Wednesday, December 30, 2020

So Many Letters, So Many Futures

Today, I was writing a letter of recommendation... tis the season.  And I noodled around the directory where I keep them and realized I have 748 files in that directory.  That is not equal to 748 letters, I realized, since my basic tendency is to write a letter in word and then turn it into a pdf.  But not always, so I'd guess that I have written something like 500 letters over the course of 26 years.  These cover a range from current/former undergrads to MA students to Phd students to junior faculty to peers.  I haven't written recommendations for people senior to me, but pretty much every one else.  To be clear, I have not recommended 500 different people, as some of these folks were my Phd students, which involved me writing dozens of letters for various jobs and fellowships, and, of course, many of those letters are nearly identical.  Sure, interfolio saved me some work--a website that processes letters so I can send the letter there and then it gets sent to the various targets.

The real question, of course, is whether I have asked for 500 letters in the course of my career.  Probably not, but being on the job market for much of my career and applying for heaps of fellowships ... hmmm.  In the old days, when I was a grad student and then a very junior faculty member, my recommenders would send the letters to where I got my Phd, and their staff sent those letters to the 40-50 places I would apply every year to get my first job/second job/third job.  

So, yes, this is very much about paying it forward.  I needed letters to do what I wanted to do, so I write letters to help folks as they try to find their way.  Yes, I have tried to discourage aspiring law students and Phd students due to crappy job markets, but they don't listen so I write the letters.  I have only refused to write a few times because there is often a spot on the form that asks if I would admit them to my place.  If I can't honestly say yes to that, then I tell the student to hunt elsewhere for a letter.  The few times that has happened have not been fun conversations which kind of proved that my stance was the correct one.  

I do not ask for anything in return.  A friend of mine did ask his recommendees to give him good rate my prof scores.  Sometimes, I have gotten gifts.  I don't expect them.  I do want to get one thing from those I recommend--news: what happened to them?  Did they get in?  Did they go?  How did it go?  While I remain in touch with all of my PhD students, I don't know what happened to every MA student or every undergrad.  I occasionally bump into them on twitter or at a government building in Ottawa.  

We profs tend to whine about writing letters of recommendation because they are ... work.  To do it well takes some time even if one discovers some cheats.  My way to cut corners is to ask the students for a few adjectives that I could have possibly witnessed and examples of how I could have witnessed them.  I borrowed this from Paul Dawson, a prof at Oberlin I was too scared to take.  Students vary in how well they follow my instructions with some not really knowing what kind of attributes admissions committees care about, so I adjust along the way.  The letters tend to be due at awkward times, conflicting with the other things we juggle. So, we complain.  And we wonder how many letters are truly necessary.  Does my supervisor really need to be recommended for stuff 40 years into his career?  Doesn't the CV tell the tale?  

We don't owe any particular student a letter--if I can't recommend someone, I won't.  But we do owe our students the help they need to succeed, when we can provide that help.  The satisfaction comes far later, when we hear what has happened to these folks.  So, my recommendations to those seeking recommendations:

  1. Ask politely, giving your letter-writer plenty of time to write the letter.  Give them whatever info they ask for to do the letter.
  2. Remind them a few days before the deadline as profs are, yes absentminded.
  3. Let them know if you got in.  And let them know if you had a good experience wherever you landed.  If we learn that the place you went is awful, well, you can pay it forward as well.

Good luck.  We know it is far tougher now than it was when we started out.  Sorry about that.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Contact the Potential Advisor? The Norms Are Abnormal

 I have no idea what is normal these days.  Last night, I got into a conversation with Emmett MacFarlane about what to do to get into a Phd program.  It was the result of someone asking folks with PhDs if they got rejected when they applied.  I answered: yep.  I distinctly remember two rejections, pretty sure there was a third, that a fourth school let me in without $ (which, to me, was tantamount to a reject--more below), a fifth that put me on their waiting list, and a sixth that gave me four years of funding.  Which is where I went.  The larger conversation was about whether students should contact potential advisors and whether places relied on individual profs making decisions about who they want to advise as a key part of admissions decisions.

First, some basics on Phd admissions.  Don't go if you are not guaranteed funding for 4 or 5 years (whatever the norm is in your discipline/country).  It is not just because going into debt is an incredibly bad idea for a degree that does not promise a job at the end.  It is also that those places where you have to compete with those in your cohort for funding became awful places to work.  It shapes the culture of the department, where colleagues are seen as rivals.  Back in the day (early-mid 1990s), a few schools were known to be like this--Columbia and UCLA come to mind.  I was lucky to be rejected by the former and, well, the latter was school #4 above.  Everyone (the PhD students) was fully funded where I went to grad school, and, perhaps no accident (since we were trained to think of how institutions provide incentives), we had a great culture.  People helped each other survive classes, we helped each other through the comprehensive exams, I received lots of useful feedback on my dissertation proposal, our practice job talks were most helpful, and, yes, we played a lot of sports and had  more than a few drams of booze (Debbi Avant didn't teach us how to make cocktails--that came later).  The more advanced grad students had time for the newbies.  Grad school is not supposed to be fun, but, for me, it was some of the best years of my life.  

Did I contact folks at UCSD and say, I want to do x, can you be my adviser?  Nope.  Indeed, I was assigned an adviser, did a heap of research for him in my first year on international telecommunications history (learned more about the Titanic than I would have expected).  But I switched advisers when I started working on my proposal.  And here's the thing, which is reason #1 I am not a fan of potential students matchmaking with supervisors before they start their Phd programs, my dissertation idea was very, very different from what I wrote in my application.  Perhaps because US Phd programs essentially assume that you will start from scratch (compared to British ones where you have an MA and just do a few years of research, and Canadian ones that think they are the latter but are really the former--MAs are often required for admission but one still has to do two years of coursework, comps, etc), I have the view that the PhD program is not just for training how to do the research agenda that one enters with but to shape the imagination of what are interesting and feasible questions.  I find it problematic that a student would enter grad school with an idea and then stay ruthlessly committed to that idea--I would hope that their views of what is a good question change.  But that may just be my bias.

