Thursday, February 27, 2014

Inferiority complexes and indigenous inventions

Hobsbawm writes (The Age of Extremes, p.462):
Chinese communism [he uses a small "c"; I'd use a capital C] cannot be regarded simply as a subvariety of Soviet communism.... For one thing, it triumphed in a country with a far larger population than the U.S.S.R.... Moreover, China was not only nationally far more homogeneous than most other countries -- about 94 percent of its population were Han Chinese -- but had formed a single, though intermittently disrupted, political unit probably for a minimum of two thousand years. Even more to the point, for most of these two millennia the Chinese Empire, and probably most of its inhabitants who had a view on these matters, had considered China to be the centre and model of world civilization. With minor exceptions all other countries in which communist regimes triumphed, from the U.S.S.R. on, were and saw themselves as culturally backward and marginal, relative to some more advanced and paradigmatic centre of civilization. The very stridency with which the U.S.S.R. insisted, in the Stalin years, on its lack of intellectual and technological dependence on the West, and on the indigenous source of all the leading inventions from telephones to aircraft, was a telling symptom of this sense of inferiority.
Well, I can think offhand of one Soviet-era invention that really was indigenous and that ended up being exported to much of the world: the AK-47.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The debate about boundaries

John Quiggin recently touched off a long discussion at Crooked Timber with the assertion, contained in a re-cycled post on "the traditionality of modernity," that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less."

I won't repeat my comments in that discussion here, but want to follow up with a couple of reflections (one or two of which will be set out here, others perhaps in a subsequent post).

In questioning the assertion that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time," several CT commenters argued that not enough time has passed since the end of decolonization, or even since the end of WW2, to draw inferences about a trend.

For example, Peter T writes in a comment at the end of the thread:

John Quiggin would, I imagine, be fairly hard on those who repeat the “19 years of flat temperatures proves global warming is a myth” idiocy. But there’s a similar issue here. We should not expect national boundaries or state break-up/formation to proceed at a steady pace. They are affairs of decades at the least. Definite national boundaries, as opposed to zones of influence (sometimes broad, sometimes quite sharply defined), are a fairly recent thing over much of the earth anyway. The last wave – the decolonisation movement – only subsided around 40 years ago. There have been a number of minor shifts since then, plus the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. So it hasn’t really been all that stable, and it may be simply too early to go looking for explanations. If we get through another 30 or so years without major changes in state boundaries, then I’ll be impressed (if I live that long).
There are several issues here. One is that a strong argument can be made that decolonization itself, as it played out, contributed to boundary stability rather than the reverse (I dealt with that at CT, so won't elaborate here). Another is that Peter T (like others who made a similar point) assumes that the statement "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time" contains an implicit prediction that stability noticed at time T will persist until some future time T + X, or will persist indefinitely. Although the context of JQ's post might have encouraged this interpretation, the statement that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time" need not be read as anything other than a descriptive statement of what has been happening in recent years: the words "are becoming" do not necessarily mean "will continue to become" or "will continue to become, indefinitely." If someone looks in the mirror and says "my hair is becoming grayer," that does not necessarily mean "my hair will continue to become grayer." All it means is that the person has noticed that his or her hair is grayer now than it was two weeks ago, or two years ago. There is no guarantee that the process of graying will continue: the color of the hair could simply remain as it is, or it is even possible (if not perhaps likely) that the process of graying could reverse itself (without the application of hair dye or anything like that). 

The point, and sorry for the repetition, is that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time" does not necessarily have to mean "national boundaries will continue to become ever more stable" or that "stability will persist indefinitely." It can simply mean that in a given span of time -- the last half-century, say -- national boundaries have become more stable. The notion that this, even if empirically accurate, is a meaningless observation because it probably just represents another phase in an endless up-and-down cycle, and the related notion that 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 years is too short a time span from which to infer anything of consequence, both suffer from the same weakness.

