Five American Foreign Policy Fact-Checks for Thanksgiving

As Thanksgivukkah approaches, a lot of people are offering a lot of advice for how to stand your political ground at the family meal.  The hard-working staff at this blog would never presume that its readers share the same ideological predilections as its woolly-headed author.  There are, however, some matters of fact that are often ignored/neglected/not know in the first place when family relations start talking American foreign policy.  Sooo..... below are five oft-asserted statements that might come up this holiday -- and a useful primer on what you should say in response: 

1.  WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY:  "The United States doesn't really make anything anymore." 

WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY:  "Say, I have this Uncle Fred -- from the other side of the family -- who actually reports on economic statistics for a living.  He sent me these two charts that are worth a look: 

Hey, the U.S. makes a LOT of stuff

The U.S. exports a lot too

"Huh. So it turns out that the U.S. produces and exports a lot of stuff.  I think the problem is that while America still produces a lot, fewer people have jobs to make stuff.  Yep, see, Uncle Fred is on it: 

Fewer people make stuff now

So I guess this is like agriculture -- America is super-productive at manufacturing -- so productive that not that many people work in that sector anymore.  Excellent soup this year, by the way."

2.  WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY:  "In my day, the U.S. was the cock of the walk.  Now, China is more powerful than the United States." 

WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY:  "Yeah, a lot of people think that nowadays, but I wonder how true it really is?  I mean, the U.S. economy is still larger than China, U.S. military power is much larger than China, and the U.S. image abroad is more positive than China.  Even pundits that talked China up a few years ago as a model challenging the United States appear to be changing their tune.  I mean, yea, China is a great power, but maybe some people are kinda exaggerating China's ascent a bit?  Pass the chestnut stuffing, please." 

3.  WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY:  "Israel runs American foreign policy in the Middle East!" 

WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY:  "I can see why you might think that, what with so many members of Congress talking about protecting Israel and other arguments that persist in the ether.  But I wonder... the administration just cut an interim deal with Iran that Israel really doesn't like.  This comes after years in which the Israeli prime minister begged for U.S. military action against Iran and the Obama administration refused. And that comes after previous years when Israel begged the United States to bomb Syria and the Bush administration refused.  Israel and the United States also disagreed pretty sharply about the handling of the Arab Spring.  Not to mention that the current administration has been pretty critical of the Israeli expansion of housing settlements in the occupied territories.  So maybe it's more like Israel has a powerful but limited voice over U.S. moves in the Middle East.  Man, this gravy for the turkey is delicious!!" 

4.  WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY:  "Vladimir Putin is running rings around the United States everywhere!!" 

WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY:  "Yeah, I see that Forbes claimed that Putin was the most powerful man in the world.  But even Steve Forbes himself, in response to criticism, noted that "The U.S. is many times larger economically and militarily than Russia. There’s no disputing that."  If you look at the globe, Russia is not even close to being America's geopolitical equal.  Most of the places where Putin has had success has been in places where the United States did not want to use force.  There are some exceptions -- granting Edward Snowden asylum, forcing Ukraine to give up an integration agreement with the European Union - but those are exceptions.  So even if you're right that Putin is having a good year, he's still playing a very weak hand, and he fundamentally does not "get" the United States.  Pass the mashed potatoes, please!"

5.  WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY:  "Everything has gone to hell since the 2008 financial crisis." 

WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "I can see why you think that.  But I hear that there's this brilliant book coming out in 2014 that's arguing that, on the whole, the system worked remarkably well after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  Maybe you should buy a copy -- and five other copies for your friends -- when it comes out.  And gimme another slice of pumpkin pie!!" 


6.  WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY:  "I don't see why we have to spend so much of our taxpayer dollars on other countries.  If we cut foreign aid that would really help balance the budget!!

WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "Yeah, a lot of people think that, but I'm pretty sure it's not true.  The Center for Global Development has some useful charts here.  If you add up all international affairs spending -- not just foreign aid, but the State Department budget too -- well, you get this: 

We don't spend a lot on foreign aid

And we've been spending less over time, actually....

Foreign aid as a % of gov't spending has declined

Daniel W. Drezner

Why the Asymmetry in Foreign Policy Punditry is Worse Than Munich

After a few days of digesting the details the interim Iran deal, the uber-hawks in the American foreign policy community have cogitated and... completely ignored my advice to "chill" and are going all "worse than Munich" on the deal.  I must concede that both Kevin Drum and Daniel Larison called this one correctly.

I was planning on vivisecting this kind of hyperbolic argument, but I see that Reason's Matt Welch beat me to the punch and thrashed this Munich analogy to within an inch of its life (and -- deservedly -- placing some of the blame on John Kerry).  He concludes:

Bad historical analogies do not convert the targets of their criticism to good international decisions. But they do suggest an intellectual rot among those who are once again banging the drums for preventative Middle Eastern war. All recent history points to treating their most recent claims with a prophylactic skepticism, and recognizing their go-to analogy as a crude, ahistorical gimmick to escalate military confrontation.

I agree with Welch that the Munich analogy has been degraded to the point where #worsethanMunich deserves it's own Alanis Morisette song that permanently devalues the term.  That said, I do wonder whether this sort of hyperbole really will devalue the reputation of foreign policy pundits who trot it out. 

See, there's a curious but understandable asymmetry in foreign affairs punditry.  Warning about an apocalypse that does not happen doesn't exact that much of a toll on a pundit's reputation.  After all, it's the job of the pundit to warn about the dangers of world politics, to pore over the downside risks of every region, to spin tales of looming disaster in the air.  That's perceived as prudence by readers.  And if the predicted end of the world doesn't happen?  Well, that's likely because the pundit's loud warnings prompted preventive action (or so they will tell themselves as they drift off to sleep). 

On the other hand, predicting that a foreign policy negotiation will turn out well when it doesn't is tantamount to turning in your Very Serious Person card in the foreign policy community.  It demonstrates naïveté and optimism, which are bad nouns when associated with foreign affairs commentary.  Inevitably, Optimists Who Turned Out to be Wrong get matched up with Norman Angell or Francis Fukuyama in the "foolish Panglossians" category. 

As someone who's putting the finishing touches on a like-minded argument, I've become keenly aware of this asymmetry.  Indeed, I even understand it.  Foreign policy pundits probably should be risk-averse, focusing on minimizing losses more than maximizing gains, because the losses can be irrevocable.  That said, a price should be paid for debasing historical analogies worse than the interwar Deutschemark.  It would be nice if, a few years from now, the people who claimed that an interim nuclear deal was worse than Munich earned a similarly ignominious label. 

What do you think?