Ok, that's reason 1.  Reason 2 is that profs move, die, change their minds about who they want to work with, are crappy advisers, or are actually truly awful people.  So, a student commits to a place because they have the nod from one prof.  What happens if that prof moves on?  Or turns out to be incompatible?  Or turns out to be a serial sexual harasser?  Wait, am I saying that a department might let a serial sexual harasser select their next prey?  The "individual profs give the nod rather than a graduate coordinator/committee" system allow for exactly that.  Not that sexual harassment is as rife as movies depict, but it still happens and still derails students' careers.

 Reason 3 for not having individual profs ok or not ok potential admittees based on their research compatibility has much to do with inequality.  Who gets those precious admission slots?  The profs that have the most influence?  Influence and wisdom are not always correlated.  The profs with the most money?  Which makes sense in lab situations, but in normal poli sci situations?  I am not so sure.  Which students get the admissions?  Those with the best connections to profs or those with the best ideas?  Relying on the preferences of individual profs seems ... dangerous to me.  

Reason 4: Applicant--undergrad students, MA students, and folks who have been out in the workplace--have really little clue of who is the appropriate adviser for them.  Which then creates a lot of noise and work for profs who get random emails.  Maybe if I had received more targeted emails over the years I would think this system makes sense.  But maybe there is a selection effect--since my department does not select PhD students via individual profs saying who they will work with, the smart, strategic students know not to bother profs who can't influence their admissions?  I don't know.  All I do know is that I don't want to encourage more random emails.

There is, of course, survivor bias in all of this.  That I was a happy accident.  That my Phd students--most had topics completely unrelated to my own research agenda--have been mostly successful in this business.  Perhaps I would have co-published with more students if they were in the same area as myself.  The one student who did work closest to mine and used my work as a target was actually admitted before I arrived at McG.  So, maybe my individual story shapes my preferences just a bit--that I learned a lot about other areas, other research agendas, rather than creating disciples or followers in my area of research.  I see my job as helping students realize their own agendas, how to pursue their research questions as best as they can.  I have Miles Kahler to thank for doing the same for me.  I didn't do the "smart" thing at UCSD and do an international political economy project--which is what most of of the IR profs specialized in at the time.  I followed my interests to wherever they led me--because I got into this business because I am a deeply curious person.  



Saturday, December 26, 2020

Quarantine, Week 41: A Very Untraditional Holiday

It has been a very strange winterfest.  The last time it was just Mrs. Spew and myself was back in the age of dial-up, when few folks had cell phones (and the folks who did tended to be drug dealers, or so I told one class when a student answered his cell phone).  Even though Hollywood Spew left the nest a while ago, we would see her at my mother-in-law's for the week of shopping, eating, and nagging.  

When I watched Wonder Woman 1984 last night (meh), the most moving moment was when WW and Steve walked under the Hirshhorn Museum. 

From a visit a few years ago

Going to the Smithsonian museums became a father and daughter tradition since probably the year after we lived in DC.  It was fun to chart the changing tastes of my kid as she went from wanting to just see the Natural History Museum every year to relenting and then speeding through the Air and Space Museum to being interested in the history museum to getting into the art museums.  For the past few years, we would switch up the second museum we would see (she loved the African-American museum last year, hated the Native American one the year before because it seemed to her to be too much ignoring the current plight) but we would always stop by the Hirshhorn.  She has a fondness for modern art and so do I.  Seeing Diana and Steve there forced me to pause the movie for a few seconds, as this week also marks the year anniversary of seeing my daughter in person as well as a year since I saw my sister-in-law and the nieces on that side of the family.  And, yes, my sweet hermit of a mother-in-law.  

I always enjoyed wandering around the greater DC area because of nostalgia for what little I remember of when I lived there in kindergarten and first grade and for what I remember from my year in the Pentagon and from my summers in the hills to the north at summer camp.  So, much anger and sadness that me and mine are deprived of such stuff.  

We did have a zoom holiday party "at" work this week.  A bunch of these folks I have never met in person as we added a faculty member last summer and we have had much staff turnover.  But the highlight was the two-person sweater:

But we are making the most of it.  I spent last weekend distributing the cookies I made thanks to my indecisiveness about which recipes to use.  This weekend is more relaxing (indeed, I have vowed not to do any work this weekend) as I baked only a donut--a bundt donut.  Last weekend's driving around to see friends and acquaintances to distribute cookies was fun and necessary.  Not just to avoid the extra weight if the cookies had remained at home, but I saw more people in person in one afternoon than I had the previous nine months, excepting one July in person meeting.  It really meant a lot to have some contact.  When I dropped off a 1/3 of the donut cake today with my co-teacher David Hornsby, he said he would be hugging everyone he sees at the next major conference.  That might be quite normal ... at least for the first conference or two 😂.

The only cookie cutters I have are Darth, Yoda, and R2

Among the traditions we didn't experience this year: the opening up of lots of presents (my presents were mostly things I bought in sprees of stress-shopping), the fussing over baking in a small kitchen at the mother-in-law's (the fussing would not be mine as I mostly did not cook the big dinner--that was mostly up to my wife and her sister), the poppers pulled by the next gen, the wrapping paper mess, the ritualized restaurants we would visit.  Seeing a Star Wars movie just after it came out... So, what will I do on this non-shopping Boxing Day, the first Boxing Day for which I am actually in Canada ever?  Video games that I have left gathering dust because, well, I suck at them.  Time to get beyond the beach at Normandy, I think.

