A just war on foreign policy neologisms

In the world of international relations and foreign policy, if you can coin a new phrase or neologism, you've hit the big time.  Think "containment," "clash of civilizations," "end of history," "Washington Consensus," and so forth.  How this happens is some weird alchemy of the term itself, the idea it encapsulates, and the receptivity of the foreign affairs community.  Once it happens, it can't be undone -- and this isn't always a good thing:  Joseph Nye has spent decades trying to rebrand "soft power" as "smart power" to little avail (possibly because someone else popularized the latter term first).  I'm sure whichever Obama administration official said "leading from behind" wishes that Ryan Lizza had never used the quote.  Still, if you suggest a new term of art and it catches on, you've secured speaking engagements for the rest of your days. 

This assumes, however, that your neologism will catch on -- and most of them don't.  This is a good thing, I might add, because most of them are dreadful.  For example, Zalmay Khalilzad has a new essay in The Washington Quarterly entitled, "A Strategy of 'Congagement' toward Pakistan."  If you're wondering what "congagement" means, it's "applying a mixed arsenal of methods to contain Pakistan’s dangerous and destabilizing policies but also to engage Islamabad to sustain existing cooperation and incentivize it to move toward more."  Now, this just sounds awful, which is why it hasn't caught on despite the attempts of Khalilzad and others to incept it into the foreign policy community's collective subconscious. 

I don't mean to pick on Khalilzad -- he's hardly the only offender.  James Rosenau tried to introduce "fragmegration" -- blech.  The term "glocalization" has had a somewhat more successful run, but that's only by comparison to "fragmegration."  For my money, "slacktivism" is the only example of this genre of fusing two words together that sounds even remotely good.  Just as bad were the raft of grand strategy terms that came out in the middle of last decade that attempted to fuse realism and liberalism together:  progressive realism, realistic Wilsonianism, ethical realism, liberal realism, etc.  None of them really took off.* 

In the interest of improving foreign policy writing and reducing the pain one encounters when reading these awful neologisms, there needs to be a flexible freeze on these efforts.  Even if most phrases of this kind are accurate in what they are describing, the neologisms are so painful to the eyes and grating to the ears that they leech away any force that exists in the underlying argument.  

Instead, I hereby offer a humble suggestion:  embrace the metaphor.  The problem with most efforts to brand a term is that they're too literal:  a fusion of two nouns, or an adjective and a noun, to explain a concept.  Metaphors, because they make the intangible more tangible, stick in the brain better.  This is one reason why "leading from behind" worked, as has "the pivot."

The danger of course, is that metaphors don't always perfectly capture the  foreign policy concepts one wants to describe (such as the pivot).  It's a dangerous game -- but so is world politics.  As someone who's had to wade through this crap for well over a decade now, failed metaphors will at least entertain the reader better than God-awful neologisms.  So give the literary device a try, members of the foreign policy community -- and please, for the love of God, stop trying to fuse words together!! 

Full disclosure:  I've haven't really succeeded in this task either, although the only time I think I ever tried was "counterpunching." 

Daniel W. Drezner

Why economic prosperity is still something of a mystery

Your humble blogger is currently knee-deep in a pedagogical project on the foundations of economic prosperity.  You can imagine my delight, then, that Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a new book coming out on that very topic:  Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.  There's an excerpt in the Montreal Review -- let's see how it opens, shall we?

To understand what these institutions are and what they do, take another society divided by a border. South and North Korea. The people of South Korea have living standards similar to those of Portugal and Spain. To the north, in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, living standards are akin to those of a sub-Saharan African country, about one tenth of average living standards in South Korea. The health of North Koreans is in an even worse state; the average North Korean can expect to live ten years less than their cousins to the south of the 38th parallel.

These striking differences are not ancient. In fact they did not exist prior to the end of the Second World War. But after 1945 the different governments in the north and the south adopted very different ways of organizing their economies....

It should be no surprise that the economic fortunes of South and North Korea diverged sharply. Kim Il-Sung's command economy soon proved to be a disaster. Detailed statistics are not available from North Korea, which is a secretive state to say the least. Nonetheless, available evidence confirms what we know from the all too often recurring famines: not only did industrial production fail to take off but North Korea in fact experienced a collapse in agricultural productivity. Lack of private property meant that few had incentives to invest or exert effort to increase or even maintain productivity. The stifling repressive regime was inimical to innovation and adoption of new technologies. But Kim Il-Sung, his son and successor, the "dear leader" Kim Jong-Il, and their cronies had no intention to reform the system, or to introduce private property, markets, private contracts, and economic and political freedoms. North Korea continues to stagnate economically, and there is no sign that anything will be different under the new "dear leader" Kim Jong-un.

Meanwhile in the south economic institutions encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians invested in education, achieving high rates of literacy and schooling. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of the relatively educated population, the policies encouraging investment and industrialization, the export markets, and the transfer of technology. South Korea became one of East Asia's `Miracle Economies,' one of the most rapidly growing nations in the world. By the late 1990s, in just about half a century, South Korean growth and North Korean stagnation led to a tenfold gap between the two halves of this once-united country---imagine what a difference a couple centuries could make. The economic disaster of North Korea, which not only prevented growth but led to the starvation of millions, when placed against the South Korean economic success, is striking: neither culture nor geography nor ignorance can explain the divergent paths of North and South Korea....

The contrast of South and North Korea illustrates a general principle: inclusive economic institutions foster economic activity, productivity growth and economic prosperity, while extractive economic institutions generally fail to do so. Property rights are central, since only those who have secure property rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A farmer, for example, who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated or entirely taxed away would have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations. But extractive economic institutions do exactly that and fail to uphold property rights of workers, farmers, traders and businessmen.

It will not shock you, my dear readers, to learn that I agree with Acemoglu and Robinson.  Indeed, as Ezra Klein showed with the following chart, the divergent paths of North and South Korea represents ironclad evidence about the power of instituions to determine prosperity: 

Well, that's pretty damn persuasive, isn't it?  It seems pretty friggin' obvious which institutions work and which ones don't! 

Actually, to be more accurate, it seems pretty friggin' obvious now.  Here's another chart that extends that graph back another two decades: 

Things look sightly different in this chart.  That massive divergence is still there, but what's stunning is that for the 25 years before that, the DPRK and ROK looked exactly the same in terms of per capital income.  Indeed, as Nicholas Eberstadt notes

Around the time of Mao Zedong's death (1976), North Korea was more educated, more productive and (by the measure of international trade per capita) much more open than China. Around that same time, in fact, per capita output in North Korea and South Korea may have been quite similar. Today, North Korea has the awful distinction of being the only literate and urbanized society in human history to suffer mass famine in peacetime. 

My point here is not to defend Kim Il Sung or suggest that the DPRK's economic institutions are underrated.  Rather, my point is that as data analysts, we're all prisoners of time.  Had Acemoglu and Robinson written Why Nations Fail in the mid-1970s, it would have either made a different argument or it would have had a much tougher case to make about the merits of inclusive vs. extractive institutions (during the 1970s, commodity extracting states were looking pretty good). 

Keep these charts in mind whenever anyone confidently asserts the obvious superiority of a particular model of political economy.  Because, I assure you, there was a point in time when such superiority was far from obvious.  And there might be another such point in the future.