Voice

Why Are We So Busy Trying to 'Figure Out' Vladimir Putin?

On personality politics, great men, and the fallacy of thinking that individuals actually shape the world.

Do leaders matter in foreign policy? Of course they do. But if you read a lot of Western commentary on foreign affairs, you might conclude that individual leaders were the only thing that made much of a difference. If we could just put the right people in charge in Washington, Moscow, Paris, Baghdad, Beijing, Kabul, Cairo, Islamabad, etc., then everything would be peachy and any minor conflict that might arise could be easily and quickly resolved. In this view, most problems in the world are caused by political leaders who are myopic, old-fashioned, rigid, ill-informed, aggressive, paranoid, or just plain evil, and the key to successful diplomacy is figuring out what makes them tick (and getting rid of them if the opportunity presents).

Recent commentary on Russia and Ukraine illustrates this tendency perfectly. Instead of examining the historical roots of the conflict or the concrete interests of the various parties, commentary in the West tends to pin all the blame on one individual: Russia's Vladimir Putin. According to the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, for example, the failure of Obama's "reset" is due not to geopolitical conflicts, legitimate Russian concerns, or American hubris (the latter being something McFaul has contributed to through his own writings and public service), but rather to the replacement of the supposedly reasonable Dmitry Medvedev by the thuggish and backward-leaning Putin.

Similarly, Peter Baker's recent news analysis in the New York Times -- "3 Presidents and a Riddle Named Putin" -- views U.S.-Russia relations almost entirely through the lens of failed U.S. efforts to understand the Russian leader's personal psychology. Historical experience, NATO expansion, ballistic missile defense, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Kosovo, and Russia's bleak long-term prospects all take a back seat to the supposed "riddle" of a single leader. Money quotation:

For 15 years, Vladimir V. Putin has confounded American presidents as they tried to figure him out, only to misjudge him time and again. He has defied their assumptions and rebuffed their efforts at friendship. He has argued with them, lectured them, misled them, accused them, kept them waiting, kept them guessing, betrayed them and felt betrayed by them.

This tendency to view world politics largely in terms of leaders and personalities is hardly limited to U.S. relations with Russia. Those who are most worried about Iran's nuclear program tend to portray Iran's leaders as irrational religious fanatics, while others debate whether current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a genuine moderate or merely a wolf in sheep's clothing. Critics of Israeli policy tend to blame everything on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while discussions of America's troubles in Afghanistan often finger the truculent Afghan President Hamid Karzai, instead of discussing the impossibility of the mission or the contradictions embedded in U.S. policy.

Indeed, Americans have a long history of demonizing leaders with whom they are at odds: Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty tyrant, the three Kims who have led North Korea since World War II are all dangerous oddballs, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad is the latest incarnation of History's worst monster. No matter how complex or unfathomable world politics really is, we always seem to boil it down to a simplistic caricature of good versus evil.

Why do we do this? It is partly because political leaders of all stripes work overtime to keep themselves in the spotlight and claim credit for positive developments, while their opponents try to pin the blame on them for any failures. Instead of looking at larger trends or forces, our political discourse naturally assigns responsibility to whoever happens to be "in charge." Journalists (and readers) are powerfully drawn to the human side of foreign policy, either by trying to psychoanalyze some enigmatic foreign leader or chronicling the individual role of a Kennan, Kerry, or Kissinger. Either way, our attention gets riveted on individuals and not on the broader environment in which foreign policy is made.

In his classic book, Man, the State, and War, the late, great international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz labeled this sort of thinking "first image" analysis. As Waltz made clear, there was a long tradition of writing about war and peace that located the problem in human nature and in the characteristics of individual leaders in particular. Some writers blamed war on man's sinful nature, while others attributed it to psychological defects or hard-wired aggressive impulses. Regardless of the precise source, "first image" analysis focuses on individuals and assumes that things will go badly whenever bad guys are in charge. By this logic, all will be well as soon as wise, moderate, and benevolent leaders replace the troublemakers.

