Voice

Tom Friedman earns a Bullock. What does it mean?

As the rest of the Foreign Policy gang hobnobs with the foreign policy glitterati tonight, I'm stuck in Boston mulling over the fact that Tom Friedman managed to earn a Bullock.

What is a Bullock? You might recall that earlier this year Sandra Bullock managed to win both an Academy Award for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress  (for All About Steve) -- the first time that has ever happened. So a Bullock is when one manages to earn both a "best of" and "worst of" in the span of a single year.

Lo and behold, this week Friedman's name appears on both Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers as well as Salon's Hack Thirty -- which is definitely the first time that's ever happened. What can we infer from Friedman earning the Bullock? I suppose this depends on who you ask and which mention you think is the more unjustified. Friedman is the certainly the most prominent international relations columnist working today. Your humble blogger has had his occasional issues with Friedman's columns. That said, even Friedman's harsher critics tend to acknowledge that he makes an interesting point every once in a while. And I've had to write enough 700 word columns in my life to know that it's a much harder task than most people realize.

In a perfect world, foreign affairs columnists would rotate in and out of the op-ed pages after 18 months or so. In the branding world in which we live, I can think of better options than Friedman, but man, I can think of a lot more aspirants who would be worse.

This goes back to my point about the opportunity cost of stupid ideas. Friedman is frequently wrong (as are we all), but he's usually wrong in a way that tends to requires serious engagement rather than a backhanded wrist-slap or easy put-down.

For comparison in terms of stupidity, consider Dan Shaughnessy's latest Boston Globe column in which he suggests that the Boston Red Sox sign Derek Jeter:

Suppose the Red Sox step up and shock the world? There is simply no downside to making Jeter a massive offer. In the worst-case scenario he calls your bluff and you get the Yankees captain.

I don't care if Jeter is way past his prime or if the Sox would have to wildly overpay a player of his diminished skills.

I say offer him the world. Forget about Jayson Werth. Blow Jeter away with dollars and years. At worst this would just mean the Sox would jack up the final price the Yankees must pay. It could be sort of like Mark Teixeira-in-reverse…

What's the harm in offering Jeter $20 million a year over three years? If you can pay J.D. Drew $14 million per year… if you can pay a Japanese team $50 million just for the right to speak with Daisuke Matsuzaka… if you can buy a futbol club for $476 million, why not spend $60 million to bust pinstripe chops for all the ages?

Jeter is closing in on 3,000 hits. Imagine if he gets his 3,000th hit as a Red Sox… at Fenway… against Mariano Rivera?

Since we are pretty certain Adrian Beltre is gone, the Red Sox have a big hole at third base. Jeter could play third. Or you could trade Marco Scutaro and put Jeter at short.

This certainly would make the Sox less boring.

This is bad even when grading on a Shaughnessy curve, which already sets the bar ridiculously low.

First, it's horribly written: in the span of three paragraphs, Shaughnessy manages to give two very different worst-case scenarios. Which is it, exactly?

Second, it's horribly argued. If Jeter is not going to move off of shortstop for the Yankees, why would he do it for the Red Sox? Smart baseball people will tell you that Jeter's recent numbers don't justify anyone paying him $20 million a year -- and no one but the Yankees should even pay him $15 million. If I'm the Red Sox, I would make a play for closer Mariano Rivera -- but why sign an aging shortstop when the Red Sox already have one decent veteran (Marco Scutaro) and two pretty promising younger shortstops (Jed Lowrie and Jose Iglesias)?

Shaughnessy thinks the merit of this option is to force the Yankees payroll up. OK, except that a few paragraphs down, he implies that the Red Sox budget is essentially unlimited. There's no world in which a) the sky is blue; and b) the Yankees have a more constrained budget than the Red Sox. Either there are opportunity costs in paying Jeter a lot of money (in which case the cost for the Sox is greater) or both franchises are so rich that money doesn't matter (in which case there's no point to starting a bidding war in the first place).

I've just wasted untold minutes and several neurons of brainpower to explain why Shaughnessy's column might be the stupidest sports column I've read this year. It's not even stupid in an interesting way -- it's just a brainless rant. Arguing when and why Tom Friedman is wrong doesn't feel like the same waste of time to me.

In other words, he deserves his Bullock.

Question to readers: if not Tom Friedman, who would you want to read on world politics on the New York Times op-ed page?

Daniel W. Drezner

What should scholars and foreign policy wonks do with WikiLeaks?

There's going to be a lot of scholars, policy analysts and enthused amateurs who are going to drink up the Wikileaks documents as a great new empirical resource. So they should -- they did nothing to cause their release, and these are documents that ordinarily would have taken 25 years minimum to be declassified.

That said, there's going to be a natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic. That's a more serious problem. For Exhibit A, let's go to Simon Tisdall of The Guardian's interpreting what the Wikileaks documents reveal about how China views North Korea:

China has signaled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime, according to leaked US embassy cables that reveal senior Beijing figures regard their official ally as a "spoiled child"....

The leaked North Korea dispatches detail how:

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      • South Korea's vice-foreign minister said he was told by two named senior Chinese officials that they believed Korea should be reunified under Seoul's control, and that this view was gaining ground with the leadership in Beijing.
      • China's vice-foreign minister told US officials that Pyongyang was behaving like a "spoiled child" to get Washington's attention in April 2009 by carrying out missile tests.
      • A Chinese ambassador warned that North Korean nuclear activity was "a threat to the whole world's security".
      • Chinese officials assessed that it could cope with an influx of 300,000 North Koreans in the event of serious instability, according to a representative of an international agency, but might need to use the military to seal the border.

In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.

Ah, OK, this explains why China has slowly distanced itself from North Korea's recent actions. Oh, wait, I'm sorry, China has done nothing of the sort.

I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.

This is not to imply that China is acting in a particularly perfidious or underhanded manner, by the way. They're acting like any great power would -- stall for time while trying to figure out the best way to handle a troublesome ally. The point is, just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so.