Enjoy your winterfest and happy new year!  See you in 2021.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Bitter Edition of an Annual Tradition: The Spew Year in Review

 Around this time every year, I look back at my year of blogging.  I do this partly because I am a narcissist and partly so that I have a handy place to keep links to the notable posts of the year for future reference.  This year?  It also, as my first Quarantine post noted, helps chart my descent into madness.  And, of course, given how much happened this year, it also helps to remind me all that happened in this most dismal of years.  The key to getting through this year: stress baking!

The year started with a bang, alas, as the American assassination of Iranian Qasssem Suleiman.  The Iranians, undeterred, retaliated.  The series of escalations led not to war (although that was pretty close) but to the downing of an airliner by Iranian anti-aircraft batteries, which was awful but happens in such times.  

The primaries didn't drag on as long as expected, but, jeez, they were not fun.  So glad the Dems did not reward their billionaire with votes.

The highlight of my year, partly because some of the really cool stuff (Hawaii, South Africa) got cancelled by COVID, was a trip to Japan just as the pandemic was breaking out of China and Iran and Italy.  The tour guides referred to me as Sensei, as if I were wise.  The only relevant wisdom I had was where to find the most amazing French toast.  It was great to see a different part of Japan and to meet the families that hosted the students I was chaperoning.  Oh and much sake!  Kampai!

Capstone dinner

JC organizes the survey
The CDSN did both more and less than expected.  Our Capstone event was literally the last trip I had before things locked down.  It was great to meet and provide a platform for the hotshots who gave the best presentations of 2019 that were organized by our partners.  The 2021 version will, alas, be virtual.  The 2020 Summer Institute got pushed to 2021.  However, our COVID Rapid Response Conference was a success.  We brought together our members to answer questions that had been posed by the Department of National Defence, we provided some preliminary answers, and these helped provide some research agendas for our graduate students this past summer, keeping them off the streets.  We created a summer seminar for PhD students since they lost most of their chances to present research and to network.  The survey that we put out produced some very interesting results... and also gave me an excuse to go to skiing with Roland Paris who happened to be in Calgary at the same time! 

Some of the blogging addressed how it challenged academics in their research and teaching including what to do in the fall with the obvious answer that online was best, if not great.

While every year has much civil-military relations to discuss, this year was, well, over the top.  Lots of talks of coups whether to remove Trump or keep him in power.  The post that got the most hits this year was on the worst day of American Civil-Military relations in quite some time--the clearing of Lafayette park with the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff playing a very visible role.  The context was, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement and the need for extensive, systemic, and systematic police reform.  One of the highlights of my year was the efforts by my daughter, Activist Spew.  I helped make a word a thing, more so than fetch: autogolpe.  I kept insisting that Trump was not trying to launch a coup since coups require both changes in who is in power and the use of security forces.  Only very late in the year did he muse about the military and then, of course, he vetoed a bill that would give them a raise.  I had one priority for Biden's cabinet, and, well, it did not work out so well.

The election, as endless as it seemed, has had much less violence than I expected.  Ah, I am a victim of the tyranny of low expectations.  Speaking of low expectations, I didn't really know what to make of the Lincoln Project.  I often enjoyed their ads but worried about their sharpening their axes for future work against the Dems.  I was a bit over the top, but got most of the states right.

One of the highlights of the year was marking a mistake Canada made in 1945--signing the surrender document in the wrong place.

The other highlight was fall ultimate.  Summer and winter were lost due to injury and pandemic respectively, but I got to run around with some fun folks for a number of Sundays.  I hope I can do the same next summer.  

And, yes, death was all around us.  I lost a friend from grad school--Neil Englehart.  We did organize a zoom wake, which provided some solace and also educated me a bit about Neil's life as well as what other members of my cohort have been up to.  We also lost Sean Kay, a scholar I knew but not well.  

We are all glad 2020 is at an end.  I am not sure how much better 2021 will be--the pandemic is not going to magically go away very quickly.  But Trump will be on the margins, and that will do a lot to improve my attitude and many other things.  There will be much griping about Biden, and the Dems will fight among themselves.  And that will be far better than what we have had.  

It has been a very tough year. I hope you and yours managed to get through this with a minimum of scars.  Keep on keeping on.  

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Quarantine, Week 40: Deadlines, Extensions, New Classes, Oh My


 This is the week papers were due, extensions were given, extensions were extended, extensions were, um, overcome by events, and I got shook by the realization that I spent most of my summer prepping for the fall's big class, and I have little prepared for the winter class.  So, I am going to be productive today by making a ton of cookies to deliver to friends around Ottawa.  Oh my.

And, yes, I am still working hard on the CDSN grant application.  It is going quite well as I met with leaders of the new research themes on Tuesday, and they have great ideas for both the what and the how of the research projects.  I met with some partners about joining in on this fun.  Several others gave me the letters I need to show that we have their support.  The CDSN staff has been working really hard to give me the pieces I need.  I have now declared that they are off until January.  

