Sunday, April 30, 2023

Spew-Anniversary Time: Less Frequent, Still Generalizing But Now Generalized

Fourteen years flies by, eh?  I started blogging after peak blogging declined and while twitter was hip and fun and snarky.  Now, twitter is toxic, ok, it's owner is toxic, and blogging is hip again although folks tend to call it Substack.  I went from writing about anything sometimes four times a day to now writing far less frequently--sometimes four times a month.  I write less partly because I can just refer to an old post rather than rewrite the same thing over and over again. 

On the occasion of the 14th anniversary, I thought I would write something to keep up my monthly totals and to consider some of the ironies relating to my first post long ago and in a city not so far away (I am convinced that I write less because I am complaining about Quebec and its politics far less).

In my first post, I was reacting to two pieces I read and that were getting much play: one by Joseph Nye arguing that political scientists are not policy relevant and one by Francis Fukuyama about the need to get rid of tenure.  Let's take those in turn.  

I argued in the original post that the interest and willingness to engage the policy world varies among scholars, and that there are plenty of folks doing so.  Since then, the Bridging the Gap folks have not only produced many cohorts of folks interested in doing so, but this organization is now taking the next step with some others, pondering about the do's and don't's and the ethics of engagement.  DoD is populated by a bunch of political scientists these days, while DND (the maple version of DoD) killed their engagement program, the Security and Defence Forum, and then started a new one, Mobilizing Insights for Defence and Security or MINDS, that now funds nine networks on a range of topics.  We built the Canadian Defence and Security Network to foster greater engagement among the different parts of Canada's defence and security community, and after four years, I think we have been quite successful.

Of course, the question is whether policy-types listen to the academics or are they just checking boxes?  Hard to tell ultimately, but I do know that two of Arbour's recommendations came from one academic, and she consulted many during her review.  I also know that crises provide opportunities for outsiders to engage, and, yes, the Canadian military has been crisis mode for at least two years.  Anecdata is just that, but I have found that folks in government do listen to our BattleRhythm podcast, as I get calls when I say stuff that is out of date.   

Tenure is also in the news, as GOP-dominated state legislatures are attempting to wipe out tenure in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere.  People have always doubted whether the academic freedom that tenure was designed to protect was actually protected and deployed.  That is, people wondered whether academics might be trained to be uncontroversial through the probation period which then sticks, that profs do not really need academic freedom because they never really make use of it.

Dan Nexon commented on my first post, and it was most prescient:

those who say that the "free speech" issue isn't so important anymore only think that because tenure has protected it for so long. Abolish tenure, and things will get ugly very, very quickly.

Well, we may have a "natural experiment" where profs in GOP-dominated states will have different pressures/constraints to compare with those elsewhere.  Fukuyama was wondering if tenure caused stagnation as it reduced the incentives for profs to produce and to push.  He wasn't wondering about the punishment that may visited upon those who dare to dare.  Given how partisan, how ideological this current anti-tenure effort is, can we doubt at all that those in tenure-less places will have toe the line for fear of getting fired?  Just mentioning racism, which is an important topic in any number of history and social science classes, might be enough to get one fired, not to mention researching those in office right now who are white supremacists.  So, yeah, tenure is more relevant than ever, and the concern that it might cause some folks to become deadwood is far offset by the real threat of ideological conformity imposed by the far right that now dominates too many political systems (watch out, Albertan profs, you may be next).  

Finally, one of the themes of that first post was that I was originally miffed about folks generalizing about profs, but then I realized I am a professional generalizer.  I take ideas that I know well and apply them all over the place, to see what is common and what is not so common.  The funny thing is that I have recently taken umbrage at generalizations hurled at my kind--that some folks question the integrity of profs because they engage the policy community and even take money from the government, gasp!  As a good prof, I should be less concerned about folks thinking critically of my kind and more concerned with them doing the work as they criticize. That is, read our stuff and judge then if we are shills for whoever.  I do have 14 years of stuff right here.  Of course, some might think that this is a Steve Bannon-esque strategy of flooding the zone with shit.  Maybe?

There are many things people don't understand about professors, but two of them are:

a)  we don't pocket grant money--we use it to pay for research assistants (students), travel, access to data, equipment/software, and the like.

b) we spend our entire careers being criticized--the most valued publications are those that go through peer review, and peer review is often pretty brutal.  So, we tend to develop thick skins, as rejection is inherent in our enterprise, as I keep saying (I am 0 for 2 this spring in sabbatical fellowship applications, waiting to hear about a third).  

Of course, those are two generalizations that are mostly true but not always.  I hate when folks question my integrity, that kind of criticism does rankle.  So, my skin is not always as thick as I would like.  I am also easy trolled.  But that is a topic for another day.  Perhaps before the next anniversary.