Waltz also pointed out the fundamental problems with this style of analysis. For starters, if individual human nature causes conflict and war, then what causes peace? Furthermore, leaders with many different backgrounds and beliefs have provoked crises or launched wars; men and women as varied as Adolf Hitler, Woodrow Wilson, Kim Il Sung, Indira Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, George W. Bush, and François Hollande. Even seemingly moderate individuals can be surprisingly comfortable inflicting great harm on others, as when soon-to-be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1996 that she thought the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths caused by U.S.-led sanctions in the mid-1990s were "worth it."

But the real problem with the relentless focus on individuals is that it blinds us to the broader context in which all world leaders operate, and especially to the internal and external constraints that shape their conduct. To take an extreme case, Assad has been waging a brutal and inhuman campaign in Syria, but not because he derives great personal satisfaction from watching the country disintegrate amid massive human suffering. No, he's doing these things because he fears that the Alawite minority that has dominated Syria (and to which he belongs) could be wiped out if his side loses. Given what Alawite rule has been like for other Syrians, his fear of violent retribution is well-founded. My point is not to defend Assad or his regime, of course; it is to help explain why he is acting as he is. Blaming it all on Assad's dubious character is neither accurate nor likely to point the way to a solution, because any Alawite who replaced him would probably act in similar ways.

In world politics, all leaders have to balance various sorts of internal and external pressures and especially the need to defend their country in a world of separate states. Even very powerful states like the United States cannot act with complete impunity, and whoever is in charge needs to weigh options carefully, instead of indulging personal whims. That is why even murderous leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong usually acted cautiously in foreign affairs. Focusing on the external environment also tells us when to be worried. When a strong state feels aggrieved and believes its vital interests are being threatened, for example, it is more likely to take risks and use force to defend them.

The setting in which states find themselves also helps us understand why very different countries and very different leaders often act in strikingly similar ways. The United States and Soviet Union were radically different societies, and Soviet leaders were unlike their American counterparts in myriad ways. Yet the two superpowers often acted in remarkably similar fashion throughout the Cold War. Both recruited allies all over the world; both built massive arsenals of nuclear weapons and deployed them in similar "triads"; both intervened in various developing countries; and both engaged in espionage, subversion, assassination, and other unsavory activities. Both states were also very careful when dealing with the other, however, and each generally avoided actions that risked escalation to world war.

Similarly, it is hard to think of three presidents as different in personal style and background as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, yet the continuities across their three presidencies are at least as striking as the differences. This is partly because the United States remains the world's strongest nation and because its combination of power and security gives it the option of acting in many places but little reason to bear high costs or absorb significant risks. Plus, all three presidents were dealing with the same well-entrenched national security bureaucracy. Add these two things together, and even radically different presidents end up doing a lot of the same things.

When different states and different leaders act in highly similar ways, it is a good sign that their behavior is being shaped by powerful internal and/or external conditions. And what is true for the United States is even truer for weaker countries. When some country does something U.S. leaders don't like, it's not just because a particular foreign leader got some crazy notion into his or her head. It is far more likely that the leader is responding to a set of circumstances as he or she saw them and that plenty of other people in that country probably see things in much the same way. If so, then it may not matter as much which individual is in charge, and addressing the problem properly requires focusing less on a leader's personality and more on the interests and conditions he or she is facing. Blaming everything on today's "bad guy" may be emotionally satisfying and play well here, but it is a lazy and usually misleading style of analysis.

None of this is to say that individuals don't matter at all or that we shouldn't try to understand how Putin, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, or other leaders see the world. But if we want to grasp the larger forces that drive global trends and ignite occasional crises, we'd be better off leaving that style of analysis to People magazine -- which is really good at that sort of thing -- and focus more of our attention on power, interests, and strategy.

Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

COLUMN

Why Upping the Minimum Wage Requires Immigration Reform

Is Obama pushing a new living wage to try and force the issue of undocumented workers?

