If you have been following the blog for the past few months, you will know that I have been thinking a lot about accountability and sacrifice in the context of the United States’ current wars. Donald Trump recently drew fire for (among other things) comparing the sacrifices that he has made in the last fifteen years to the loss of a young Army Captain killed in Iraq in 2004. Trump’s comments may have been distasteful, but the truth is that the vast majority of Americans have not sacrificed anything in service of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, either. I have a new article at the National Interest exploring the implications of this fact for America’s foreign policy and for American democracy available here.
Category Archives: General
In addition to publishing my book, I have also been working on another very big project over the past nine months. Starting today, I am taking maternity leave from the blog and from my other work to focus on my growing family. I expect to return to regular posting this summer, but I may pop back occasionally before then. Thank you for reading On Security and I look forward to returning to this space in due course.
China on Trump
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.
Special Operations and War on the Cheap
My book Cheap Threats: Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States is now available for pre-order from Georgetown University Press and Amazon. In Cheap Threats, I argue that the United States struggles to use threats effectively against weak states (like Iraq, Libya and Haiti) because it has adopted many strategies that render the use of military force relatively cheap. Because force is cheap, the threat to use force does not convince weak targets of the United States’ compellent threats that the United States is highly motivated. These targets will resist in the face of a cheap threat–even one issued by the state with the world’s most powerful military–because the cheapness of U.S. military action suggests that the United States lacks the motivation to pursue a long and costly victory against them. In other words, by making the use of force cheap, we have made threats against weak states less effective. This is a problem because the United States often chooses to launch costly military operations when the threat of force alone is insufficient to change the targeted state’s behavior.
How can I possibly argue that the use of force is cheap for the country that spends nearly as much as the rest of the world combined on defense each year? The first chapter of the book explains in detail the strategies that the United States has adopted to minimize the human, political, and financial costs of employing force—including the use of deficit spending to fund major military operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t repeat these arguments here, except to highlight one of the major cost-minimizing strategies that I discuss in the book: the transformation of the American military since the 1970s.
Before 1973, the United States relied on some type of conscription, i.e., compulsory military service, to fight its wars. After the backlash against selective service in the Vietnam War, during which privileged young men were better able to escape the necessity of military service, the United States eliminated conscription and has since relied on an all-volunteer force (AVF). This has led to an increase in education, retention, and professionalization in the service, but the U.S. military is not a representative institution: new recruits are disproportionately drawn from the lower socio-economic classes; the southeastern states tend to be over-represented; minorities are over-represented in the enlisted ranks while whites dominate the officer corps, etc. As a result, the wealthy, educated individuals who are most likely to be members of the decision-making class (members of Congress, scholars at think tanks, i.e., those responsible for making decisions about when and where we fight wars) are insulated from the burdens of military service and increasingly unlikely to have any direct connection to the military themselves. In addition to opting for a volunteer force that shields the vast majority of the American public from the privations and sacrifice of military service, the United States has also relied increasingly on private military contractors to perform functions formerly reserved for the military. The casualties suffered by these individuals are not counted in official figures, which helps to further insulate the general public from the true human toll of America’s military conflicts.
Why does this matter? It matters because strategies that minimize the impact of the use of military force on the American population make it much, much easier for policy-makers to choose to use military force. (Can we imagine that the George W. Bush administration would have been able to sell the war in Iraq if conscription had been in place in 2003?) The AVF makes it much less politically costly to use force, and hence makes it more likely that force will be used. My book demonstrates, however, that such strategies that make the use of force cheaper also undermine our ability to successfully threaten weak states with the use of force.
An op-ed by former Army Captain Matt Gallagher in last Sunday’s New York Times highlights an important and related trend: the growing national obsession with special operations forces (Army Rangers, Delta Force operators, Navy SEALs, etc). “The mythos of Special Operations has seized our nation’s popular imagination, and has proved to be the one prism through which the public will engage with America’s wars…We like our heroes sanitized, perhaps especially in murky times like these.” In the midst of an overall downsizing of the U.S. military, the number of special operations forces continues to rise. Perhaps more importantly, these types of forces conduct their missions in the shadows, with limited Congressional and public oversight of where they are sent (139 countries in 2015, many of these for training missions). Out of sight, out of mind.
