Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Balance to the Force?

I have been listening to the new Binge-Mode podcasts which are now focusing on Star Wars after doing Game of Thrones and Harry Potter.  So, I have been reminded of something that drove me crazy long ago.  Yes, there is so much bad in the prequels, but one of the dumbest ideas is this: that Anakin Skywalker would bring balance to the force.

What the hell does that mean?  It is often suggested that his killing of the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi is finally the act that brings balance to the force.  But balance suggests an equal weight on both sides.  Killing the most powerful Sith and then, well, dying himself and thus removing most of the relevant dark side types (until Snoke and Kylo return to the scene--depending on how much of the expanded universe one consumes and adheres to) actually disturbs the balance as now the weight should all be on the light side. 

Which gets to one of the dumbest things in the prequels--if at first, the Jedi don't think that there is a Sith menace out there, why would they (Qui-gon especially) value a prophecy about bringing balance to the force.  At that moment, these Jedi think they utterly dominate, so balance is the last thing that they would want.

Let's move to IR for a minute: once the Soviet Union collapsed, the US stood alone, a superpower with no equals.  It did not then seek out to balance power.  Power became very unbalanced, tilted heavily to the US.  As China has risen relative to the US, there is greater balance in International Relations.  Is the US happier now?  I think not. 

One could argue that it is not so much about balancing of forces but any moment in time is a particular status quo that is seen as a balance, a juxtaposition of forces, and stability-seeking powers want to keep the status quo.  Again, however, until Darth Maul and Darth Siddious became well known, there should have no need or desire for an agent to balance the force. 

So, alas, we are stuck with this dumb prequel concept attached to Darth Vader in a more sticky way than much of the crap in the prequels.  However, it is handy for illustrating how problematic the concept of balancing is in International Relations.

What I liked most about The Last Jedi is how Luke railed about the stupidity of the Jedi.  I need to re-watch to see if the balance stuff comes up.  As it stands, I am thinking of the Rise of Skywalker is not about Rey being kin to Luke/Leia/Anakin but rather a new way, alternative way to think about the force and one's role in using it.  This would allow Rey to occasionally use the force in anger, to engage in love (something else that was so dumb about the prequels--that Jedi can't marry, etc), and the balancing is within the force user rather than between the forces of light and dark. 

We will find out next month how wrong I probably am.  And that will end any balance there is now between me and my uncertain opinions.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Remembrance Day, 2019

American cemetery at Omaha Beach
One of the advantages of doing medium N work that requires a heap of travel is that I have been to war museums and memorials in Australia, Japan, South Korea, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany including American and Canadian cemeteries in Europe.  I have taken to posting pictures from my various trips on Remembrance Day (what used to be known as Armistice Day and is called Veterans' Day in the US).  This year is particularly special one, I think.

Juno Beach
Why?  Partly because I got to see more of Normandy this year--the American cemetery at Omaha Beach is so very beautiful and very haunting, and I got to see briefly Juno Beach, where the Canadians landed.  Partly because there are so few left from those who fought on those beaches and elsewhere during that war.  Partly because the rise of Neo-Nazis and their friends raise questions about the sacrifices and what we have learned and failed to learn.  Partly because we cannot seem to end any of the forever wars.  Partly because this year's Vimy Gala had a bit of a punch to it with the recognition of this year's Silver Cross Mother present (each year a mother who lost a son or daughter in war is recognized).  Partly because I am getting old, I guess. 


Each year, especially since I moved to Ottawa, I realize the Commonwealth countries do this day right, better than the American version.  My daughter when to a school named after John McRae, who wrote In Flanders Field.  Which, I guess, is what made the poppies so central to our remembrance activities.  This year, there has been more discussion of what the poppies mean, whether we should be required (!) to wear them, whether the racists on national television (Don Cherry) should be banned for arguing that immigrants don't wear the poppy, and so on.  Yes, we live in more polarizing times, and it touches on everything.

For this Remembrance Day, I will try to remember the ideas for which these folks sacrificed their lives, knowing that we have fallen short both before and now.  We ought not idealize the conflicts of the past, but we should still take seriously that those who go to war are doing it for their friends, their family, their battle buddies, their country, regardless of whether the politicians and generals who lead them are well-intentioned or not. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Berlin Wall Falling: Thirty Years Later

I had the chance to go to Berlin when I was doing my Eurailpass tour of Europe in 1987, but it was kind of out of the way and cost more money.  So, I didn't, thinking I could go see the wall some other time.  And then the world changed.  The question is: how much?