The weakness is that these dismissals ignore the normative context of international politics, the normative environment in which, in this case, fluctuations in boundaries do or don't occur. Actors have ideas and these ideas influence how they behave, at least to some extent. One idea that the corporate actors known as states now firmly have in their heads is that national (i.e., state) boundaries should be messed with as little as possible and as seldom as possible. We know this because they say it in authoritative contexts. Of course actions do not always match words. The question is how often actions diverge from words. Krasner in his book on sovereignty argued that states' actions diverge from their words quite often; he called this, borrowing from other writers, 'organized hypocrisy,' i.e., a situation "in which institutional norms are enduring but frequently ignored." Is the current norm about boundaries -- i.e., 'don't mess with them' in my colloquial rendering -- "frequently ignored"? Are we dealing here with organized hypocrisy? It depends partly on what one means by "frequently," but my sense is -- and some research, to which I referred at CT, backs up this intuition -- that the boundary norm (or 'the territorial integrity norm' as it has been called) is observed much or most of the time. Not all the time, but enough of the time so that one can say that the match between words and deeds in this particular context is reasonably (not perfectly, but reasonably) good. The norm could change, and/or the degree of conformity to it could change, but to write comments on this subject as if the norm did not exist is peculiar, to say the least. 

Commenters who made points like the one quoted above don't even ask the question about the match between words and deeds because they implicitly assume that words don't matter. It's as if the stability/instability of boundaries, for them, is a question in Newtonian physics, completely divorced from what humans in their collective capacity think or say. But that's not how politics, or almost any other aspect of human life for that matter, works.

Note (added 3/3): Peter T has replied in the comment thread attached to this post; those interested may read the ensuing conversation there. 

ETA: Another example of the same sort of thing, this time from a CT commenter who annoys me a lot more than Peter T ever has, namely bob mcmanus. Here's mcmanus (from another CT thread):

Just finished Daniel Alpert’s Age of Oversupply. It’s a readable middle-brow summation ... with affinities to DeLong and Krugman, with the usual laundry list of Keynesian technocratic prescriptions that are politically implausible.  I think the resource or supply constraints are still a long ways off. What we have is a typical glut, overcapacity, overproduction, oversupply crisis, a typical Marxist (too much capital) crisis of astronomical proportions. Combined with an equally terrifying failure of distribution and global and local imbalances of power and resources. Combined with perhaps social technological advances (US hegemon, nukes, smarter Central Banks, int’l technocrats) that prevent the old mechanisms of creative destruction and rebalancing, war/revolution and/or depression/capitals destruction => reterritorialization and reconstruction.
I've added the italics, because that's the part I want to focus on. What is preventing a global war, which mcmanus seems to think might in some way be beneficial, at least to the powers that be? Why, it's "social technological" factors: "US hegemon, nukes, smarter Central Banks, int’l technocrats." God forbid it should ever enter his mind that what statespeople say and believe actually makes a difference in how they conduct themselves. Or that the experiences of their predecessors might influence them. No, that's all superstructural rubbish.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A 'living document'

Two pieces on Syria in yesterday's hard-copy WaPo (p.A10). One, under Karen DeYoung's byline, reports an agreement among "the U.S. and its principal European and Arab allies" on a list of Syrian rebel groups, classified according to whether they should receive arms: yes, no (because of "clear extremist ties"), or maybe. An "Arab official" is quoted as calling the list a "living document," subject to revision as rebel alliances shift. It had better be, though still sounds as if it might be hard to implement.

The second piece, by Loveday Morris, is about the Assad regime's arranging of cease-fires with rebel groups in suburbs of Damascus that it has subjected to starvation and bombardment. The article quotes a range of opinion about these agreements and also notes there is a question about how long they will last.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Kristof's column is worse than I thought it would be

I liked Corey Robin's riposte to Kristof and Charli Carpenter's open letter to him, but until just now I hadn't read the full column itself. It's worse than I thought it would be. Nothing more to say on it right now but perhaps I will weigh in at more length later on. (Then again, maybe not.)

One thing, though: Kristof should spend more time actually reading what academics write. Sure, some of it is turgid and ill-written, but some of it is quite well written, and that even goes for political scientists, Kristof's particular target in this column. I don't want to start listing examples but they aren't that hard to come by.

