Think that backing American diplomacy with the threat of air strikes will bring Assad to the table? Think again: I have a new piece out at the National Interest explaining why this policy won’t bring an end to the conflict in Syria. You can read it here.
I don’t know whether I can add much to the discussion of the historic “Brexit” vote through which the British public opted to leave the European Union. I am most troubled not by the vote itself but by the discourse among my mostly liberal well-educated peers about how this disgraceful action was undertaken by xenophobic and short-sighted voters; perhaps most tone deaf was a Facebook post I saw bemoaning the lost opportunity for British young people to freely work and travel and study and marry abroad as a result of this vote. News flash: the children of the middle and upper classes will always be able to find a way to spend a semester in Florence. Somehow I doubt that the majority of the voting British public saw the issue this way.
Although I do follow British news media—partly for work and partly out of personal interest—and have spent time in the UK in the past couple of years conducting research and visiting family, I’m not qualified to judge whether British society is experiencing an upsurge in racism and anti-foreign sentiment or whether this vote was tied to more concrete economic concerns. I do worry that the commentary about the vote dismisses those who voted to leave the EU in the same way that much of the liberal media in the US dismisses presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as a racism-stoking buffoon. I think Trump is tapping into a deep vein of anger and frustration with a globalized economy that has left many Americans behind. (This is not to dismiss the very real problems of racism and sexism in the United States that Trump highlights. Undoubtedly some of Trump’s supporters are drawn to him precisely because of the offensive attitudes he spouts.) But assuming all of Trump’s supporters are narrow-minded racists is very dangerous for the left and for the Democratic party. The Democrats used to be the party of populism, but now they seem to be struggling to identify the grievances of working Americans, let alone respond to them.
The Brexit vote does strike me as an interesting case for theorists of international relations. As someone who adheres mostly to a defensive realist perspective on international politics, I have always been a bit skeptical of the EU. The nature of the organization is to ask states to surrender control over their national policies in exchange for access to a single currency and economic market. In this sense, the EU is a peculiarly anti-democratic organization—particularly for one that lists democracy among the preconditions for membership. (Think of how Greece was punished when its citizens voted—yes, voted, that most democratic of activities—to reject continued austerity measures in the summer of 2015.) Can we imagine if NAFTA had contained a provision that surrendered our national monetary policy to some unelected body also responsible for Canada and Mexico? The idea would be laughable in the American context, yet somehow we are surprised that the UK would opt to retake control over its own immigration and trade policies by voting to leave the EU. We will see whether this is the first in a series of falling dominoes to exit the union.
I am a little late to the party, but I just finished reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (Penguin: 2012). On the whole, it is an excellent book that makes the fields of statistics and probability accessible to lay readers. Silver builds on his own work in baseball and in predicting election results to explore why it is so challenging to make predictions about the future across many fields, from meteorology to earthquakes to national security. One of the chapters I found most interesting concerned the behavior of “pundits,” or the people you might see on television on Sunday morning making predictions about political outcomes. Silver analyzed a particular group of pundits and found that their predictions were no more accurate than a coin toss—and yet they are still asked to return to the show every week.
Silver draws on fascinating work by Phil Tetlock to explore a number of reasons why political outcomes are difficult to predict and why television pundits in particular are so bad at making predictions. Silver highlights some major pitfalls that pundits (and we) fall into when making predictions about the future: failing to think probabilistically and failing to update predictions when we receive new information about the world. No one can be 100% certain about what the future holds. Making good and useful predictions requires us to be explicit about the amount of uncertainty attached to a particular prediction. For example, as Silver points out in a later chapter, we are much more accustomed to seeing uncertainty expressed in weather forecasts (40% chance of rain) than in forecasts of political phenomena (20% chance this intervention will succeed). Making good predictions also requires that we be willing to change our predictions in the face of new information. Political candidates, for example, are often criticized for changing their policy positions (“flip flopping”), but an unwillingness to update our assessments and predictions in the face of new information inhibits the development of sound predictions and sound policy. So, for example, if we predict that a certain football team is likely to win the Super Bowl (60% chance) and then the team’s star quarterback sustains a career-ending injury, we would be foolish not to update our assessment of the likelihood that the team will win. We should be applying the same logic to our public policy making, particularly in the realm of national security.