People have been reacting online in a couple of ways:
  • the fall of the wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe pale in comparison to the rise of China in terms of major shifts in international relations
  • the fall of the wall and democratization produced much conflict
  • walls are back in fashion.
My basic take is that we tend to observe what we want.  What did we expect on that amazing night thirty years ago?  Would we have expected Russia to be led by trolls seeking to mess with pretty much everything?  Not sure.  Would we have expected most of Eastern Europe to become and remain democratic thirty years later?  Hungary, Serbia, Belarus, and Poland are the exceptions, a growing group that should cause much dismay.  However, there was both more and less ethnic conflict than one might have expected.  When empires fall, ethnic conflict ensues.  Thanks to some interventions and some other dynamics, Yugoslavia largely remained the exception and not the rule.

Would we have expected a reunified Germany to be looked upon as one of the few remaining powerful supporters of the liberal international order?  Remember how nervous some countries were about a reunified Germany.  These days we ask Germany to do more, not less.
Checkpoint Charlie

I have been to Berlin several times to do and to present research.  I tend to go to the same places--Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery










I do think much has changed and much of it for the better.  Europe is not perfect, but it is far better off being unified than divided.  There may be some holes in the map of European democracy, but most Europeans are living free.  There might be lots of dissatisfaction, but, thus far, opposition to most governments has been peaceful and exercised through the ballot boxes.  We can be disappointed about the backsliding, but we should remember how much progress has been made. 

To say that China's rise is hugely important should not diminish the meaning and relevance of the fall of Communism in Europe, the mostly enthusiastic embrace of democracy, and all that the Europeans have accomplished since 1989.  The irony, of course, is the defeat of the far left in the late 1980s has been replaced by the emergence of the far right abetted by Russia.  Brexit would not have happened had not the Conservatives tried to placate their right flank.  Trump, well, he has more than abetted the far right in the US and around the world.  So, we can be plenty depressed on this day as well. 

I will choose to focus on the upside, that so much changed 30 years ago, most of it for the better.  If we screw up what we inherited, that is on us. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Who is Brain Dead? Macron, NATO, or the US

Lots of hand-wringing and more this week as France's President Emmaneul Macron said that NATO is in trouble because of American unreliability.  There is a lot to this, but I do want to credit Macron for doing the whole "hey, the Emperor is wearing no clothes" thing.  American leadership is fundamental to the alliance--not just showing up if something bad happens, but pushing the alliance towards doing more, towards adjusting to new threats, and dealing with older ones. 

That is not happening now for a couple of reasons.  First, Trump's fixation with the 2% issue crowds out every other issue.  Trump has focused entirely on a false belief--that NATO countries owe the US for spending under 2% of GDP on defense--and this is the focal point of every US-NATO discussion since 2017 (yes, today is the anniversary of Trump's electoral victory.  Yuck).  I have blogged here extensively on how dumb the 2% standard is, how the goal of 2% is aspirational--to be reached in 2024 rather than today or yesterday, and that this is all bad for the alliance.

Second, the concept of brain death seems dramatic, but one could consider the US the nervous system of NATO--connecting its members and transmitting directives and policy plans.  Maybe the State Department is not the site of the US "brain" but any observer of US foreign policy will notice that there has been, indeed, brain drain at State (never recovered from Tillerson's emptying out of expertise), the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Mattis never fully staffed it, mostly letting the Joint Staff make policy), and at the National Security Council (four National Security Advisers--Flynn, McMaster, Bolton, the new guy--plus lots of turnover in staff who are spending most of their time worrying about testifying about Ukraine or buying Greenland).  Who is making NATO policy in the US?  Is there anyone staffing the respective NATO desks in these various agencies?  Are there, dare I say it, PC's (principal committee meetings) on NATO that involve more than just 2%?  No. 

Third, in the aftermath of Turkey/Syria, shouldn't NATO members be concerned?  That Trump moves American troops out of the way of an aggressive dictator after a phone call?  Given Trump's positive relationship with Putin, which runs deeper and longer than the one with Erdogan, shouldn't folks be concerned? 