One last thing: even though I have been doing this for fourteen years, I am always a bit surprised that people read my musings here.  The typos in many posts should remind folks that this outlet is for the half-baked.  The spew is only semi-finished.  Which may be for the best as my mistakes and my omissions have led to lots of interesting conversations.  Thanks for reading and engaging me.  While this thing may have started out as narcissism--my ideas are really important--this blog has really helped me engage my curiosity, learning much stuff along the way.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Open Letters, Closed Pockets?

 The Conference of Defence Associations Institute made a splash this week with an open letter "Call for Action: Canada's National Security and Defence in Peril."  It made a heap of news given who signed it: a heap of former ministers of defence, a bunch of ambassadors and high ranking civil servants, and several retired generals and admirals (tis funny to me that the title of the piece omits the squids and skimmers):

I respect the hell out of many of the signers as well as folks at CDAI, which as been a terrific partner of the CDSN.  However, I have quibbles, both minor and major, which I would have shared this morning on the radio had the host not gotten the wrong talking points--he asked me about Elon Musk and the CBC.  While it was fun to rant about bad faith actors engaged in vice-signalling, I did prep for the interview and didn't want to waste it, so here's some thoughts about this piece.  

First, I want to address a few specific gripes before getting to the larger context.

  • The letter talks about our military capabilities being woefully inadequate to protect our landmass.  That is not only true, that will ALWAYS be true.  How so?  The primary military threat to Canada are missiles launched by Russia/China/North Korea.  We can't stop those.  No matter how much we spend, we can't because we don't have ballistic missile defenses.  The Americans have been working on such defenses since Reagan's Star Wars speech, and they really haven't made much progress on it.  So, we should be clearer about what are the threats and what we need to defend ourselves from those threats.  The biggest threats to Canadian lives and property are stuff outside the military domain: climate change, pandemics, and cyber attacks (while the military has a cyber role, we should not be spending the scarce commodity of disciplined, trained people in uniform on jobs civilians can and should do).  People can cite Russian investments in the north, but we have to keep in mind that they have a whole lot of north to defend.  I do really worry about a war with China, but that is a China-Taiwan conflict that will spillover, and we will never have a navy big enough to make a dent in that conflict.  I say all this, even as I agree with the basic premise--we need to spend more.  But there are some difficulties with that, as I get to, below.
  • "We have also fallen short in meaningful contributions to burden sharing for the collective defence and security of our allies and partners."

 Oh really?  What burden has Canada shirked?  Canada paid the third highest price of any ally in Afghanistan and had far less restrictions until it became a training mission.  Canada is one of four framework nations organizing the defense/deterrence/reassurance missions in the Baltics and Poland.  While our contingent has been smaller than the others, the resulting need to organize many smaller and less respected (sorry) contingents has earned Canada a heap of kudos for stepping up when France refused to do so.  Canada has played a leading role in training Ukrainian forces before the Russian invasion of 2022 and since.  Canada has shipped a comparative level of arms and ammunition and other supplies to Ukraine.  

When people say Canada has not burden-shared enough, they really mean Canada hasn't spent enough on its military.  But that is not "burden-sharing" because spending on our own military really does not lift the burden that much from the others.  Here's a secret: the US would spend as much as it currently does even if Canada doubled its spending.  Indeed, given the domestic political dynamics driving American defense spending, I am pretty sure that if each and every US ally spent the equivalent of 2% of GDP on defense, the US would still spend about the same.  Which branch of the US military will say: hey, our allies have spent more, we don't need to spend as much?  Which defense contractors?  Which Senators and Representatives?  

And, yes, the easiest way to make progress to 2% is to tank the economy since it is all about spending relative to one's economy.  If one's economy grows pretty well, one might find one spending more money absolutely but not relative to that metric.  Canada is spending more on its military than it was a decade ago--more dollars, even if not a greater % of GDP.  More importantly input measures are dumb.  See Anessa Kimball's book for more on the craptastic nature of the 2% conversation.

