Voice

Why foreign economic policy wonks will be in a grumpy mood until Election Day

The Financial Times' Alan Beattie is in a grumpy mood about the 2012 campaign, which leads to a wonderfully cranky column about the appalling campaign rhetoric on the global economy: 

Hypocrisy and exaggeration may be an inevitable part of any election campaign, but the discussions on international economics and trade have had experts in the field longing for next Tuesday’s vote to be over.

Herds of peaceably grazing policy wonks have been left shaking their heads in dismay as the marauding presidential campaigns have rampaged through their turf, leaving a trail of wrong-headed assumptions, non sequiturs and outright falsehoods strewn behind them....

Unfortunately, a realistic debate would involve admitting that some of the biggest international economic threats to the US are outside any administration’s influence, and thus destroy an implicit pact to maintain the myth of presidential omnipotence....

And, most likely, we’ll be back here again in four years’ time, with the challenger accusing the incumbent of selling out to China and letting jobs be shipped overseas and the incumbent, by accepting the premise of the attack, ensuring another debate about the global economy that takes place at an oblique angle to reality.

I'm moderately more optimistic than Beattie on what will happen next year on the foreign economic policy front regardless of who wins on Tuesday, but he's not wrong about the ridiculously stupid four-year political cycle. 

Unfortunately, if foreign economic policy wonks were honest with ourselves, we'd have to acknowledge that the truth would not really be a big political winner, unless you think the following speech would really bring out the undecideds:

I strongly favor inking more trade and investment agreements on behalf of the United States.  Yes, it's likely true that greater globalization is one of the lesser drivers for increased inequality in the United States.  Oh, and no trade deal is going to be a jobs bonanza -- the sectors that trade extensively are becoming so productive that they don't lead to a lot of direct job creation.  Will some jobs be lost from these deals?  Probably a few, but not a lot.  But on average, greater globalization will boost our productivity a bit, which will in turn cause the economy to grow just a bit faster, which will indirectly create some jobs.  Goods will be cheaper, which benefits consumers.  Oh, and by the way, there are some decent security benefits that come with signing trade agreements.  

Finally, the rest of the world is going to keep signing free trade agreeements and bilateral invesment treaties whether we play this game or not.  So we can choose to stand pat and have our firms and consumers lose out on the benefits of additional gains from globalization, or we can actually, you know, lead or something.  Your call.   Greater integration with the rest of the globe is no economic panacea, but the one thing we're pretty sure about is that most of the policy alternatives stink on ice.

Here's a challenge to foreign economic policy wonks -- can the above message be sexed up at all without overpromising?  In other words, what would be the best possible campaign rhetoric about foreign economic policy that would have the benefit of also being true? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Does the international affairs community need some Razzies?

Your humble blogger was innocently surfing the web yesterday when someone linked to Niall Ferguson's latest Newsweek column.  Now even though I've warned everyone -- repeatedly -- not to go to there, I made the mistake of clicking.  And this is what I saw: 

Everyone knows there could be a surprise before Nov. 6—a news story that finally makes up the minds of those undecided voters in the swing states and settles the presidential election.

[T]he only kind of surprise I can envisage is a foreign-policy surprise. And if the polls get any scarier for the incumbent, we might just have one.

Recently The New York Times--increasingly the official organ of the Obama administration—offered a tease. “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks” ran the headline. In the story, the Times quoted unnamed officials as saying that one-on-one talks with Iran had been agreed to in “a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”....

Not only that. If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs....

[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

A few things: 

1)  Here's a pro tip:  if your foreign affairs observations represent a reprise of wacky Donald Trump musings, maybe it's best to take your ball and go home. 

2)  It's really kind of adorable that Ferguson thinks a foreign policy surprise would move that many voters.  Sorry, Niall, while presidents eventually pivot to foreign policy, it's not going to matter that much to undecideds right now. 

3)  If you want a foreign policy "tell" that Obama is in such serious straits that he's willing to gamble on a foreign policy initiative, there's a smaller-bore policy that would work better:  an opening to Cuba.  If Obama suggests that in the remaining week, it's a sign that:  a) he thinks Florida is a lost cause; and b) he is trying to shore up support in the midwest with agricultural concerns that would love a new export market. 

4)  The laziness involved in Ferguson's essay got me to thinking.... could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012?  How can we be sure?  I mean, to be fair, Ferguson cited a real New York Times story in the column -- that indicated an actual modicum of effort.  As I suggested last night, it might be an interesting exercise to create an NCAA-style bracket competition to determine the Worst International Affairs Essay of 2012.  Why shouldn't the foreign policy community have it's own version of the Razzies

To that end, I hereby ask commeters and the foreign affairs blogosphere to suggest candidate entries and possible rules for  this contest, as well as possible judges.  We'll see if there's enough momentum to add this contest to the coveted Albies