Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Focusing on History for Policy

[I’m fairly distracted by the Las Conchas fire threatening Los Alamos. Yesterday, the residents of the town were required to leave. The fire chief says that today is the make-or-break day. Since Sunday, more than 60,000 acres have burned. It’s been windy, but with the promise of scattered thunderstorms and a bit more humidity than we’ve had. If you want to get the latest news of the fire, #nmfire on Twitter seems to be the best source.

Before the fire started, I began a series of posts on another topic. Here’s the first, and I hope to have another, two if necessary, over the next few days.]

Stephen Walt looks at the big picture, as does John Quiggin.

Walt wonders if the institutions built up in the twentieth century in response to the disorder and death of the first half of that century will endure.
Looking back, a striking feature of the past two decades is that the central features of U.S. foreign policy and the basic Cold War institutions remained largely unchanged long after the Cold War ended. NATO is still around; our bilateral security ties in Asia haven't changed much, and we retained pretty much the same set of allies and policies in the Middle East. The United States continues to think of itself as the "indispensable power" and the Leader of the Free World (which is a bit ironic given our incarceration rate), and Democratic and Republican policy wonks spend most of their time debating how and where to use American power, but never questioning whether it was right or proper or wise to use it in lots of places. Despite an enormous set of structural changes, in short, the central features of U.S. foreign policy have remained quite constant.

The end of the Cold War -- and the brief "unipolar moment" that followed it -- just meant the United States could throw its weight around a bit more without worrying that a hostile great power might try to stop us. Instead, it was a combination of hubris, ignorance, and arrogance that led us into a series of costly quagmires, accompanied by a self-inflicted financial meltdown that stemmed from an equally toxic combination of arrogance and avarice.
Quiggin is trying to decide if Marxian analysis is useful in today’s world.
One of the most powerful feature of Marxian analysis is the idea that crisis is a normal part of capitalism rather than an aberration resulting from exogenous shocks. Marx asserts that crises arise from inherent contradictions in the system and proposes a dialectical account by which the resolution of one crisis produces the contradictions that set the scene for the next. That seems to me to remain valuable.

On the other hand, the central point of Marx’s theory of crisis was the claim that crises would grow steadily more intense, driven by the declining rate of profit, until they brought about the revolutionary overthrow of the system. Hence, despite the short-term suffering they caused, crises were to be welcomed as steps on the path to the inevitable downfall of the system.

Once the link between crisis and revolution is abandoned, it is necessary to reconsider the whole analysis of crises. Without the declining rate of profit and the inevitable progress towards revolution, it is obvious that different crises have had different effects on class relations.
Both of those are at a high level of abstraction; both adduce more specific facts in their investigations, but those facts are still abstracted from a lot of actions by a lot of people.

In contrast, I’m reading The Decision to Intervene, by George Kennan, which is concerned almost entirely with the specifics of American actions in immediate response to the Russian Revolution. It reads like an adventure novel. Governments trying to achieve goals at cross-purposes; people with weapons facing each other; communications botched; travel and transport impeded; unpredictable events reversing careful planning.

Kennan studied the documents available in the late 1960s, which provided a great deal of detail. His purpose was to analyze how the decision to intervene was made by the American President and the British Prime Minister. The Tsar had been overthrown by extremists in the middle of a war against the Central Powers, mainly Germany and the disintegrating Hapsburg Empire, and Russia had withdrawn from the war. Who was in charge in Russia? Were they in league with the Germans? What was happening to the supplies the Allies had sent Russia to help in the war? Although there was much to dislike about the Bolsheviks, should the Allies side with the monarchists?

The Allies’ men on the ground in Russia, foreign service officers and businessmen, each had his own view of the situation and his own reasons for wanting to sway their governments one way or the other. Ego and ambition provided their usual animus and confusion. Communications and travel were more difficult then than now, but it’s not at all clear to me that dealing with a revolution in an enormous country of many different interests would be a lot easier now. Or revolutions in smaller countries. Our communications problem now tends toward too much information. And garbling persists.

The posts and the book provide two perspectives on history: the grand overview and the specific actions of human beings. The interplay between the two is essential for a policymaker’s understanding of history.

In presidential campaigns, foreign policy tends to be discussed at the grand overview level. Out of Afghanistan! Zero Nukes! That’s inevitable under the constraints of a campaign. But it’s also misleading.

Those two- and three-word slogans, brought down to particular human actions, get a lot messier. What effect would withdrawing from Afghanistan have on Pakistan, India, China, Iran, and other countries in the region? What message will be taken by allies and others? How can the message we want to send be reinforced? Where can troops be withdrawn from? How might various players drag their feet if they don’t agree? What are the responses of the defense contractors and their political allies likely to be? How fast can people and machinery be moved?

The nuke slogan, translated into actions, provokes an equally long list of questions that must be answered. What will the responses of other players in the game be? Does this undermine the fragile trust with Russia enabled by the arms control process? How fast can the physical objects be handled, disassembled?

There are many more questions as well. The questions can be deployed as delaying tactics, but they really do need some answers. But the other side of that argument is that actions have a time value, and sooner may well be better than later.

And then there are the imponderables. Stuff happens. A gigantic earthquake in Japan. A battalion of Czech soldiers, bound for Vladivostok on the way to join the Allies at the Western Front, winds up joining the White Army in civil war. Dodgy housing deals bring down the international economy. Revolutions begin in Arab countries.

With all that going on, policymakers have to keep the big picture, the long-range goals, in view. Easy tactical moves can make the goals harder to reach.

Finding the balance point for making decisions is hard. Not getting it right can be disastrous for those in power. But pundits get it wrong all the time. More about that to come.

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