New Year's is a time for resolutions, a time for pledging to shed the bad habits of the previous year. Goodness knows, the foreign policy community and public commentators who occasionally foray into international relations have accumulated a lot of bad habits over the past year. Here's a list of nine memes, tropes, rhetorical tics, and baseless arguments that I'd like to see less of in 2011:
1) [Fill in the blank] is an "existential threat". This term of art has been on the rise for decades, but it seemed omnipresent this past year. To be sure, lots of actors face a lot of threats out there in world politics. The bar has to be pretty high, however, for something to be an "existential threat." For my money, it means that the country or its modus operandi could be completely extinguished.
Using this criteria, there are no existential threats to the United States in the international system. In 2010, this term was increasingly used by Israelis with respect to Iran. So, let's stipulate that if Iran were ever to acquire/develop, say, a dozen nuclear weapons, then the country would represent an existential threat to Israel. Commentators who do this, however, would also need to stipulate that Israel, in possessing 60-85 warheads, has represented an existential threat to Iran for decades.
2) Iran or North Korea are "irrational" actors in world politics. Look, it's a lot of blog fun to point out the absurdities of the Kims or Ahmadinejad -- I get that. Claiming a country's leaders are "irrational" simply because they don't want the same things that you want doesn't make them irrational, however -- it just means that they have a different set of preferences. The question to ask is whether these governments are pursuing their desired ends in a strategic, utility-maximizing manner. Based on their behavior in 2010, I'd say the answer for both governments is yes. So quit saying either Pyongyang or Tehran might be crazy enough to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike for no reason. Both regimes have really strong self-preservation instincts, however -- the "crazy man launching the bomb" contingency ain't gonna happen.
Note that this doesn't make it any easier to bargain with these countries -- these might be zero-sum bargaining situations. Eliminating the "irrationality" dimension, however, might make public debates about what to do a little more grounded.
3) Wikileaks is just like a newspaper: No it isn't. There's a lot of loose talk about how Wikileaks is really just like Bob Woodward or the New York Times in what it's doing. And sure, Wikileaks' Israel Shamir bears more than a passing resemblance to the Times' Walter Duranty. To my knowledge, neither Woodward nor the Times has threatened to publish documents in its possession as a blackmail device, or warn people to get their money out of a financial institution before something damaging is released.
Wikileaks is an NGO with a quixotic leader who really doesn't like the U.S. government... which makes Wikileaks like a lot of other NGOs. I think a lot of invective directed against the organization has been misplaced, and I agree with Gideon Rachman that Wikileaks has actually does the U.S. a favor. That said, tt's not an ethical journalistic entity.
4) Barack Obama does not really believe in American exceptionalism. I've heard this from a lot of Republican wonks that should know better. The meme emerged from an answer that Obama gave at a news conference in April 2009. John Dickerson at Slate addressed this a few weeks ago:
In the complete answer of nearly 300 words... it's clear that Obama is saying something more complex."We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional," he says. What makes this moment notable is not that the president nails it but that, in real time, without a carefully crafted set of talking points to guide him, he is trying to find the balance between singing the song of America and demonstrating before a foreign audience that he understands that America is not the only country in the world.
6) Networks will end hierarchy as we know it. Arguments like this one tend to underestimate the ability of hierarchical organizations to evolve over time. More importantly, networks can have plenty of hierarchy embedded within them.
7) Sarah Palin's views correspond to either American public opinion or the official policy of the U.S. government. Um... no. Palin has perfected the art of using a tweet or Facebook post to capture attention. She's also perfected the art of declining poll numbers and increasing unfavorability ratings.
Some commentators have blurred the distinction between Palin and the United States as a whole. Let's be clear -- Sarah Palin is a private citizen with absolutely no official authority. Using her as an example of how "America" or the "United States government" feels about an issue is disingenuous in the extreme. When the Wall Street Journal editorial page sides with Michelle Obama over Sarah Palin, I think it's safe to say that the former Alaska governor has jumped the shark.
8) Because some international relations uses numbers, it's useless to foreign policymakers. Click here and here -- really, there was a surprising amount of crap written about this topic this year, and it would be just peachy if it could stop.
9) 2011 will be all about zombies. Oh, wait... that one is true.
OK, there's a lot of smack talk in this post. So, in the interest of karma, readers are warily encouraged to suggest what my 2011 reslutions should be for the blog.
[You meant warmly, right?--ed. Uh.. sure.]