The authors of an open letter to President Obama published in the National Interest on June 3 commit both of these cardinal sins of prediction. They urge the president to freeze American troop levels in Afghanistan at 10,000, barring “emergency conditions” that might favor a modest increase. The authors identify themselves as the Ambassadors to Afghanistan and invoke the ghosts of 9/11 and the threat of IS to justify their prediction that keeping troop levels this high will make the United States safer. They do not include any estimate of how likely their recommendation is to achieve the desired outcome (which they do not specify with any clarity). Nor do they seem to have updated their prescriptions after fifteen years of failure for our current policies. Daniel Davis published a great rebuttal two weeks later. As he argues, “This open letter to the president on Afghanistan is like a group of NFL coaches who have led teams to last place finishes ten straight years while trying to convince an owner to take their guidance on how to run his team. Their advice would be immediately rejected.”
In my last post on accountability, I expressed anger about the fact that a generation of pundits and politicians and advisors who have been wrong repeatedly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still invited to give advice about the future direction of American policy. There is one very good reason why these individuals are allowed to keep making public (failed) predictions: certainty sells. That is, it is much easier to sell books and make appearances on Meet the Press by overstating the confidence of one’s predictions than it is to be explicitly honest about the limits of one’s knowledge of a given issue and about the uncertainty attached to a policy prescription. I am tired of listening to people who brought us the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us that we need to keep troops there, that we need to send just a few more Special Operations Forces, and that we need to stay just a few more years. The Super Bowls of Afghanistan and Iraq are over, and we lost. It’s not clear that anyone else won, but we definitely lost. It’s time to fire the coaches.
 The last chapter, in which Silver attempts to model the frequency of terrorist attacks like earthquakes, suffers from being totally atheoretical. I don’t think that this approach to predicting the distribution of a human behavior like terrorist attacks works as well as it does for understanding the distribution of natural phenomena like earthquakes.
As we approach the second great American summer holiday weekend, I am reminded of a moving piece that I read over Memorial Day. In a New York Times op-ed titled “The Graves of the Marines I Lost,” J. Kael Weston reflects on late 2004 when he was the State Department’s representative in Falluja and participated in the decision to send American troops to secure polling places in western Iraq during elections in early January. One of the Marine helicopters transporting troops for that mission crashed on January 26, 2005, killing all 31 on board. The accident remains the single largest-casualty incident for either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
Weston’s article details his quest to visit the graves of all the soldiers killed in this accident—an accident for which he feels he bears some responsibility for having pushed to send the soldiers to the polling stations on that day. Weston pays moving tribute to the sacrifices made by American soldiers in its current, seemingly never-ending wars and in the wars of America’s past. He also considers the lives of the tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians that have been lost over the years that the United States has been at war.
What is perhaps most moving about this piece is that the author feels responsible for what was a terrible accident at a time when the people who made the decisions to send our forces there and to keep sending them there do not seem similarly burdened by accountability. Foreign policy officials from the George W. Bush administration who orchestrated the Iraq invasion routinely appear in the media as “experts” commenting on current policy; academics who supported the war and the surge(s) find ready homes in think tanks and policy schools; former senators who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 can secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. Meanwhile the military is stretched so thin and its personnel have been so beaten up by years and years and years of deployments that it is currently struggling to fill positions in Iraq and Afghanistan—positions where these individuals will be risking their lives to (at best) prolong the inevitable. Paying tribute to those who lost their lives in America’s current wars is admirable, but these tributes ring hollow when elected policy makers and expert thought leaders do not take responsibility for both the choice to start these wars and the choice to let them drag on with no end in sight, despite several promises to end combat operations.
I was seventeen years old when the United States invaded Afghanistan. My ten-year college reunion was a few weeks ago, and we still have troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. My generation has been at war for the entirety of its adulthood and has supplied the manpower to keep these foolish conflicts going. We have the right to demand accountability from the generation of policy makers that chose these wars and that asks that we continue to fight them without any workable strategy for or possibility of winning sustainable political outcomes there. As we celebrate our independence this weekend, let us remember both the sacrifices made by Americans in service of this independence and the recent policy decisions that generated these sacrifices.
I’m back! I can’t promise that I will be posting regularly just yet but I am planning to ease back into the blog over the next couple of months. Now that my two major projects for 2016 (my book and my newborn daughter) have come to fruition, I’m also planning to focus on my new manuscript about British decision-making in the spring of 1940. Over the past twelve weeks I have, however, managed to sneak in some reading and some time to think about the current state of American foreign policy. One theme to which I have found myself drawn over the past couple of months is accountability. I will be exploring this idea over the next few weeks, and today’s post concerns accountability and responsibility in relation to the war in Afghanistan.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a great piece written by Matthieu Aikins and illustrated with haunting and sometimes gruesome photographs by Victor J. Blue about an American air strike in October 2015 that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The article does an excellent job of teasing out responsibility for the strike, which killed 42: was this a simple case of negligence on the part of American forces or was it something else? The article suggests—convincingly I think, although I am simplifying a bit here—that the Afghan security forces manipulated their American allies into destroying the hospital.