I will be doing grading tomorrow and Monday, and then I hope to turn to focus on one of my winter classes--civil-military relations.  I have taught it many times before but not online (well, the last four weeks last winter hardly count).  So, I need to record lectures for the first 30 minutes of each class more or less and then we will have live discussions about the stuff.  I have to figure out the writing assignments and come up with weekly discussion questions.  Online discussions tend to work better if the students are primed with questions ahead of time.  Probably in-person ones as well, but that hadn't been my practice.  Plus I have to beat the course management page into submission.  But since I am not traveling to my in-laws this winterfest, I have more time than usual.  Just more stuff to do than usual.  It should all work out. 🤞

The big news of the week, of course, was the vax rollouts in the US and Canada. Well, that and the spikes in both countries. We definitely should not become inured to the toll that is accelerating.  People keep seem to forget how exponential growth works.  I am fully expecting the daily death toll in the US to exceed not just 9/11 or Pearl Harbor but the two days combined.   Clearly, the top ten days of death in America will be entirely the pandemic before Christmas day.  And, of course, this is an undercount.  The unexpected deaths figures have been far above the official COVID death tally all along.  I have seen stories referring to the unexpected death toll for younger folks and, yes, it is appalling.  The rage is still there for me as so much of this is unnecessary.  The US will probably exceed half a million dead by spring.  Canada?  Not doing as badly but worse than it should be.  Bad leadership especially at the provincial level is killing people.  The false prioritization of the economy over the disease, bars/restaurants over schools, the delays in locking down, are all coming home to roost.  All of this was not just predictable but predicted.  We keep seeing spikes after major holidays as people think that their gathering is immune.

So, besides planning a massive baking festival (plus I made some really good dishes this week--Doro Wat as well as a chili dish, both thanks to the NYT food section), it has been a great week for TV.  The Mandalorian ended its second season in spectacular fashion.  Flight Attendant was delightful as the protagonist made bad decision after bad decision after waking up in Bangkok next to a dead guy.  The two big delights in the show--that her best friend would yell at her for the bad decisions after we yelled at her for the bad decisions AND the dead guy was the best recurring dead guy figment of an imagination since American Werewolf in London.  The show was daffy, silly, thrilling, and just a heap of fun.  

Speaking of fictional dead guys, I am reading the real story of Operation Mincemeat--the effort by British intelligence to convince the Germans that the next invasion after North Africa was not going to be Sicily but someplace else.  The book tells the tale of the idea and planning (including Ian Flemming who went on to write the Bond books), the finding of the body that would carry the false messages, the delivery of said body. And then the point where I am now--the effort by both the British and the Germans to have the Germans get the documents out of the hands of the Spanish navy (the body was aimed to wash ashore in Spain but was found by the least pro-German agency in Spain at the time).  Great stuff!

 I guess dead body fiction and non-fiction are appropriate 40 weeks into a pandemic....  I will try not to think of dead bodies and the pandemic while spending the afternoon in a manic cookie baking session.  And, yes, pictures will be forthcoming to show that it happened.





Monday, December 14, 2020

Irredentism Among Friends? But Of Course

 Last night, just before I went to bed, I saw this:

Bonkers?  As a scholar of irredentism, my professional opinion is no, not bonkers.  Not at all.  Before we start, one iron law of polling is that at least 15-20% of the answers will be nuts.  Now, let's get into the irredentism of it all. 

Irredentism refers to either political movements or countries seeking to return a "lost" territory back to an existing state (unless it is Kurdish-style, which refers essentially to the amalgamation of multiple secessionist groups).  And therein lies the rub--what counts as "lost."  Saddam Hussein considered Kuwait a lost province of Iraq in his rhetoric, but he didn't get much play.  Why?  There was not anyone of Iraqi descent in Kuwait clamoring for reunion.  Crimea?  Absolutely irredentist, as Russians in Crimea wanted to be part of Russia (not all of them), and Russia could claim that Crimea belonged to Russia.  That does not make it legal in international law, but it makes it a specific form of conquest, unlike Kuwait.

The thing is: almost any hunk of territory has belonged to different states depending on the time one chooses AND places teach their histories in ways that remind people of when "we were greater than we are now."  So, of course, some people believe that some territory nearby belongs to them.  The problem develops when the group left behind or the mother country try to do something about it.  

So, taking a look at the survey, most of these results are entirely unsurprising:

  • Hungary leads the league in something, finally.  Hungary was one of the cases Bill and I addressed in our book because it seemed to be more engaged in symbolic irredentism than any other non-violent case.  I referred to it as optimally obnoxious, as a series of leaders had a variety of policies that annoyed the neighbors over the actual and imagined plight of the Hungarians abroad.  Hungary lost something like 25% of its territory and a third of its population in the Treaty of Trianon ending its part of World War I.  In part,because because Hungarian is such a distinct language, those left abroad have more or less kept their identities.  That Romanians tend to target the Hungarian minority also "helps."  
  • Too bad Romania is not on this list as it would be very high up there since Moldova exists thanks to a pact made by Hitler and Stalin.  The Greater Romania Party's slogan was "We will be everything we once were and more than that" if I remember correctly.
  • Greece?  Greece has had multiple irredentist claims in pretty much every direction--Cyprus, Turkey, and Macedonia (I am probably forgetting others).  I know less about how Greek governments play up Greek nationalism in the schools, but I would bet a fair amount of money that the former greatness of Greece and its domination of the Med play a decent role.  That and ongoing tensions with Turkey and the history of explusions and such, not to mention the dueling irredentism over Cyprus keep alive the idea that, yes, countries nearby have territory that belongs to Greece.
  • Bulgaria--that might be aimed at Macedonia, but we didn't focus on Bulgaria in the book.
  • Poland was literally shifted several hundred miles to the west so that the USSR could get hunks of it.  So, this is entirely unsurprising.
  • Slovakia?  Not sure where there is directed as the secession from the Czech Republic was pretty easy and I am not sure where Slovakians have been left behind.  
  • Spain?  Just one word will do: Gibraltar.
  • Italy has a contested border with Slovenia with Slovenes living in Italy and Italians living in Slovenia.  
  • France? D'accord. 