Mon. linkage

First-hand report from the Central African Republic.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The abstract and the passive voice

Here (via) is an interesting abstract from an article in the American Economic Review of last April:

We provide evidence that increased political influence, arising from CIA interventions during the Cold War, was used to create a larger foreign market for American products. Following CIA interventions, imports from the US increased dramatically, while total exports to the US were unaffected. The surge in imports was concentrated in industries in which the US had a comparative disadvantage, not a comparative advantage. Our analysis is able to rule out decreased trade costs, changing political ideology, and an increase in US loans and grants as alternative explanations. We provide evidence that the increased imports arose through direct purchases of American products by foreign governments.

An abstract can't do everything, but this one seems especially designed to frustrate a reader (or tempt him/her to read the article). First, what exactly is "increased political influence" via a "CIA intervention"? Presumably something like the overthrow of Mossadegh, Arbenz or Allende, but the wording also suggests something short of that. Second, although the abstract strongly suggests that the outcome (increased purchases from U.S. companies) was intended, its use of the passive voice drains the scenario of agency (yes, an overworked word): "increased political influence...was used to create a"  Why not say: "We provide evidence that during the Cold War, the U.S. used CIA covert actions to benefit American companies by creating political conditions that led to more purchases of American products by foreign governments"? Maybe that doesn't say exactly the same thing and it's a bit long-winded, but it does indicate that someone was actively doing something, as opposed to "increased political influence, arising from CIA interventions...was used...."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

WSJ: Saudi Arabia to increase its arming of Syrian opposition

A low-tech (and somewhat inefficient) way to keep up with the news: drive five minutes to the local convenience store and take a look, while there, at the front page of the hard-copy Wall St. Journal (without, needless to say, buying it. One has already bought something else, so that's cool).

Anyway, the center-page story reports that Saudi Arabia has promised to give the Syrian opposition -- I didn't see particular groups specified -- more sophisticated weaponry, including Chinese-made "man-portable air defense systems" (which apparently means, in plainer language, shoulder-fired missiles that can bring down planes).

Friday, February 14, 2014

The art (?) of forgetting

Something I read recently put me in mind of a line from Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art."  Though I didn't remember the poem's title (and wasn't entirely sure about the author either), I did remember the key line -- except for one crucial word. What I remembered was "the art of ... isn't hard to master."  I had to look up the poem for the missing word. The line is, of course, "the art of losing isn't hard to master."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Syria talks: no 'bargaining space' means no bargaining

The title of this post is a somewhat jargony way of making an obvious point: two sides can't negotiate if they can't agree on what the issues are. This is where the Syria talks are now. The opposition wants to discuss a transition of power; the Assad government wants to discuss 'terrorism'. And fighting continues, with regime airstrikes intensifying near the Lebanese border and ongoing use of barrel bombs.

The linked WaPo article says that a meeting between U.S. Undersec. of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Dep. For. Minister Gennady Gatilov has been pushed up to Thursday. But it won't matter unless the U.S. and Russia shift their basic stances in some way, which seems unlikely.

A widely used international relations textbook (I'm quoting here from a 10-year-old edition) tells its readers that in "a bargaining process" there are
one or more issues on which each participant hopes to reach agreement on terms favorable to itself, but the participants' interests diverge on these issues, creating conflicts. These conflicts define a bargaining space -- one or more dimensions, each of which represents a distance between the positions of two participants concerning their preferred outcomes. The bargaining process [when successful] disposes of these conflicts by achieving agreement on the distribution of the various items of value that are at stake. The end result is a position arrived at in the bargaining space. (J.S. Goldstein, International Relations 5th ed., 2003, pp.78-9)
This description of bargaining does not apply to the Syria talks. There are no "issues" on which the parties' interests "diverge"; rather, there are two completely incompatible notions of what the issues are. By the same token there is no bargaining space within which the distance between positions can be measured and then narrowed via trade-offs with respect to "the various items of value that are at stake."   


Noted (unrelated to the above): An Australian soldier has been awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his actions in Afghanistan (link).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tues. linkage

The first two are long-ish posts -- the second one in particular -- neither of which I've read with the care they prob. deserve, but mentioning here in case people missed them and are interested:

-- R. Farley reviews R. Overy's The Bombing War [I know Anderson's seen this review already b/c he's in the comment thread].