Why would local forces want the United States to destroy a hospital? MSF touts itself as an impartial actor in local conflicts, and consequently its mission is to provide medical care to individuals regardless of affiliation. As a result, the hospital in Kunduz and its staff treated many Taliban fighters alongside civilians and those loyal to the Afghan government. Aikins’s reporting suggests that the local population and Afghan security forces had long suspected (probably erroneously) that the hospital was serving as a headquarters of sorts for the Taliban. On October 3, 2015, the Afghan security forces seized an opportunity during an American mission to dupe the Americans into firing on the hospital, incinerating the building and those unable to escape in time.
The destruction of the hospital and the confusion surrounding American actions in October 2015 illustrate some uncomfortable truths about America’s involvement in Afghanistan: after fifteen years on the ground, we still don’t have a clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish there, we don’t understand the currents of local resentment and loyalties among the population, and we cannot be confident in the goals and capabilities of the Afghan forces. The American combat mission formally ended in 2014, and since then American forces on the ground have been restricted to two roles: training and advising the Afghan security forces, and attacking al Qaeda and IS. We saw in Kunduz in October 2015, however, that it is very difficult in practice for American forces to operate within these restrictive mandates and that a mission that is supposed to be purely defensive in nature may in fact be sliding down a slippery slope to offensive engagement with the Taliban.
Who bears responsibility for killing the Afghan civilians who died when American forces attacked that hospital in Kunduz? Is it the Afghan security forces, for tricking the Americans into firing on the wrong target? The Taliban, for making Kunduz a war zone? The United States, for sending its forces there in the first place? The Americans who made the decision to fire in the midst of shaky intelligence? Osama bin Laden, for launching 9/11 and drawing the United States into war there in the first place? I wish I had a good answer to this question. It seems that the New York Times can’t make up its mind, either. The print version of this story was titled “Reading the Wreckage: Did Afghan Forces Mislead the United States into Destroying the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz?” As you will see if you click through, the title for the online version of the same article is, “Doctors with Enemies: Did Afghan Forces Target the M.S.F. Hospital?” In other words, the online version omits the United States entirely from the title and places all the blame on our Afghan allies.
 This does not mean that the United States bears no responsibility for the attack. The Pentagon recently disciplined sixteen soldiers for their conduct during the strike. The Afghan forces may have prodded the Americans to strike the hospital, but the accident raises important questions about our intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan and the rules for conducting such strikes. As Aikins’s article details, these “rules” are often unclear because of the nature of the American mission in Afghanistan.
The nuclear agreement that the United States reached with Iran last fall was not without controversy; I argued then and continue to believe that implementing this deal was and is our best option for limiting Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Iran has made significant progress on implementing the terms of the agreement, despite the continued efforts of the Republican-controlled Congress to undermine it. (The specifics of the deal are rather complicated; although many international sanctions were lifted against Iran in the fall—particularly those affecting the oil industry—many sanctions that are part of U.S. law remain in place, and Congress seems determined to maintain these existing sanctions, regardless of how this would hamper efforts at reconciliation.) Some observers viewed the gains made by moderates in Iran’s elections last month as evidence that the nuclear deal may be helping to marginalize more hard-line conservative forces in the Iranian government, as Obama and many others had hoped it would.
This weekend, the Opinion page of the New York Times featured a project by photographer Ako Salemi, who photographed and interviewed people in Tehran and Mashhad about their opinions of the nuclear deal. In keeping with one of the themes of last week’s post, it provides us a unique window into how Iranians view the nuclear agreement and its impact on Iran’s membership in the international community. We should not assume that this represents a random sample of Iranian opinion, but Salemi does manage to capture an interesting cross-section of Iranian society.