Of course, this is all a bit much coming from Macron.  Why?  Because Macron has been a bit of a force for instability as well, disrupting the politics of Macedonia by denying it a chance to start the EU membership process.  People might forget, but the stability of Macedonia is a concern.  The 1999 Kosovo campaign was (almost?) as much about preventing Macedonia from blowing up and causing problems for Greece/Bulgaria/Turkey as it was about the plight of Kosovars.  Given the Russians and Chinese some playing room in the Balkans is a bad idea.  Plus Macron may be making a move to try to push forward European Defence stuff--that is, having the EU lead as NATO falls apart.  France seeking a non-US security institution in Europe is an old theme.  However, it ain't going to happen because, well, getting the Europeans to play well together on defence tends to require ... US leadership.  France is simply not up to the task as Germany's Angela Merkl pushed back pretty quickly.

Should Macron have said this so nakedly?  Probably not.  Is NATO in trouble?  Yeah, because the US is led by someone who is hostile to NATO's existence.  It really does turn on the 2020 election.  I am not sure NATO can handle four more years of Trump.  It is normal and inevitable for countries to hedge and seek alternatives when an ally becomes unreliable.  Folks may point to the American troops in Europe, and say that they will remain there to deter any (Russian) threats.  But they are commanded by the President of the United States, not by Congress, not by Europeans.  If Trump chooses not to deploy them in a crisis, if Trump chooses to block consensus at NATO, that is, well, the ballgame.  We have known this for some time, but wishful thinking was the theme du jour until Mattis went away (and they were overrating Mattis). 

So, yeah, my basic take on all of this is: duh.  Trump is bad for NATO.  This is one of the promises he has kept from the 2016 race.  Expect more hedging, although perhaps not quite as loud as Macron's.  The only way to reduce this tendency?  Elect a Democrat in 2020.*



*  Successful impeachment/conviction of Trump might make a difference as well since Pence is not as hostile to NATO.  But that outcome is significantly less likely.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Juggling and Dropping: Thinking About the Academic Balancing Act

I was asked the other day by a friend how I can keep doing everything while adding all of the CDSN  stuff to my to-do list.  My answer is: I can't.  I am behind on all kinds of stuff, as I am reminded by returning to my half-written Chile case study today.

I write this not to explain or apologize for fewer blog posts (the slide in posts has been a steady thing) or to buy some time with co-authors.  I write this because I think the idea that people can do everything and keep adding new tasks is probably unhealthy.

Academia is always a balancing act.  We have three kinds of responsibilities: teaching, research, service.  They vary in how much time they take, in when the work must be done, and, of course, in how much they are valued.  And each one has multiple tasks within the category.  As I listicle the tasks in a professor's life, I will highlight the stuff that I am currently behind on (and I am sure I am forgetting stuff).
  • Teaching involves
    • Course Prep
    • Office hours
    • Classroom time
    • Grading
    • Supervision of graduate students (this is the most invisible yet often most time-consuming of the teaching tasks).  I am not behind on this, but I am slower than I used to be in getting feedback back to students.
  • Research involves
    • Grant applications and, if successful, managing the spending/accounting
    • Managing research assistants--while these folks help save time, they also require time to manage.  And, yes, when they go unmanaged, things go awry.  As I learned a while ago with my diaspora project that never came to fruition (its failure is overdetermined) 
    • Reading the work previously written on the topic
    • Reading the relevant documents/research materials
    • Data coding/cleaning/accounting (something that is wildly underappreciated)
    • Interviews, including travel to do them
    • Writing
    • Editing
    • Proofing
    • Writing letters to explain revisions for resubmission/cover letters for book proposals
    • All this stuff for secondary projects
  • Service involves
    • Sitting on university and professional committees
    • Meetings.  This is one of the big time consumers now that I am running a network.  I don't mind since it gives me the chance to hang out with interesting people, but it is the piece I underestimated the most.
    • Reviewing manuscripts for journals, presses
    • Performing administrative roles (not just chair/head but directing programs, running institutes, etc)
    • Writing tenure/promotion letters 
    • Writing letters of recommendation (the upside of teaching mostly MA students is far fewer requests to write such letters)
    • Public engagement--op-eds, blogs, twitter, podcasts, speaking engagements, tv/radio, etc
None of this list refers to keeping up with the scholarly literature (reading journals and the latest books) or reading for fun (non-fiction, that is, stuff in my field but not necessary for my research--I do read fiction for real fun). Nor does it list stuff that I don't have to worry about but others do, like figuring out child care arrangements (my daughter needs no arrangements anymore and, yes, my wife took care of most of that stuff when it was necessary).