That Ukraine and Russia are near the top of the list if we include non-NATO countries is hardly surprising as Russia is definitely less than the Soviet Union, leaving behind 25 million Russians in 1991 and Ukraine just did lose a hunk of territory to Russia--we are back to Crimea.  On the other hand, Swedes have few regrets about giving away Norway in 1905.  

The US and Canada are quite low on this list.  Why?  Well, both are settler countries that took away their territory from the Indigenous peoples of North America.  So, they have minor territorial issues with each other and Canada with Denmark (Hans Island, maybe Greenland), but neither Canadians nor Americans are taught in school about territories taken from each other.  Mexico?  That would another thing entirely.

So, with territorial changes over the generations and public education teaching national histories, this survey is what we should have expected.  Are there grounds for real irredentist conflicts among allies as a result?  Mostly not, but also mostly not because of NATO despite folks arguing that NATO and the EU kept things cool in the 1990s via their membership processes.  Why?  Well, for Bill and I, it is partly about political competition--do parties compete to be the best irredentist--and partly about xenophobia--do folks really want to share their welfare state with "others".  Yes, those co-ethnics abroad are not quite "us" anymore after generations of living apart.  One will still care about the plight of those abroad, but they may not want to include them in the homeland, as that would be akin to a massive wave of immigration.  

Which means the wave of populism across Europe will not lead to more irredentism as its nationalism tends to be of a xenophobic flavor.  

In other words, sweat not about Hungarian irredentism.  Hungary will remain obnoxious but not aggressive.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Quarantine, Week 39: The End of the Term and Of Other Stuff

The contrast between the personal and the political could not be greater this week.  At home and in my job, it was a very good, very busy week.  In the larger context, it was a brutal week of death and sedition.  I will talk about the latter so that this post can end on a happier note.

I keep getting reminded of this line from Avengers:

More Americans are dying each day than were killed either at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11.  I don't doubt that the daily number will exceed the combined tolls of those two days.  I have younger relatives posting the top ten days of deaths in the US with many of them now being the past week.  What is so awful, of course, is not just the toll, but how unnecessary it is.  That the governments failed the people and, yes, the people failed the people.  It is not hard to wear masks and socially distance, although it is harder for those vulnerable populations who have to keep working in close proximity to each other.  I haven't heard about meatpacking plants lately--are those doing better?  I am sure the prisons and elder care facilities are still nightmares.  While some look at the continuing border closure with relief, Canada is not doing much better.  The scale is smaller because, well, Canada is 10% of the US population-wise, but we have been failed by our leaders, especially the provincial ones, and by our populations as well.  Too many family gatherings, too many bars/restaurants being prioritized over schools, too much short-term, wishful thinking.

Sure, the Supreme Court threw out the incredible dumb Texas suit about the election.  And then the Texas AG starts talking about secession.  To be sure, that will not get as many states on board, but it is all .. horrible.  As a scholar of separatism, I can pretty confidently say that this is not going to lead to a real secessionist movement that goes anywhere.  But I can also say that this will fester.  That the Republican Party does not accept election results if they lose, and that is a very fundamental ingredient of democracy--acknowledging and accepting defeat with the hopes of returning to power down the road.  The GOP might use this "fraudulent election" thing at every opportunity to block governance.  Which means that the rollout for the vaccine and other pandemic relief stuff may get blocked, that Biden's cabinet may get blocked, and so on.  And, yes, 2022 and 2024 are going to be mighty ugly.  Thus far, we have not seen any of these nihilists in the GOP pay a real price for their behavior--we have seen elites split off, but until the voters for the party choose to reject this path, we are truly and deeply fucked.  

And I spent the week arguing again and again that the Secretary of Defense should not be a retired general or admiral. I get it that the representation here is key--the first Black person to run DoD.  However, I have many, many problems with putting retired senior military folks in that position, as I did four years ago.  The entire civ-mil scholarly community shares this consensus.  A few bent their beliefs four years ago because they thought Mattis might be an adult in the room with Trump, but they were wrong. 

So, let's talk about the good stuff instead.  My daughter's activism and that of her colleagues has paid off--the guy who was being railroaded for supposedly threatening to derail a train amid protests was released by the new LA DA.  Elections can have good consequences!  I am so proud of the fierce social justice warrior that she has become.  It has involved risks to health and freedom, but she so far is doing fine and avoiding paying a high cost for this effort.  

Closer to home, I have been super busy writing up a new grant as the Department of National Defence had a different deadline than I thought, much earlier than I had anticipated.  The good news is that the pieces are coming together because the people I have been asking to join the endeavor have been so generous with their time and expertise.  It will still involve a bunch of work, but I am feeling good about where it is going.  Other CDSN initiatives are also paying off with the positive feedback from last week's Year Ahead conference and the last taping of Battle Rhythm for 2020.  I watched my former students rock at a conference organized by a partner of the CDSN: the Network for Strategic Analysis.  The effort to build a Diversity Council to advise the CDSN is starting to come to fruition.  

Speaking of fruition-ing, I had my last class of the term yesterday.  It was only the second time I had a live interaction with the entire class--the first time since the first day of the semester.  The rest of the class was videos, tutorials run by TAs, office hours, writing assignments, and memes of the week.  It was fun to lecture again and try to weave the entire semester together.  I think it worked ok.  And given stream of comments in the chat at the end, I think it worked or the students were grateful that I was most flexible in giving extensions and other accommodations or they had their expectations lowered by a semester of pandemic classes.  I did love one comment:


That was referring to my invoking of the conclusion of Back to the Future 3:

Sure, it is cheesy.  And, yes, the final paper could have used IR theory to argue that Doc Brown is wrong (or right).  But I felt it was a good way to conclude--the present sucks mightily, but the future is up to them.





