have taken on a weird, hyperventilating tone. Tuesday’s theme-setter included bombs dropping, jets roaring, presidents sweating, machine guns, screaming dictators, explosions and street demonstrators. Then, in urgent and dramatic tones: “The Republican National Security Debate begins—now.” Guys, get a grip. Republican National Committee, start asking to OK the videos beforehand. This is a major-party nomination for the presidency, not a trailer for “Homeland.”

Though I haven’t been able to find a clip of CNN’s introduction to the national security debate on November 22nd, I’m willing to take Ms. Noonan’s word for it. Two points in her criticism of the kind of “urgent and dramatic tones” she saw in the debates a few weeks ago stand out, namely the impact this kind of gung-ho rhetoric has on our image abroad and the effect phrases like “covert action in Syria” have on policymakers’ ability to conduct foreign policy.

Searches in scholarly databases and using Google did not yield an abundance of research on the impact of the media’s “weird, hyperventilating tone” in presenting national security issues at presidential primary debates. However, I think we can draw several conclusions from watching such debates and listening to the answers of candidates. As Ms. Noonan puts it:

Here are just a few phrases and sentences that were lobbed about for two hours. “Protect ourselves from those who, if they could, would not just kill us individually but would take out entire cities,” “expanded drone campaign,” “they can’t be trusted,” “strong special forces presence,” “hot pursuit,” “slapped new sanctions,” “no-fly zone over Syria,” “nuclear weapon in one American city,” “break the Iranian regime,” “sabotaging the oil refinery,” “crippling sanctions,” “centrifuges spinning,” “covert actions within Syria to get regime change,” there is an “imminent threat” in Latin America, “we have been attacked,” “doctrine of appeasement.” It was all pretty revved up and dramatic.

The language is profoundly disturbing. One point that Ms. Noonan does not make, and that I wonder about it, is how the use of language and imagery by the moderators constrains the answers politicans feel comfortable giving. If CNN’s chosen graphics for a national security debate are all derived from war and warmaking institutions, that would seem to send a strong message to candidates and viewers about the role of the Department of State, for instance, in national security. A strong, minimizing message. A skim of the highlights from the debate seems to reinforce that assertion; by my ears, candidates responded to most questions about how to contend with conflict in other nations by explaining the tenets of their military strategy. The emphasis was clear: Department of Defense good, Department of State bad.

The internal impact – the impact on candidates and their messages – seems clear, but what about external impact? How might China react to Mitt Romney’s declaration of war on their currency at the CBS debate weeks ago? It’s hard to know for certain, but I think their reaction would be negative. That has an obvious and immediate effect on our diplomacy today; China would not be out of bounds in asking Ambassador Locke to explain how the Obama administration differs with one of its most promiment public citizens on the issue, and that conversation would likely be an awkward one. The long-term effect is equally disturbing, though. Imagine that Mr. Romney wins the election – god forbid – and takes his first trip to China, with trade and debt issues on the table for discussion. You have to wonder about the length of Hu Jintao’s memory in predicting his willingness to work with the man who called him a “currency manipulator.” I have to think it would be long.

We’re left with a question of questions. Should moderators and journalists really ask candidates such specific questions about national security strategy, knowing that in the 21st century, the entire world is watching?

Cross-Posting from History 382, Diplomatic History of the United States

In my diplomatic history class with Professor Matt Pinsker, we recently completed an assignment that asked us to map – using Google Maps – an event in 19th century diplomatic history. I focused on Maine’s border conflicts during the first half of the century, conflicts that represent some of the earliest instances of American foreign policy and diplomacy. Below is the first paragraph the post I wrote to accompany the map. Check out the entire assignment here.


Upon his arrival at Vancouver International Airport in the fall of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson remarked, “no nation in the world has had greater fortune than mine in sharing a continent with the people and the nation of Canada.” In an address to the Canadian parliament more than a decade earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower described a Canadian-American border that “grows stronger every year, defended only by friendship.” Eloquent as such sentiment may be, that friendship-fortified dividing line was not always uncomplicated. In fact, after the Revolutionary War, Americans grew accustomed to many complications with their northern neighbors, particularly regarding issues of boundaries and borders. It was the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, authored in 1842 by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, that cultivated the enduring friendship between Canada and the United States that Johnson and Eisenhower could proudly proclaim more than a century later. The more than half-century between the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842 offers a rich and relatively-unknown example of America’s earliest diplomacy.