Over the course of a career, teaching tends to get easier and requires less preparation as one develops the ability to take what one knows and organize it more quickly.  However, one tends to accumulate more supervision as one gets deeper into the profession.  Despite my best efforts (moving to a program focused on MA students), I have more PhD students now than at any other time in my career.  I don't know how the David Lakes of the world do it--supervising a dozen students and remaining productive.  Hopefully, younger folks are protected from serious service work until they get tenure.  I have thus far evaded being a department chair or school director, and taking on the CDSN has been helpful in that regard.  But that means doing more service of one kind than another.

I have found that the grant writing to fund the CDSN and leading the CDSN has cut mostly into my secondary research projects.  I have still been doing the travel for the main priority--the Dave/Phil/Steve project on legislatures and overseeing militaries--but I have put off travel and research for several secondary projects.

To be clear, I am not complaining or whining (ok, maybe a bit).  I just trying to make sense of the juggling that I am doing, that others are most assuredly doing.  Perhaps the most apt metaphor might be ducks--that they sail along smoothly but they are paddling furiously below the water.  Sure, there are folks who shirk and do little service, maybe stop doing much research after tenure, and who don't put much work into the classroom.  But there is much less deadwood than there used to be, and most of the folks I know are busy balancing multiple tasks.  Many academics seem to need "no" committees that help that say no to various opportunities/requests.  Ultimately, we vary in what we prioritize, and we vary how well we disguise the difficulties and the balls we drop along the way.

It is important to note that most of us chose this profession in part so that we could control what we do (giving up control over where we do it).  So, the balancing act is largely in one's own hands.  I may blog about the varying incentive structures that shape these decisions ... when I have more time.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Medium N Analyses: Know A Little About A Lot?

When I was discussing my work with a pal yesterday at Tufts (Kelly Greenhill rocks mightily), she was surprised to find that I was the one in the Dave/Phil/Steve team doing the Latin American countries.  She didn't think I had any expertise there, and she is right.  But I asked: where do you think I have expertise?   I don't think she answered, but it gets to a downside of my method: medium N analysis.

Small n is where one studies a few cases, developing a deep knowledge about them.
Large n is where one studies many, many cases/observations using statistical techniques to determine which factors seem to matter more than others.

Folks tend to learn one, the other, or both in grad school.  Me?  Besides a few exceptions where I did some quantitative work, I have mostly been studying more than a few but less than many:
  • My dissertation: I studied the international politics of three secessionist crises and asked how a variety of countries responded to them.  So, who took sides in the Congo Crisis and why?  Who supported Nigeria vs Biafra or Biafra vs Nigeria and why?  Who supported Bangladesh's secession and why?  I ultimately studied something like forty cases.
  • My first book dropped the Bangladesh case since it was really all about India, plus I wanted to get hip and current, so why did countries support the Serbs or the Croats or the Bosnians in the wars of Yugoslavia's demise.
  • My second book, with Bill Ayres, considered why some countries engaged in irredentism while others did not in the 1990s.  This involved bigger case studies of Croatia, Serbia, and Armenia vs. Hungary, Romania, and, yes, Russia while considering shorter case studies of other inconsistent irredentism: Albania, Ireland, Cyprus/Greece/Turkey, Pakistan/Kashmir.
  • My third book, with David Auerswald, on NATO in Afghanistan studied Presidential systems (US, France, Poland), Single-Party Parliamentary Systems (UK, Canada plus Spain and Turkey), coalition governments (Denmark, Netherlands, Germany plus Belgian, Italy, and Norway), a few partners (countries who were not members of NATO--Australia and New Zealand), and then many countries reacting to the Libya campaign.
  • My fourth book is an exception and an accident--Canada in Afghanistan--because it could not all fit into the NATO book.
  • The fifth book, very much in progress, compares fifteen or so democracies.  We wanted to see how oversight of the armed forces varies among countries, focusing on the role of legislatures. So, we have three types of democracies (Presidential, Westminster, European), so we need some cases of each AND we want enough cases within each to understand the sources of within-category variation.  So... medium n.
There are a few patterns here--I like to have cases from all the various combinations of variables, I like to have more than a few cases per category, and I don't stick to the same cases.  I am not an expert on any particular country or region as my theory tells me which cases I need to study--which variables need to be varied to see what effects they may have.