-- R. Rao on the Khobrogade incident and related matters. If pressed for time one might, I suppose, skip to the end for the Indian Sup Ct's 1925 definition of "carnal intercourse."

-- Also, T. Marvin on why the U.S. should get rid of its land-based ICBMs. (He also has a follow-up post which I haven't read.)

Eyes tight shut

A statue of a sleepwalking man has stirred controversy at Wellesley College (via). I have nothing to say about this because ars longa, vita brevis. Or something.

Monday, February 10, 2014

One person's "red tape" is another's "reasonable safeguard"

Rep. Rogers (R-Mich.) as quoted here:
Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape.
Translation: U.S. citizens who would have been previously assassinated without due process remain (at least temporarily) alive because of the widespread, justified outcry against targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sat. linkage (abbreviated)

David Miliband discusses the Syrian situation (from the standpoint of the Int'l Rescue Cte., which he heads).

Friday, February 7, 2014

Fri. eve. linkage (abbreviated)

This post from a year ago (h/t), recounting a conversation on a train between a young Bangladeshi and an observant Jew, is quite interesting. The one thing that rang a bit false (if understandably so) was the Bangladeshi's reference to his country having "won its civil war" with Pakistan: the young man neglected to mention India which, um, played a part.

ETA: The conversation centers on the Jewish guy's answer to the Bangladeshi's question about why some Pakistanis look down on Bangladeshis. But I'm not going to reveal the answer here; that would spoil the fun. Suffice to say it's not something you will expect (at least, I didn't).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Housekeeping notes

Last month I tried to move this blog to WordPress. Due to a glitch WordPress wouldn't confirm my e-mail address. I brought the problem to their attention and have just now asked them again about it. If it isn't fixed, I'll just stay here. (At this point I may do that anyway.) 

The other thing is that posting is going to be light here for the next few weeks.

Quote of the day

"Maybe it was already over for us in Indochina when Alden Pyle's body washed up under the bridge at Dakao, his lungs all full of mud; maybe it caved in with Dien Bien Phu. But the first happened in a novel, and while the second happened on the ground it happened to the French, and Washington gave it no more substance than if Graham Greene had made it up too. Straight history, auto-revised history, history without handles, for all the books and articles and white papers, all the talk and the miles of film, something wasn't answered, it wasn't even asked. We were backgrounded, deep, but when the background started sliding forward not a single life was saved by the information. The thing had transmitted too much energy, it heated up too hot, hiding low under the fact-figure crossfire there was a secret history, and not a lot of people felt like running in there to bring it out."
-- Michael Herr, Dispatches (pb. ed., 1978), pp.49-50.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Untethered narcissism"

An Inside Higher Ed piece on the ISA Governing Council's misguided proposal about blogging generated a comment thread in which one commenter writes:
Let's first stipulate that this is a stupid proposal, is inconsistent with academic freedom, and deserves to be voted down.
That said, there is something to the broader point that academic blogging does not often reflect well on our profession. The vast majority of the blogs I have seen are exercises in untethered narcissism, with a thin layer of academic content that mostly screams "look at me, look at ME". The possession of a Ph.D. or even a long vita does not automatically make one's opinions golden, or even especially interesting. There's a reason we subject our work to peer review.
It's o.k. to complain about narcissism, though I don't find narcissism in blogging quite as prevalent as the commenter here does, but what I dislike about this comment is the implication, perhaps unintended, that if one's views haven't passed peer review they don't deserve to be expressed. I hope that's not what the commenter was suggesting. Blog posts and journal articles are obviously different things, as all participants in this discussion acknowledge. And the reason for peer review is not to keep "uninteresting" opinions out of circulation but rather, at least in theory, to maintain certain scholarly standards. If the commenter finds blogs to be exercises in narcissism, no one is forcing him to read them. And since most blogs probably have smallish readerships, it's unlikely they can do much damage to the image of the academic profession, regardless of their content. (As to whether this particular blog is an academic blog, that's in the eye of the reader. I don't have an academic job, as I've mentioned [narcissistically?] before.)