Friday, December 11, 2020

Logical Cowardice

 We now have a couple dozen, give or take, GOP Attorneys General and more than a hundred Republican members of the House of Representatives supporting this b.s. lawsuit by Texas trying to overturn the results of four states so that Trump can stay around.  Is this irrational?  No, it is not.  It is wrong, it is craven, but it makes sense.  How so?

First, let's go back to 2016.  Remember when Trump was running for office and few of the dozen or so other competitors for the nomination refused to attack him head on?  They were not afraid, necessarily, of Trump as a sharp debater.  They were afraid of alienating a key part of his base--the extreme wing of the Republican Party.  Cruz and Rubio were particularly craven.  Their miscalculation, of course, was that they thought they could win enough of the rest of the GOP to offset Trump's strong support among the extremists.  Turns out the party was a wee bit more extreme, at least those turning out.

Now?  Republicans may or may not fear angry tweets from Trump, but they don't really have to worry about retaliation via the normal means of a President changing priorities, shifting resources, etc, because, well, he is only going to be in office for 40 or so more days.  But what these Republicans do fear is alienating the Trumpists within the GOP.  Due to Fox, Sinclair, QAnon, and other malignant forces, the ratio of Trumpists in the party have increased.  But even if they were only 10% of the party, losing that hunk in a general election in many districts and most states would be enough to turn elections.  

So, the fear of these potential voters is real and quite rational.  They may vote for a third party (if Trump blesses one) or not show up at the polls if they are dissatisfied.  Or they may primary those GOP who are not sufficiently loyal to Trump.  

But what of the national interest?  What about the preservation of institutions and of democracy?  Well, those concerns would matter if these folks were "Conservatives" but they are not.  They are reactionaries and opportunists.  Plus there is the collective action problem--that the incentives to contribute a bit to a cooperative effort with few direct benefits to oneself are outweighed by the temptations to defect, to free ride on the democracy that others are providing.  

Yep, it is rational and awful.  And we should not be surprised by this, given what the GOP went along with for the past four years and what they did to the Obama Administration when it was trying to deal with one of the worst economic crises of our time. This is the party of McConnell, it is the party of Gingrich.  It is not just the party of Trump--it has been rotten for some time.  But now it is out of the control of the party establishment, in the hands of Trump.  

And that is not going to end on January 20th.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

If I Had Missed the Policy Path?

Yesteday, Thomas Juneau and Philippe Lagassé posted a piece discussing the benefits and possibilities of academics working in the policy sphere (it does not happen much in Canada) and policy-makers spending time in academia.  I indicated that such an experience, my year in the Pentagon, via the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship (designed for this explicit purpose) was career and life changing.  For the better.  

How so?  First, it altered my research agenda.  I started asking questions about NATO because I sat at the Bosnia desk for a year, watching the alliance at work.  This then led, because most decisions are made by NATO members more than the alliance itself, to my focusing on comparative civil-military relations.  Which is where I still am.  I am also working on a belated project on the bureaucratic politics of the US national security process, which came directly from the stuff I observed in 2001-2002.  Second, the year in the policy world almost certainly led to the last two jobs.  The two final candidates for the McGill Canada Research Chair position in 2002 both had CFR IAF experiences.  Probably not an accident.  I am sure having policy experience was important for getting a job at a policy school ten years later.  Third, it changed my teaching.  I not only teach civ-mil relations, but I use the stuff I learned in that one year in my classes all the time.  My students are most practiced at eyerolling to my constant references to "my year in the Pentagon."  I have not only specific stories about the year but learned far more about the processes that operate, the role of personalities, and the intricacies of how the US military operates.  It was a brief but very intense experience.  Fourth, it increased my desire to foster engagement between academics and ... everyone else--the public, the policy world, and so on.

But if I had not had that experience, what would have happened to me and my career?  Well, I might not have gotten the McGill job, which means I would not be Canadian now.  I might still be in Texas, as opportunities to change from one tenured job to another are not that abundant and I don't always interview well.  The McG interview was one of the best ones in my career.  Maybe I would have ended up somewhere else, but the job market is not nearly as predictable as the tides.  So, I don't really know.  I do know that I probably would not have shifted from the International Relations of Ethnic Conflict to Alliances and Civil-Military Relations.  I certainly would not have had as much access to grant money, so I would not have engaged in such ambitious projects as comparing 15 or so democracies and how their legislatures oversee (or not) their militaries.  I would not have spent about half dozen years building a grant to fund a Canadian defence and security network.  I would not have had as many PhD students as there were few at TTU interested in working with me.  So, I would be much poorer with a much smaller TeamSteve.  And I would not have lived in Ottawa or Montreal, which means fewer friends, less ultimate, and less Canada in my life. 

Looking back, I realize that every step along the way has helped me get to where I am (even as I was unhappy and eager to move a few times across my career) and where I am is a pretty cool place.  I love the place I work, I love the work I am doing, I really appreciate the friends I have made in the Pentagon, Montreal, and Ottawa. 

So, yeah, if I had not gone to DC for that one amazing, intense, enlightening, exhausting year, I would be worse off.  I can't recommend enough that academics pursue the rare opportunities to get into the policy world.  It might be as amazing for them as it has been for me.  It may not be as life and career changing, but who knows?

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Biden Undermines Civilian Control of the Military

It is just a bit beyond the four year anniversary of the post where I blasted Trump for putting Mattis into the Secretary of Defense position and a few weeks after I posted my key rules for cabinet posts.  And we see Biden selecting General (ret.) Lloyd Austin to the position.  Civ-mil twitter is infuriated.  Why are we so upset?  And why is there is so much consensus?  Jim Golby covers it well, but I will post here because I want to have a post that I can link to when I regularly refer to this great mistake.  And because he does not go far enough.