Getting back to medium N analysis, I do it for several reasons but at some cost.  The upsides include:
  • Getting more variation than I would if I only studied a couple of cases.  For me (and not just for me), variation means leverage.  That with more variation, I can get at the casual mechanisms that are at work.  
  • Getting a fuller sample may not mean getting a full sample, but I have a greater chance of having representation of the thing I am studying.  For NATO in Afghanistan, I couldn't study all 20 plus members in the same level of intensity, but I could study nine closely and then a few more from a distance.  We covered most of the major actors as well as sampling some others to have non-members, to have smaller countries, and so on so that we could claim to have a representative sample of the countries involved in the enterprise.   
  • Simply learning more.  More is more, and the kind of stuff I am seeking to understand is just very interesting. 
There are challenges and costs:
  • I can do this kind of work if I am funded.  Going to four or five or six countries requires money.  It is probably no accident that I developed more ambitious projects when I moved to Canada where I have more access to more money
  • It tends to require co-authorship.  I don't have the time to go to fifteen countries, but the three of us together do.  I don't mind co-authoring--I enjoy it and get much from it--but there are folks out there who discount co-authored work.  And, to be sure, not all co-authoring relationships go well.
  • I am linguistically lame, so going to five countries with five different languages means having to find translators/interpreters.  This post is partially inspired by my copy-editing of a chapter in a book on fieldwork where I discuss this challenge directly.  
  • Oh, and back to the start, this method means I know a little bit about a lot of places but not that much about any one of them. 
I need to do more thinking to explain why I do this, what the advantages are, and so forth, as I think there is more medium N analysis out there, but we don't have guides/playbooks/etc.  Any suggestions would be most appreciated.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The New Syrian Mission: Let's Enumerate the Stupidity

This morning, twitter got distracted from the Nationals winning the World Series (which is what happens when the crowd boos Trump) by the announcement that the armored unit going to Syria is a National Guard unit. The basic conversation is between those saying WTF to those saying it is normal since the NG and Reserves have been rotating units to be the one squatting Kuwait, and they are the closest to the area.  Of course, this simply invokes the classic question of just because you can do something does not mean you should do it.

So, I recalled that when I was on the Joint Staff in 2001-2002, the first Reserve unit had just been deployed to Bosnia, and there was much reluctance to do the same in Kosovo since things were far less settled there.  Of course, the next 15 years of forever wars meant that the US had to send National Guard and Reserve units to Iraq and Afghanistan, but as wise folks pointed out, our current OPTEMPO (pace of operations) is not so high that we need to use reservists for this kind of stuff.

I said this was the seventh dumbest thing about this mission, so let's see if I can find six dumber aspects
  1. Most obviously, what is the mission here?  Why is the US deploying forces, particularly an armored unit to Syria?  What are the rules of engagement?  Who is to be engaged?
  2. To protect oil fields?  That is the claim, but that is just how the military folks manipulated Trump, as Syria's oil fields are hardly consequential in the grand scheme of things.
  3. That the military rolled Trump on this is also incredibly dumb.  It is problematic from a civ-mil perspective (the civilians should be controlling the military, not the other way around).  And if one is going to break the norms, do it for something that is really important, like not being used for domestic grand-standing (border troops?), not for refusing to leave an ill-conceived mission.
  4. What is the authority to do this?  The Authorization to Use Military Force from after 9/11 was not for protecting oil fields.
  5. What are the requirements to make this work?  Will the US need to threaten to shoot down Russian planes if they get too close?  There is a real risk of escalation here that no one seems to be thinking about.
  6. Is anyone in Congress asking these questions and related ones?  Any oversight deficit here is incredibly dumb since this is exactly why Congress has a role in asking pesky questions of the President, his Defense Secretary, and the senior officers.  
  7. Using reservists for such a high risk, cockamamie mission.
Did I cheat?  Did I miss any?

Maybe Obama was overly risk-averse, but I still think the mantra of "Don't do stupid shit!" is a good one.  Obviously, it has been forgotten not just by this White House but also by this Pentagon.