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Is there such a thing as a consequentialist grand srategy?

Ryan Lizza has a 9,000+ word exegesis on the Obama administration's foreign policy decisionmaking in The New Yorker.  For anyone who's paid attention to this debate over the past six weeks, there's nothing terribly new -- for those who haven't however, it's a decent summary.  The key parts for me:

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

In December, 2009, Obama announced that he would draw down U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of his first term. He also promised, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year, that he was “moving toward a more targeted approach” that “dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.”

“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”....

Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.” (emphasis added)

There's something that's really frustrating about the structure of the essay, and then something else that's frustrating about the content.  Both of them involve China. 

On the structure - despite Lizza's 9,000 words, and despite Obama's stated intention to reorient American foreign policy to be less Middle East-focused, the essay.... is totally focused on the Middle East.  I'm not saying that the Middle East is unimportant, but I'd have liked to have read something about how the Obama administration is dealing with the rest of the world.  Indeed, Lizzaa notes that Obama visited South America during the opening days of the Libya operation precisely "to show that America has interests in the rest of the world."  Despite this effort, the thrust of the article demonstrates its futility during the start of a war.  New military conflicts crowd out attention that should be paid to other arenas of foreign policy.  It would have been nice to see how the administration's strategy is playing/affecting the rest of the world.

The problem with the content is that bolded section.  To tweak Tom Donilon a little bit, I'd characterize it as a "static and one-dimensional assessment" of the U.S. strategic position.  It doesn't allow for the possibility that rising states might experience their own dips in national power, or that attitudes towards the United States might improve as a consequence of shifts in U.S. strategy. 

Countries make strategic missteps when they overestimate or underestimate their own capabilities.  The Bush administration was clearly guilty of overestimation, but there are ways in which the Obama administration is equally guilty of underestimation. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

One field's technical wizardry is another field's hidebound scholasticism

I'm starting to read Dani Rodrik's provocative book The Globalization Paradox, which is well-written, accessible, and (so far, at least) quite fair-minded with respect to the various economic debates over the costs and benefits of globalization.  It's also, really, a book of political economy, so it's nice to see that, based on his footnotes, Rodrik has more than a passing familiarity with political science in general and global political economy in particular. 

I'll blog more about Rodrik's substantive arguments once I've  finished the book, but I wanted to take this opportunity to offer a mild dissent from an early point he makes about the social sciences.  In his introduction (p. xx), Rodrik argues that the ideas of economists are very powerful -- more powerrful than the other social sciences.  Why?: 

It is perhaps natural for an economist like me to think that ideas--and economists' ideas in particular--matter a whole lot.  But I think it is hard to overestate the influence that these ideas have hadf in molding our understanding of the world around us, shaping the conversation among politicians and other decisionmakers, and constraining as well as expanding our choices.  Political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others would no doubt claim equal credit for their professions.  Policy choices are surely constrained by special interests and their political organization, by deeper societal trends, and by historical conditions.  But by virtue of its technical wizardry and appearance of certitude, economic science has had the upper hand since at least the end of World War II.  It has provided the language with which we discuss public policy and shaped the topology of our collective mental map (emphasis added).

Now, Rodrik is correct up to a point.  Economists have been viewed as being at the head of the ssocial sciences for quite some time, and their unity of method probably has something to do with it.  That said, this explanation only goes so far.  As many have lamented, the field of international relations has increasingly embraced the tools of economics to develop and test theories, and yet the foreign policy community has not displayed an equal eagerness to have the topology of their mental maps shaped by this kind of analysis.  Rodrik does not explain why economic policymakers decided to accept these methods as a valid basis to form policy. 

To repeat a point I made a few months ago: 

[T]he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn't mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community.... Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I'd love to have a debate about whether that's a good or bad thing, but my point is that's the reality we face.

I had this observation confirmed in conversations I had with a political scientist working for the current administratioon who shall remain nameless.  Whenever this person attempted to discuss generic political science observations in a staff meeting, the inevitable response by someone in the room was, "well, that sounds nice in theory, but it doesn't apply to this concrete situation."  I guarantee you that no one has ever said anything like that to Ben Bernanke in a policy setting. 

So, to sum up:  when economists use formal models, it's technical wizardry.  When political scientists do the same, it's hidebound scholasticism. 

There's a supply side and a demand-side to the interactions between academics and policymakers.  Both economists and political scientists have supplied copious amounts of high-quality research, much of it relying on formal models and statistical tests.  On the demand side, however, only one group of policymakers has embraced this research with open arms. 

Am I missing anything?