It is clear from the interviews that not everyone views the deal as likely to have a positive impact. Rahman Sanaie, a janitor who lives in Iran, asserted that, “Nothing will change in my life, maybe only a slight increase in my salary. I hope it will bring peace for my country.” Amir Hosseinzadeh argued, “The deal has no effect on my life and gives me no hope for my future, either. I think only rich people will see changes in their life. Just look at the increase in the price of beef.” Feryal Mostofi, a businesswoman living in Tehran, was somewhat more optimistic. “I think the renewed cultural dialogue between Iran and other countries is one of the most important benefits of this agreement. It is useful for Iranian women to come out from this isolation and become more active in business.” Many other perspectives are represented among the photographs and I encourage you to check out the project for yourself. It is a vivid illustration of the richness of political dialogue in another country at a time when we are tempted to view other societies as homogenous and monolithic.
On Monday, the Global Times—China’s state-run, English-language newspaper—ran an op-ed about Donald Trump and the violence that erupted at one of his Chicago campaign events last Friday. It’s worth a read, not only because it makes startlingly accurate assessments of Trump’s appeal, but because it provides an outside perspective on the U.S. political process.
Describing the recent violence at Trump rallies, the op-ed notes that, “Fist fights among voters who have different political orientations is quite common in developing countries during election seasons. Now, a similar show is shockingly staged in the US, which boasts one of the most developed and mature democratic election systems.” (This is true—research consistently demonstrates that democracies in developing countries and states undergoing the transition to democracy are more prone to electoral violence than stable democracies in wealthier countries.) The piece then assesses Trump’s rise: “At the beginning of the election, Trump, a rich, narcissist and inflammatory candidate, [sic] was only treated as an underdog. His job was basically to act as a clown to attract more voters’ attention to the GOP. However, knocking down most other promising candidates, the clown is now the biggest dark horse…. Despite candidates’ promises, Americans know elections cannot really change their lives. Then, why not support Trump and vent their spleen?” The op-ed then assesses what this means for democracy in America: “The rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world. Usually, the tempo of the evolution of US politics can be predicted, while Trump’s ascent indicates all possibilities and unpredictability. He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some Western media. Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy.”
When debating and formulating American foreign policy, observers, scholars and practitioners devote an enormous about of energy and attention to efforts to understand the beliefs and actions of other countries. We focus on questions like: why would Iran pursue a nuclear weapon? Will the United Kingdom leave the Euro zone? Is Kim Jong-Un going to invade South Korea within the next year? Most of us rarely, however, think about how other countries perceive our own country and its political system, and how these perceptions might influence policies towards us. Did you know, for example, that international polls reveal that the rest of the world considers the United States to be the greatest threat to world peace? This really shouldn’t be surprising given how many countries the United States has invaded, attacked, or bombed over the last fifteen years, but we rarely think of ourselves in these terms.
The Global Times op-ed closes with a warning: “The US had better watch itself for not being a source of destructive forces against world peace, more than pointing fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny.” Indeed, the United States often tells other countries how to run their domestic politics, and sometimes it even invades other countries to make them free for democracy. One of the biggest points of irritation in the US-China relationship in recent years has been the United States’ finger-wagging insistence that China must clean up its act on human rights and treat its ethnic minorities with more respect. Watching the rise of Donald Trump—a rich, racist, misogynistic narcissist (fascist?) who seems poised to seize the presidential nomination from one of America’s two major political parties—it is not difficult to see why China and other outside observers might find it difficult to tolerate such a scolding from the United States.
 In case you’re wondering, the United States received 24 percent of the vote, with Pakistan garnering a distant 8 percent and China 6 percent. Americans, by contrast, ranked Iran the top threat.
The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was dominated by a lengthy article (the first of two) about Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2011 decision to intervene in Libya. “As she once again seeks the White House, campaigning in part on her experience as the nation’s chief diplomat, an examination of the intervention she championed shows her at what was arguably her moment of greatest influence as secretary of state. It is a working portrait rich with evidence of what kind of president she might be.” Indeed, there is no case more important if we want to understand how Clinton would conduct her foreign policy if elected President, aside from her decision to vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq War.
If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to do so. It paints a fairly accurate picture of how the United States decided to intervene in Libya: very hastily, without a clear understanding of the conflict on the ground, at the urging of European allies, and with Clinton’s support playing a pivotal role in pushing for the intervention. Robert Gates (then Secretary of Defense) claimed that Clinton’s support tipped the vote “51-49” in favor of the intervention and was a key factor in overcoming President Obama’s hesitation about the operation.
