The Man With No Divisions retires

Well, this is big news:

Pope Benedict XVI told shocked cardinals on Monday that he would step down from the pontificate at the end of this month, citing his age and infirmity to explain the decision to become the first man to relinquish the role voluntarily since 1294.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” the 85-year old said in a message to cardinals.

He added that in the modern world “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”.

The Vatican said that the papacy would remain vacant between February 28 and whenever the College of Cardinals elected his successor. The conclave for the election will not begin until the pope’s abdication at 8pm in Rome (7pm GMT) on February 28.

Antonio Socci, a conservative columnist who wrote last year about the possibility of the pope’s resignation, said it would be “like playing tombola” – an Italian form of bingo – to predict the next pope. The main decision facing the 120 cardinal electors at the conclave next month would be whether to opt for “continuity or change”, he told the Financial Times.

If you're interested in gaming out who will be the next Pope, click over to Paul Musgrave's excellent summary of the literature over at Duck of Minerva

I'm more interested in a simpler question -- why do we care?  As Stathys Kalyvas tweeted this am


 Riffing on Stalin's oft-quoted line, what is it about the Catholic Pope that means attention must be paid?  What is the source of the Pope's power? 

Well, one obvious reason is that Catholicism still commands a fair number of adherents.  According to the CIA World Factbook, close to 17% of the world's population is Catholic.  It's the largest denomination in Christendom.  Only Muslims have more adherents, but that's deceptive since the CIA combines Shi'a and Sunni Muslims.  From an international relations perspective, if power equals numbers, there appears to be a tripolar distribution of religious adherents between Catholics, Hindus, and Sunni Muslims. 

Another source of influence is the Catholic Church's long tradition and legacy.  If the Church is merely one of many now, back in its prime it was Europe's religious and secular superpower, which leads to all kinds of legacy effects.  Britain and France are still on the U.N. Security Council because they were great powers back in the day, for example.  The same applies to the Catholic Church.  Benedict XVI's resignation was noteworthy in that only four other popes have resigned in the past millennium -- and each of those cases comes with quite a story.  So tradition can create lasting legacies of power as well. 

Still, I'd argue that the biggest reason the Pope matters from a power perspective is that, simply put, the Catholic Church is the most centralized religious organization in human history. -- hell, save the Communist Party, it might be the most centralized organization period.  With such a structure, it matters cruicially who heads it.  In contrast, the other major religions do not have anything close to the church bureaucracy or organizational resoirces. 

This is a banal point, but it's worth remembering in a century where the emphasis is on "networked" structures and the flattening of hierarchies and what-not.  There are very good reasons for these kinds of organizational changes.  If one cares about power, however, then centralization is still a crucial quality.  Which is why non-Catholics are still interested in who the next Pope will be. 

[Burned a lot of white smoke to write this post, didn't you?--ed.  I see what you're doing here...]

Daniel W. Drezner

I'm automating my blog posts about Iran

Your humble blogger is a busy man. There are books to write, referee reports to complete, committee meetings to attend, grant proposals to craft, silver prices to fix at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweets to tweet, witty blog posts to devise, and petty acts of professorial revenge to enact. He doesn't have time to revisit an ongoing international crisis with no changes in the dynamic. 

So, after reading Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger's front-pager in the New York Times and Jason Rezaian's story in the Washington Post, I think we're at the stage where it's possible to automate any blog post on  the Iran crisis. Here are the seven key points to make in any \post of this nature going forward, with quotes from one of these two stories as evidence: 

1) There is a deal on the nuclear issue that can be agreed upon any time both sides are interested in an agreement. From Erdbrink and Sanger:

The outlines of a nuclear deal have been clear for months: an Iranian agreement to limit the number of centrifuges that produce uranium, a cap on the amount of fuel in Iranian hands, and an agreement to ship its most potent stockpiles — the stuff that can be quickly converted to bomb fuel — out of the country. It would also have to agree to expose its history of nuclear work, including any on weapons technology, which it has refused to show international inspectors. In return, Iran would get an acknowledgment that it has a right to peaceful nuclear enrichment, and a gradual lifting of the sanctions.

2) The sanctions against Iran will be tightened until there is a nuclear deal. From Erdbrink and Sanger: 

The existing sanctions on financial transactions have also forced Iran to engage in unfavorable oil-for-goods barter trade with its biggest customers, China and India. Chinese goods and medicine from India are prominently featured in stores and pharmacies across the country.

And now Iranian economic ingenuity will be tested again. Under the new crackdown, the United States is tightening the rules governing countries it has allowed to keep buying Iranian oil, as long as they show they are weaning themselves of it. From now on, when China, Japan, South Korea and India, among others, pay for oil deliveries, they will be required to put that money into a local bank account, which Iran can use only to buy goods within that country.

It is a way of keeping the money from ever being repatriated to Iran, even through third parties.

3) Iran will reject any linkage between negotiation and coercion, even though any final deal will be a function of both factors. From Rezaian: 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that will not solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

"I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” said Khamenei, according to a report by Iran's Mehr News agency. “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions."

4) American officials will express concerns in public about the rationality of the Iranian leadership. From Erdbrink and Sanger: 

Obama administration officials were disturbed by a new analysis, prepared for the president and his staff, that paints a picture of the supreme leader as so walled off from what is happening with his country’s oil revenues that he is telling visitors that the sanctions are hurting the United States more than they are hurting Iran.

“The people may be suffering in Iran,” one senior official involved in Iran strategy said last week, “but the supreme leader isn’t, and he’s the only one who counts.”

5) The sanctions will continue to inflict serious damage on the Iranian economy without beinging the regime to its knees. From Erdbrink and Sanger: 

The Iranian economy’s resiliency could surprise Westerners. The way Iran’s economy is structured, with strong links between state bodies and semiofficial and private businesses, helps shield the country, said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist for the Sharq newspaper, which is critical of the government....

Others are more pessimistic, saying the effects of the sanctions have still not been fully felt.

“If the sanctions, government mismanagement and inflation continue naturally in the future, we will encounter serious difficulties,” said Mohsen Farshad Yekta, a professor of economics at the University of Economic Sciences in Tehran.

6) Force will be brandished as an option but not used against Iran. Nick Burns is not known for being a terribly militaristic diplomat, but here's what he told Erdbrink and Sanger about how to deal with Iran:

[T]he U.S. must remain patient and commit to direct talks at the highest levels. But, ultimately both Obama and Netanyahu also need to make the threat of force more credible to Tehran. Combined with sanctions, this may be the most effective way to convince Iran to agree to a peaceful, negotiated settlement.

Chuck Hagel said similar things during his confirmation hearing.  No U.S. official is gonna take force off the table -- but short of a deliberate Iranian provocation in the region, it's not gonna be used. 

7) And the last, most important point: everyone involved -- with the possible exception of Israel -- is pretty comfortable with the status quo. The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons.  Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat. 

So... unless and until there's a change in the status quo -- and there hasn't been for some time -- I'll just link back to this post when I need to post my quarterly musings on What to Do About Iran. Or I'll program a bot to cull the updated version of the quotes above to point out that nothing fundamental has changed.