Immigration reform is dead in the Congress, or so says almost everyone. It was the iceberg that caused Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions to founder and just one more crunching disappointment of Barack Obama's second term. But another change in economic policy may give immigration reform new life: raising the minimum wage.

Rationalizing the nation's immigration rules was always going to be a hard sell. American citizens benefit handily from immigration through lower prices for goods and services, decreased uncertainty in the supply of labor, contributions by future generations of immigrant families to national income, and the arrival of new ideas in the market. Yet these benefits are not always well understood -- even pro-immigration activists do a poor job of assessing the full value of immigrants and their progeny -- and their advocates are not well organized. By contrast, opponents of immigration can rely on visceral prejudices and keenly focused interest groups.

For many employers, a longstanding attraction of immigrant workers has been their willingness to accept lower wages. An increase in the minimum wage for the formal labor force, the subject of Obama's campaigning in early March, may only intensify that attraction. Minimum wages were already rising around the country thanks to legislation by states. Last week, Connecticut's governor signed a bill lifting the wage to $10.10 an hour from $8.70. At the federal level, Obama has asked Congress to increase the rate to $9 from $7.25. In an era in which workers have lost bargaining power through a variety of channels, government has stepped in to bargain for them.

What happens when the minimum wage rises? If the new wage is above the rate set by a given labor market, economic theory suggests that demand for workers will fall, that more workers will enter the labor force, and unemployment will grow. In practice, this does not always happen, and some economists believe that higher wages and incomes will actually boost employment in the long term.

Either way, these macroeconomic predictions obscure the decisions of individual households and businesses. In the short term, a higher minimum wage would undoubtedly cause some of them to seek substitutes for higher-priced workers. And for many, the answer may be undocumented migrants.

Imagine a small business owner who has paid the minimum wage of $7.25 to workers since the last increase in 2009. The owner knows that undocumented migrants will do the same job for $5, but so far has preferred to stick with the formal labor force. A jump to $9 would almost double the gap between the two hourly rates, and that's without considering the taxes and benefits that must be paid on behalf of regular workers. It's hard to believe that no one would make the switch, even cognizant of the penalties that could be incurred for such behavior.

But were this to happen on a widespread basis, there would be no change in the number of jobs in the economy. The production of goods and services might not change much, either. The only difference would be who held the jobs.

As the demand for undocumented workers grew, so would the supply. Evidence from the Great Recession suggests that foreign-born workers -- documented or otherwise -- are very responsive to changes in the demand for labor, despite the best efforts of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In fact, foreign-born workers even help to smooth out the bumps in the economic cycle, insulating native-born workers from dips in demand. If more employers sought the lower costs associated with undocumented workers, they would probably have no trouble finding them.

In markets where undocumented workers were prominent, a higher minimum wage might actually leave some of the people it was intended to help out of work -- though not for the traditional reasons. But the solution would be simple: Get the undocumented workers into the formal labor force.

Doing this would give the minimum wage the effects it was supposed to have. But it's worth asking whether, by greatly expanding the formal labor force, the combination of a higher minimum wage and immigration reform would also increase the rolls of the unemployed.

Fortunately, that seems unlikely. The reason why foreign-born workers are so responsive to the demand for labor is that many don't want to stay in the United States when there are no jobs. It's not as though the risk of deportation is so severe; in fiscal year 2013, only about 3 percent were sent home. Rather, a significant share of migrants come when work is available and prefer to go back to their families and friends when the job is done. This is especially true as the economic climate improves in their home countries.

Of course, as documented migrants they'll be free to compete on level terms with native-born workers. But they wouldn't have the usual advantage of a lower wage rate. Employers would be choosing between native-born workers who speak English well and are likely to stay in the country for the long term and foreign-born workers who might not.

Immigration reform would be a boon to the United States for many reasons, but it has never had sufficient urgency to overcome the inertia of timid and bigoted politicians. Raising the minimum wage might finally give it the push it needs.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images