It just so happens that I wrote an entire chapter on the Libya intervention in my new book, Cheap Threats. The Times’ description of the run-up to the intervention is fairly accurate, but it makes some glaring omissions: there was no convincing evidence that the impending massacre of civilians in rebel-held Benghazi, which was used as the pretext for the UN resolution and the launch of the no-fly zone, would have occurred. Political scientist Alan Kuperman wrote an extremely important and convincing article for Foreign Affairs making exactly this argument. Leaving that issue aside, the intervention was initially sold to the US public as necessary to protect Libyan civilians. But in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s overthrow, we did absolutely nothing to stop the rebel forces from liquidating entire villages of people that had been loyal to Qaddafi’s regime, or to stop the competing factions from seizing and destroying Libyan infrastructure. (It’s not surprising that this gets little attention from the Times given that it and most American media outlets devoted very little coverage to the violence that unfolded on the ground in Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow—one had to look to European and Middle Eastern news outlets for this information after America’s attention went elsewhere. I await the second installment in the series to see whether these omissions will be rectified.) Even more ridiculous in the context of this “we must save Libyans” crusade is the fact that, around this time in early 2011, Bahrain was actually mowing down protesters in the street, not simply threatening to do so, but we never debated intervening in Bahrain because we have important military bases there. The point is not that we should have sent more force to pacify Libya (or Bahrain)—the point is that we could have and should have foreseen that our interference would destabilize both the country and the surrounding region.
It is clear from the article and from Clinton’s insistence that she wants to put boots on the ground to expand the campaign against IS in Syria, however, that the lesson she took away from the 2011 Libya intervention is not that we should have stayed out of it, but that we should have done more. In the summer of 2011, when rebel forces were gaining the upper hand against Qaddafi, she praised the intervention as a model of “smart power”: “This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see where it’s not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice.”
Except that we didn’t really sacrifice anything to make that intervention happen (other than the stability of North Africa). This is exactly the point I make in my book: the 2011 Libya intervention is a prime example of how the United States has developed a model for the use of military force that relies on precise, standoff strike technologies to minimize the human and political costs of using force—with the result that we have actually undermined our ability to wield force effectively. The Libya intervention was conducted entirely from the air and involved the extensive use of drones. Furthermore, the Obama administration asserted that it did not need Congressional approval for the operation because it was so limited—the lack of boots on the ground meant that it did not “count” as a war and thus it did not need Congressional approval. This is very troubling: once the Executive has asserted a right to a particular power in foreign policy, it is unlikely to be taken away. The next President can point to the Obama administration’s assertions to justify all manner of international action without the need for Congressional oversight.
Reading between the lines of the article, Clinton comes across as anything but “experienced” in this case: she rushed to push intervention in the face of very limited and conflicting intelligence about the situation on the ground in Libya, she allowed herself to be swayed about the coherence of Libya’s opposition by a very small number of men claiming to represent this opposition (recalling how the George W. Bush administration allowed itself to be duped by a single human source who fabricated information about the Iraqi regime in the run-up to war in 2003), and she pushed (despite objections from military officials and members of the State Department) to funnel arms to the fractured Libyan opposition—arms that are now in the hands of al Qaeda and IS and helping to sustain insurgencies across North Africa. Make no mistake: this intervention was a disaster and one whose consequences we will continue to suffer in the coming years—if not the coming decades. It was a disaster not because we didn’t send enough forces to get the job done, but because we never should have gotten involved in the first place.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, then director of policy planning at the State Department, described exactly what type of president Clinton would be: “when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, she’d rather be caught trying.” How many Iraqs and Libyas are we going to “try” before we learn that regime change is a foolhardy endeavor that inflicts massive suffering on civilian populations (regardless of how precise our weapons are) and unleashes far-reaching consequences over which we have limited control?
 Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle: How a Well-Meaning Intervention Ended in Failure,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015).
 Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was a major proponent of intervention in 2011, admits that “We did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side,” but the article does not follow up on this reality.
 A term totally devoid of meaning, despite its buzzword status around the Beltway.
In response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, a debate has reemerged in South Korea about whether the country should deploy nuclear weapons of its own. Last week, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declared that the government maintained its official position that South Korea would not possess or develop nuclear weapons. This is not the first time this debate has bubbled up to the surface. In November 2010, when it was revealed that North Korea had built an advanced plant for the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU, which can be used to construct a nuclear weapon), the South Korean defense minister raised the possibility of reintroducing US tactical nuclear weapons.