  • Canadian civil-military relations conversations don't really address the challenges posed by having retired senior officers take political stances the same way these are raised in the US.  But perhaps they should.  If JC Boucher and I get funding, we will be studying whether the signals sent by retired officers cause Canadians to think that they are speaking for the active military.  If so, well, damn.  Because then the military is seen, rightly or wrongly, as taking a partisan stance.  And that ain't good. Folks can say this is a bipartisan letter since it has both former Conservative and Liberal politicians signing it, but nope, that doesn't do the trick since this letter is calling on this government, this party, to do better.  It does not call on Parliament to get its house in order even as the role of parliament in Canadian defence is so much weaker than damn near any other democracy.  So, this is critical of this PM and the Liberal party because they are the ones in power.  
  • Speaking of the former ministers, how many of them are responsible for the current mess?  How many of them cut spending, pushed back procurement processes, under-invested in procurement expertise, and so on?  Most of them?  All of them?  So much easier for them to criticize this stuff now that they are no longer beholden to parties and no longer running for office.
  • Which gets to the part that is most unrealistic: "the Government must radically accelerate timelines for procurement..."  Um, through magic?  A great application of Green Lantern theory.  DND doesn't have enough people to do the procurement stuff to buy the equipment and such.  So, that needs a heap of work to make happen before one can spend the money. If one were to magically allocate $15b more, the current staffing at DND couldn't spend it.

  Ok, the larger context.  The letter is right that the latest budget is disappointing from a defence/security perspective as it had no new money.  In my humble opinion, the gravest threat to the Canadian military is its recruitment and retention crisis.  That being short 16k people means not only that the CAF can't do as much, but that those in the CAF are stressed.  Stressed by having to do multiple jobs, stressed by not being well served by various offices that are understaff, and so on.  These pressures are likely to make it harder to retain people and harder to recruit, which will exacerbate the crisis--a downward spiral.  It would seem to me that while throwing money at the problem won't solve it, it probably could help.  Increase pay, increase benefits, spend more money on recruiting efforts, improve military bases, etc.  I do wonder what is happening to the money that is supposed to be going to the 16k soldiers, sailors, and aviators who aren't in the CAF.  Anyhow, that is one place where the money should be going.  

Another key part of the current context is that the Defence Policy Update is late and has generally been an opaque, underwhelming process.  Canada should have a quadrennial process--to review how well the last four years went and whether goals were attained, why DND/CAF fell short, and plans for improving as well as responding to new developments.  Instead, the DPU was going to be, from what folks have gleaned, a sales pitch for spending more money on NORAD modernization (which is necessary but won't actually lead to us being much safer due to that aforementioned missile defence problemo).  We will only be able to evaluate the DPU after it comes out.  

The previous review was much better than expected.  Maybe people liked it since it didn't make any hard choices as it didn't force any real tradeoffs.  But it did cost out the spending for the various programs and was pretty transparent.  Of course, when rolled out, much was made of putting personnel first in the document to suggestion putting personnel first in reality, but then Trudeau kept around a Defence Minister who kept around a Chief of Defence Staff that was abusing his power and engaged in sexual misconduct.  So, the proof is in the doing, not in the words on the page.

Finally, the political pressures run against most of this.  If we wanted good ships fast and less expensive, we'd buy them from countries that are good at that.  Instead, notice how the ship building is pitched by this government (and by the previous one, just not quite so starkly):

 That graphic is the cover for the 2015 Liberal Defence Platform.  Notice the purpose of naval investments--jobs.  Not ships.  Jobs.  Not defending maritime approaches.  This is one of the primary reasons why Canada doesn't have the equipment the CAF needs--that decisions are made about jobs and votes. Stephen Harper's plan was to capture Halifax and Vancouver via the shipbuilding program, but now all the parties are held hostage by Irving, Seaspan, and now Davie shipyards.  Folks can argue we need this capacity to maintain and upgrade the ships, but the choice to do it this way is incredibly expensive and ... no frigates (the AOPS ships the navy didn't really want are mostly broken).  

When we do import stuff, there is an urge to Canadianize it to make it fit Canadian standards.  So, now we have helicopters that are too heavy.  Oy.  The military always wants to put as much stuff as they can, so that the equipment can operate in all kinds of scenarios since they can only get one type of plane, one type of ship, and so forth.  But that goldplating makes the systems more expensive and less effective.  Again, choices need to be made, which might mean that a ship is good at one thing and not so good at another.  Because you know.... 👉

While this government is not great at delivering, most of this is hard-wired into Canadian politics.  Which party is going to get more votes by spending more money on defense?   "We believe this could be best accomplished on a non-partisan basis and would have broad public support."  Um, no.

Structural problems can't be fixed with just a call to arms and a smidge more political will (whatever that is).  Maybe this letter might impact those writing the Defence Policy Update, but that impact is likely to be on the packaging as the money is already set.  Trudeau has already made the decision for this year, and given the context--the war in Ukraine, the DPU, etc--I doubt that next year will be any different as we get closer to the next election.  

I get the frustration of those signing this letter. I share it.  I write blog posts out of frustration.  Other folks write open letters.  But move the policy needle?  I think not. 








Monday, April 10, 2023

Who Gets to Police The Defence and Security Community?