The View from Class: Feasibility in the al-Awlaki Case

In class today, we discussed at length some of the abstract questions at the heart of a very concrete issue in the al-Awlaki killing. I’d invite other members of the class to respond in the comments – or in new posts – about some of the different points made and discussed. One aspect of this debate that I find really interesting is the question of feasibility. Most people seem to understand, in one way or another, that the President of the United States all but permitted to take extraordinary actions in extraordinary moments. Presidents of both parties and all persuasions have made such decisions, often to great national benefit. The crux of the proposition of such an extraordinary circumstance in the al-Awlaki case is the notion that it would simply be unfeasible to retrieve him and bring him to an American court. Charlie Savage’s article, mentioned in previous posts, suggests that the feasibility argument was a major one in the Office of Legal Counsel’s memo that ultimately sanctioned al-Awlaki’s killing.

Robert Farley of “Lawyers, Guns & Money” presents some of the arguments supporting unfeasibility. What do people think?

A Secret Memo, A Secret Panel, A Novel Process

“Assassination,” Benjamin Disraeli once said, “has never changed the history of the world.” Whether or not it alters the history of the world – and I think a case can be made that it does – its occurrence and the decisions surrounding it have a tendency to consume our politics. In the past few days, the New York Times and Reuters have reported on, respectively, the existence of a secret memo justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (an American citizen) and the ‘kill panel’ that designated him a target. The exposure of the logic and process behind the assassination of al-Awlaki in such proximity to the actual event suggests a renewed debate is possible. I see two fundamental questions, not easily answered, arising out of such a conversation. One question, which is general (a hat-tip to Professor Crowley here): what is the government obliged to explain to the public after taking such actions? One question, more specific to the context of this moment: how do such events explain the Obama foreign policy, especially in relation to the rule of law?

In Sunday’s New York Times, Public Editor Arthur Brisbane took a first crack at outlining what information the government owes the public, and what research the media owes its readers. His conclusion seems perfectly reasonable:

The public has a right to know, and assess, the legal rationale for these extraordinary and highly visible state killings. The public should have documented details concerning civilian casualties of the drone strikes. And The Times should do all it can to force this information out into the open.

It is hard to imagine what grave threat the federal government imagines might occur upon the release of its legal rationale for taking action against al-Awlaki. Anyone who supports al-Awlaki’s mission would find themselves already angered by the strike and subsequent death; it seems unlikely the enumeration of the legal rational underlying the former would further inflame such individuals. The release of the memo also would not reveal – at least judging from reports on its contents – a broader classified intelligence program, as in the case of the “Torture Memos” written during the George W. Bush administration. The political costs of releasing the memo – at home or around the world – seem relatively low; moreover, the rationale for such a release demands great attention. If the Obama administration believes it can justify the killing of any American citizen, it would seem to me that they should elucidate such reasoning for every American citizen. While specific information regarding individual attacks might be withheld in the interest of protections sources or personnel, the rationale for – and ensuing debate over – should be open and accessible to all citizens.

As we consider al-Awlaki’s death and its ramifications, it is important to consider the insight this event offers us about President Obama’s understanding of the dynamic between the rule of the law and the powers of a wartime commander-in-chief. In considering the narrative several news organizations have given us about the decision to kill al-Awlaki, the most interesting aspect we are able to tease out may be the scope of the legal decision granting the President and his subordinates to move forward with the operation. “The memo,” wrote the New York Times, “was narrowly drawn…and did not establish a broad new legal doctrine.” In fact, drawing from the same article, it appears that the authors of the memorandum outlined multiple legal obstacles to the killing of an American, explaining how each was overruled in this specific instance. This says a great deal, particularly in light of the way we understand the previous administration’s constructions of such memoranda. Particularly in the case of the “Torture Memos,” the process of legal analysis in the Bush administration seems diametrically opposed to the one exposed by the killing of al-Awlaki under President Obama. Rather than treating individual cases that officials felt demanded torture as just that — individual, President Bush’s national security team used such instances as opportunities to establish broad legal doctrine. The fact that President Obama and his team chose the opposite approach, to establish no precedent but the precedent of careful and cautious decision making, gives me a great deal of optimism about the rule of law under this President.





The Consequentialist

On our first day of class, I mentioned Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, and his piece on President Obama’s foreign policy. Titled “The Consequentialist,” I found it a compelling overview of the administrations internal struggles to find coherent principles and policies in contending with international affairs. If you have the time – and interest – to read it, I’d be curious to know what you take away from it.