Some background: South Korea has a sophisticated infrastructure for the production of nuclear energy and cooperates closely with the United States on the development of its nuclear industry. South Korea did pursue a nuclear weapon of its own during the 1970s, but it abandoned the program under pressure from the United States and signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1975 as a state not permitted to develop nuclear weapons. The United States stationed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War, but these weapons were withdrawn in 1991, when North and South Korea signed a declaration calling for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. You can learn more about the history of South Korea’s nuclear programs from the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
South Korea continues to enjoy a military alliance with the United States that lends it protection under the “nuclear umbrella.” That is, the United States would respond to any nuclear attack on South Korea (presumably, one launched by North Korea) by launching a nuclear strike against the attacker. By this logic of “extended deterrence,” South Korea enjoys the protection of the American nuclear arsenal without having to acquire weapons of its own.
It will be interesting to see whether confidence in the nuclear umbrella begins to erode if and when North Korea develops a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. Currently, they do not possess such a missile, and the succession of failed tests suggests that they are still a long way from such a capability. If, however, North Korea were in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, then South Korea may start to wonder about the United States’ nuclear guarantee. As long as North Korea cannot hit back after a retaliatory strike by the United States (in response to the North’s nuclear attack on the South), then the United States does not have to fear for its own safety when it launches the retaliatory nuclear strike against North Korea. If, however, North Korea might be capable of launching a nuclear weapon after the United States’ retaliatory strike, then the calculation becomes quite different. South Korea may find itself wondering whether the United States would be willing to sacrifice Los Angeles to respond to an attack on Seoul. In other words, South Korea (and others) may find itself questioning the credibility of the United States’ nuclear deterrent and may start to wonder if it really does need nuclear weapons of its own.
Questions exactly like these arose among the United States’ western European allies during the Cold War, when the United States was similarly pledging to retaliate against a Soviet attack on western Europe (either conventional or nuclear, depending on the time period) with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In fact, doubts about the credibility of the American deterrent helped spur France to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. Hopefully we are still a long way from the day when South Korea will find it necessary to act on similar doubts.
A recent and provocative opinion piece in the Washington Post by Ali Wyne is titled, “The World is Getting Better. Why Don’t We Believe It?” Indeed, it can be difficult when the evening news seems to be dominated by IS beheading videos and warnings about impending epidemics to believe that, on average, things are actually improving for most people around the world. Wyne cites a number of development indicators that suggest things are looking up for human civilization: the rate of extreme poverty fell from 37 % to 10% from 1990-2015; life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women between 1990 and 2013. Yes, there are several armed conflicts raging around the world and we may be in the midst of a long period of transition among the world’s most powerful states, but for most people in most places, life has actually been getting better since the end of the Cold War.
Wyne does not discuss a related argument (and one that is more relevant to the focus of this blog): that the world has become a much, much less violent place for the vast majority of humanity over the last thousand years (or more). Steven Pinker makes this argument in his tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin, 2011). This book has been out for a few years, but I finally got around to reading it last summer and it has stuck with me since then.
In Better Angels, Pinker marshals an impressive body of evidence to document the decline of dozens of types of violence in human society—from homicide, to deaths from war and privation, to slavery, to domestic violence and infanticide. Many of the descriptions in the book are stomach-churning (medieval torture, sadism), but I think this is what makes the book effective: yes, we have isolated acts of violence in contemporary society and there are some places around the world where shocking violence still occurs, but the “average” human of today faces a much lower risk of violence from both what we might call “spectacular” causes (interstate war) and the more “everyday” (child abuse).
I don’t think Pinker succeeds in his attempt to develop a general theory to explain this decline in human violence, but he does present a mountain of empirical evidence to document these trends, most of it very convincing. I think he could have done more to explore what we might call structural or institutionalized violence, e.g., the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States, nor do I think he gives adequate treatment to structural violence directed against women in contemporary society.
I do think it is important, however, to document and acknowledge long-term trends like these, especially when we (quite naturally) focus on rare, shocking, discrete episodes of violence we see on the evening news. This does not mean that there is not still work to be done or that these trends will never be reversed, but Pinker is correct to highlight one of the most important trends in the decline of human violence in recent history: the absence of war between the most powerful states in the system. There are a few competing theories in international relations about why this is the case (why the United States, China and Russia are not constantly at war one another today, as major powers often were in prehistory or the middle ages in Europe), but I won’t get into them here. It is important to keep in mind that, as frightening as terrorist attacks may be, the human devastation they cause is a mere fraction of the violence that would have been unleashed in a nuclear confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, or even in a conventional war between China and Russia today. In this election season, we can and should demand that both our current and prospective decision makers keep things in perspective rather than opt for fear as a motivator.