The basic idea is this: civilians should control the armed forces.  This is a lesson learned the hard way during World War I--"War is too important to be left to the generals."  Yes, the President is the ultimate commander-in-chief, but he has a lot of stuff to do.  The person whose day job is to manage the US military is the SecDef.  Indeed, it is his (I wish it were her) job to manage civil-military relations.  Why do we need civvies in this job?  For many reasons, but mostly due to this basic principal that civilians need to be in charge.  Some specific reasons:

  • Military officers are socialized throughout their career to develop various attitudes and mindsets that cause them to see the world in particular ways.  Mattis revealed some of these by talking about the superior integrity of those in uniform (given the war criminals that Trump has pardoned, maybe not?).  
  • Military officers are tightly networked at the top, so they will have close person ties with the three and four star officers, making it harder to have the proper distance. The military tends to generate patron-client networks which are not healthy.
  • Military officers may have much experience playing politics in the military, but their attitude that they are nonpolitical and nonpartisan sets them up for trouble when acting as SecDef, a very political job.
  • Their tendencies towards secrecy and preference for escalation do not serve them well when in the top spot.  

The Congress, when it created the SecDef post, required that any SecDef had to be out of the military for at least ten years.  That was later changed to seven.  They did provide the possibility of a waiver, which has happened twice.  Congress waived this in the case of George C. Marshall who not only served very adeptly to run the Army during WWII but served quite ably as Secretary of State.  He was a unique figure in US military history.  

Mattis was given a waiver four years ago in the misbegotten hope that surrounding Trump with adults would temper Trump's worst impulses.  What happened instead?  Trump, after being blamed for a raid in Yemen that went awry in his first month, delegated all decision-making to the Pentagon.  Mattis and his general/admiral friends escalated most of the wars the US was in.  Why?  Because there is the aforementioned tendency to want to use all means at one's disposal.  It may be a stereotype, but the past four years certainly did not disprove it.  Mattis also decreased transparency.  He did not restrain Trump from risking war with North Korea in 2017.  He did not restrain Trump from ditching the Iran deal.  He stood by while Trump signed the Muslim ban.  He only slow rolled on decreasing troops in various places and regarding the parade in DC.  Mattis was a bad SecDef.  And much of it had to do with his attitude of being an uber-general rather than a civilian controlling the military.  He let the military make policy.  .  While I tended to favor that in my year in the Pentagon because Rumsfeld was so awful, it is not a good idea. 

One of the most important sets of norms that Biden should be reaffirming and reinforcing is civilian control of the military.  I get it that he wants to put a Black American into this spot, and it would be the first time (Colin Powell served as Chairman and as National Security Adviser).  The apparent lack of non-military alternative Black Americans is a condemnation of the existing National Security community where "opportunity hoarding" (thanks, Josh) is a thing.    

To be clear, there is abundant civilian expertise.  One of the basic problems with the US armed forces (and others) is the hard-wired belief that they are not just experts on the use of violence but they are the only experts (thanks to Sam Huntington).  But they don't have a monopoly of expertise.  And their expertise is often quite limited/directed/biased.  We need civilian eyes and ears in the room and hands on the wheel.  

This is not an emergency where we need a military officer needs to be in control.  Indeed, that is a dangerous signal to send and entirely wrong.  In my visits around the world, I found some places where the Minister of Defence is always a retired military officer.  And I found that problematic in the extreme.  Maybe it makes some kind of sense in some of those places because there is not a vibrant civilian community of experts.  But the US has that more so than any place else.  Michele Flournoy is not the only civilian who is qualified for this post, although she might be the most qualified.

You know who is disqualified for this position?  Any retired admiral or general.  I don't think one should ever serve in this post, even if they are ten years past serving.  The military socializes so powerfully that it cannot be undone in a decade, or, as someone put it on twitter, a lifetime.  

Civ-mil scholars disagree on a lot, but the consensus here is quite strong.  I have yet to see a serious civ-mil scholar think this is a good idea.  Some wavered four years ago, but none are now, as far as I can tell.  

Oh, and this is bad politics as well, as Biden will need to do a lot of work and make compromises to get Austin waived.  And if he fails to do so, Biden will have wasted a lot of effort and alienated a lot of folks along the way.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Canadians Remember Better, Misogny edition

One of the differences between Canada and the US is that Canadians tend to remember stuff better and longer.  I always note this on November 11th, as poppies and ceremonies here remind folks of World War I far more clearly and directly than either Veterans Day or Memorial Day in the US.  Today is another one of those days. 

On December 6th, 1989, a man killed these 14 women in very cold blood

He separated out the men from the women and then executed the women.  It was the biggest massacre since the 1800s until this past year (the Nova Scotia spree).  The guy killed himself.  He might have been the first incel terrorist.  Certainly, the violence was misogynist as he declared he was attacking feminism.  He went to a school and systematically killed the women.

Every year, this day is marked across Canada, not just in Quebec.  Violence against women was not new then or now, but this is the largest attack by a misogynist in Canada.  This summer's attack in Nova Scotia was a bit more complex, but the perpetrator had a history of "domestic violence" as well.  I put that in quotes since the phrase, to me, sanitizes the beating of women (yes, it applies more broadly).  

Anyhow, I can't help but notice that the US does not have national remembrance of its various massacres.  Maybe because there are so many, maybe because 14 women is small compared to Tulsa Race Riots (which were lost to history for most Americans until the past few years) or Las Vegas or Orlando.  Columbine?  Well, we know it is April 20th (Hitler's birthday and all), but we don't mark it.  Nor do we mark Sandy Hook, which we damn well should.  