As the American public becomes increasingly enchanted with the myth of the commando running secret missions in bad neighborhoods while bathed in the green glow of night vision goggles, it is pushing the United States further down this path of seemingly cheap, low-commitment, sanitized military force. As Cheap Threats argues, however, this will continue to undermine our ability to wield threats of force effectively.
 For example, the United States might threaten a small state with air strikes if it does not admit weapons inspectors.
 The theory I advance in the book suggests that threats against more powerful states will be more effective because they are more costly to issue and to execute. See the book for a more thorough explanation.
Wishful Thinking: Russia and Ukraine
George Soros had an article about Ukraine in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books that captured many of the dominant attitudes about Russia’s foreign policy and what we should do about it. His main argument is that the EU should be funneling a lot of money to the Ukrainian regime to allow it to resist the forces of evil from within and without, and that we should maintain and if necessary increase economic sanctions on Russia to (punish? deter?) aggression.
The article captures the zeitgeist on Russia and Ukraine, and it presents us with many opportunities for discussion, not the least of which is that rich people should probably not assume that they are masters of all disciplines simply because they are very good at one thing. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The two most important issues I see with this argument are: 1. We really have no idea how to “funnel money” to other countries to make them pursue the particular economic and political pathways we want. If we knew how to do that, pretty much every country in the developing world would have an open, functioning economy and thriving democracy. 2. Economic sanctions rarely, if ever, work to achieve political outcomes, and when they do, they work best against relatively small and isolated states. There’s plenty of research on this in political science, and plenty available in the realm of common sense if you stop and think about it: probably the most effective sanctions regime in place today (“effective” if we’re talking simply about actually stopping the flow of goods and services to a country) is the one against North Korea (and even that’s not perfect), and that hasn’t worked so far; decades of sanctions did not dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba; and I could go on, but I suspect I would lose you, dear reader. I was dismayed when the United States slapped sanctions on Russia in response to the incursion into Crimea and more recent fighting in Ukraine. They really don’t work very often as instruments of foreign policy, but they like drone strikes at least allow the administration to appear to “do something” in the face of behavior it finds unacceptable. I’m also puzzled about why Soros argues that falling oil revenues in Russia are evidence that current sanctions are “biting,” when everyone knows global oil prices are in the toilet.
For me, Soros’s argument about Ukraine also highlights the difference between policy and political science. Political science is (at least in theory) a discipline whose practitioners apply consistent theoretical frameworks to understand the world around them and to develop recommendations for how to respond to the world. Policymakers do not have to apply these consistent frameworks to their thinking, and it is glaringly obvious that they do not. Soros’s piece, for example, berates the EU for its shoddy management of the recent debt crisis in Greece (an EU member state), but his main recommendation is for the EU start shoveling (more) money towards a non-EU state. How exactly is that going to happen given the incentives that prevented the EU from providing a timely and generous bailout for one of its own members?
At its core, Soros’s piece is also based on the assumption that Russia is inherently aggressive and that its advance must be halted lest all of Europe (and eventually the United States) fall to communism. No, wait—not communism, because the Cold War is over, right? Indeed this piece smacks of orthodox Cold War reasoning. There’s no evidence that Russia and/or Putin have grand designs about taking over the world. Russia is a state with a faltering oil-based economy trying to make limited territorial gains it views as essential to its own security. “But they’re intervening in Syria!” you say? So is France! So are we! So is Saudi Arabia, which has been funneling money and arms into the region for years! Why aren’t we getting all wound up about Saudi Arabia’s efforts to dominate the Middle East, but we think Russia’s behavior is evidence of a plan to take over the world?
I’m not really doing justice to Russia here, I admit—I’ll take up the issue of Russia’s foreign policy behavior and why we should stop acting as if a New Cold War and/or WWIII is dawning in a future post. For now, let me say that Soros’s recommendations for Ukraine are founded on nothing more than wishful thinking and a weird nostalgia for Cold War-era resistance to Russian “aggression.” The “loss” of Ukraine (to what? The dark side?) will not lead to a “failed state,” nor would “saving” it lead to some magical transformation in European politics or a change in Russia’s behavior.
 “Ukraine and Europe: What Should Be Done?” New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 15 (October 8, 2015).
 Unless we’re talking about funneling money to an established dictator to maintain his/her hold on power—there’s been some success with that in the past.
 I’ll admit that here I’m talking about international relations as a field within political science; this is distinct from “international relations” as a multidisciplinary field or degree in which students study economics, political science, languages, etc.