Anyhow, I am sad and angry that women face so much violence and other forms of abuse.  Today, we are reminded of the toll it has taken.  Remember the women who paid the price.  And let's not give the man any additional attention or notice.  That is what these guys want, so let's deny them that.  It is the very least we can do.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Quarantine, Week 38: December Brings the Busy

 The end of 2020 is near but not near enough.  The academic calendar has both obvious and less obvious implications for our pace.  The obvious is that the semester is ending, which means the end of lectures (I actually have one live one left), the start of grading season, and, oh wait, preparing the new term.  The less obvious is that people seem to pile on conferences and meetings around this time.  And this week was a busy one for me and the CDSN.

Our YearAhead2021 conference was a big success.  It was entirely virtual due to the spike in Ottawa, but, aside from the Dean's message crashing, it went really well.  We opened with a panel on China that was really interesting, shedding light on what Canada could possibly do despite the asymmetries between the two countries.  Always smart to lead off with Roland Paris (U of Ottawa), a pal and the sharpest IR guy in the country.  Dawn Murphy of the US Air War College provided a good perspective on what China has been doing and why.  Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares presented a more fine grained analysis by talking about how China's involvement in the Arms Trade Treaty revealed a bit of how China's soft/hard power combo is playing out.  The next panel focused on global perspectives on health/pandemic organized by Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot (Calgary) and Andy Knight (Alberta) with Jonathan Luckhurst of Soka U, Winston Dookeran of U of West Indies, Srikanth of U of Ottawa, and Christopher Afoke Iske of U of Zululand.  

The keynote speaker was Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security Jacqueline O'Neill, and she wanted a conversation so Beth Woroniuk of the WPS Network-Canada did a great job of doing more than moderating but having a great conversation.  Beth then moderated our Fireside Diversity Chat with Sgt. Karen Pelletier of the RCMP, LtColonel (ret) Bill Shead, and Artur Wilcynski of Communications Security Establishment (kind of Canada's NSA).  Again, a great conversation discussing their experiences and perspectives as the first two are Indigenous Canadians working in law enforcement and the military, while Artur is gay and working in a national security institution.  They discussed the contradictions and challenges they have faced throughout their careers.  

The last panel was on Greyzone warfare with Philippe Dufort of St. Paul University and head of one of the MINDS networks, Marina Miron of King's College London, and Isabelle Duyvesteyn of Leiden U.  They not only addressed Russia's efforts to mess with pretty much everyone, but also the challenges posed by asymmetric warfare.  The virtual experience enabled us to bring in people from the Caribbean, Europe, and South Africa, which might have stretched our budget in ordinary times, but, alas, we could not have the networking experience.  The dinner beforehand, the coffee breaks and lunch during the event--those didn't exist.  And because zoom can be tiring, we had to keep the presentations and q&a shorter.  Still, the event went very well.  The CDSN/CSIDS staff did all of the heavy lifting so I could just focus on being nervous about the whole thing.   And I was so busy worrying and fussing that I didn't take any pictures.  At a physical event, I tend to be the photographer for the CDSN.  Not this time.  We will have to get some screen shots once we get the video from the AV firm.

The busy-ness accelerated as a grant competition I had been preparing for was announced far earlier than I was expecting.  Which means an earlier deadline and a far busier Steve over the holidays.  It also means more mid-December meetings, with me being the organizer.  Sorry, folks.

The joy of the election is that we can go an entire week and only think about Trump once or twice.  Yes, he is doing more damage on his way out, clearly seeking to tie Biden's hands in places like Afghanistan and Iran.  But he is mostly moping and golfing.  If he wants to spend the next few years "running" for 2024, that is money and attention going to him and not the rest of the GOP.  Which is fine.  He might run in four years, but he might also be just extracting the last few dollars out of the gullible folks.  He didn't enjoy being president, and he is going to be really old and even more addled in four years.  So, I don't expect him to campaign, but I do expect him to make everyone in the party suck up to him.  Which is why only a handful of GOP Representatives have recognized the election outcome.  

The other joy of the election is watching how bad lawyering can be.  Oh my.  

This weekend will be very winterfest-y as we need to get the cards out, and the family baking challenge (my brother's idea!) is cupcakes.  So, I will sign off as I have three cupcake recipes I am going to be trying.

 Be well!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

COVID and Pre-existing Conditions

 One thing has been quite clear since March: if you have pre-existing conditions that you did not know about, COVID revealed them.  This is not just true for the human body but for people and political systems.  Today's exemplar:

The Premier (Governor) of Manitoba Brian Pallister said: ""This puts Manitobans at the back of the line. This hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly." Apparently, First Nations folks residing in Manitoba aren't Manitobans.  Hello, white supremacy!  I don't know much about Pallister, but what I have observed for the past several months is that many of the Premiers of Canada have been utter failures as leaders.  They didn't use the summer to improve the testing/tracing system, they didn't set up their schools for success, and they mandated masks mostly too damned late.  The US is not alone in having weak leadership in this crisis.  The epidemic revealed how weak these leaders are.

Likewise, Canadian federalism has not performed great.  While folks want to blame Trudeau for a lot, and they should for much stuff, many of the big decisions and big failures are out of his reach unless he invokes the Emergency Act.  Given the usually dire state of federal-provincial relations, that has been a non-starter.  Trudeau can't force the provinces to shut down or mandate masks apparently.  

COVID 19 also revealed the weaknesses in the international health system, with WHO pandering to one of its key funders (China), and with US desertion of its leadership role greatly undermining the international response.  

I could go on and on, but this pandemic has revealed that I have an attention deficit problems.