Driveby accusations of compromised integrity tend to create smoke that obscures.  It is easy, but it does not do much to advance the cause of transparency.  Pugliese is right that the government is not transparent enough in defence matters.  But spewing random accusations to taint those in the field does not provide greater transparency, but rather helps to foster more confusion.  It reminds me of what defence contractors do if they lose a bid--they raise questions about the process.  So, we never can tell if the process is decent since the losers always shit on it.  It may be populist to question the motives of all elites, but if one listens to these academics and the reporters they talk to at all, you will find that most just want Canada to do better.  We may disagree on what better means, but those in journalism and in academia are not motivated by profit.  

There is some irony in David Pugliese regularly calling out his media colleagues for not being sufficiently dogged or pure of heart or whatever.  What is it?  Well, he has set himself up with his Counterspin column in Esprit de Corps as THE defence media critic while being a defence journalist.  That seems to be a conflict of interest, which is his go-to criticism of many other people in this space.

Pugliese regularly criticizes his colleagues for not mentioning that some of their interview subjects may receive some funding from the Department of National Defence.  Of course, it is unrealistic that in any quick media hit that the journalist will mention all of the funding their subject receives.  But there is more to this, of course.

It is the questioning of everyone's integrity.  That is what is galling to those who find themselves the subject of these quick driveby's in Counterspin.  Yes, folks get $ from DND.  To be clear, each university has a research accounting office that ensures that the money is spent on legitimate expenses, and for DND or SSHRC money, that money is never income for the researcher.* This money never goes into the pocket of academics--it pays for the salaries of research assistants, it pays for travel for conferences and workshops, it pays for hosting events, and the like.  I am not paying for my kitchen renovation from the money I have received from DND.  So, are folks like me going to sell out our views for some research assistant salary?  If one suspects that they answer is yes, then read our stuff.  Critically evaluate our stances.  Just to mention the money is the laziest way to engage in criticism. 

Pugs criticizes anyone who is too close to the military.  I get that, but he is very close to the military too.  Not the institution but to those in it.  Where else does he get his leaks?  So, he is very dependent on those folks.  Does that make his reporting problematic?  It kind of depends on the story and the motives of the leakers, doesn't it?  Are they all pure of heart?  Damned if I know.  I wouldn't say that they are all tainted by being military personnel or being upset military personnel.  Likewise, I wouldn't say that anyone who meets with those who aren't leaking are either pure of heart or full of ill intent.  Again, to evaluate, read the stuff. I read Pugliese's stuff, and much of it is excellent, important, and necessary reporting.  Some of it is clearly folks using him to grind their various axes on minor issues that still seem to get on the front page. 

I am guessing Pugs would say that we say nice things about the powers that be so that we can get access.  Access for what?  Not to line our pockets because that is not how academia works.  Maybe we want access so that we can learn more, to understand things better, to share those improved understandings with our students, with those that read academic work, and with the public when the media reaches out to us.  Again, are we selling bits of our souls so that we can get this access?  The way, of course, to answer this is: read our stuff.  

One of the reasons this is all so very upsetting is that we live in a time of diminished trust in institutions and expertise.  There have been good reasons to distrust government, given how they have handled various crises and have made it hard to access information.  However, there are very few non-government voices in the defence and security community.  We do not have much of a tradition of relatively non-partisan think tanks.  We have various associations that get significant funding from defence contractors.  And we have very few journalists who have expertise on defence (Mercedes Stephenson has an MA from a Strategic Studies program!).  

This means that academics here get more attention than they do elsewhere.  It imposes upon us significant responsibility, so we do disclose on our websites where we get funding.  But we do not spend every media hit reporting who funds us.  We do not have the time, and, yes, we don't think our views are bought by whoever funds our research and dissemination efforts.  Indeed, academics would probably be voted most likely to bite the hand that feeds them.  For example, the same year I spent significant effort to get defence $ to fund the Canadian Defence and Security Network, I also spent calling for the Minister of National Defence to be fired.

The CDSN does not receive defence contractor funding.  We have had discussions about the perils of funding sources, how to remain independent, and we plan to have future events address the challenges of ethical engagement, building on the work done in the US funded by, gasp, a foundation--Carnegie Corporation of New York.  These are important conversations, and we should be having them.  But starting from the standpoint that only one man in Canadian defence journalism has integrity is not helpful or informative.  But maybe it makes sense if he wants to taint rival sources of information.  Of course, that would be speculating about his integrity, and that would be wrong.   

*  For those who are unfamiliar with academia, when it comes to grants, the way it works is:

  1. Apply to multiple grants
  2. Wait.  Tom Petty was right, the waiting is the hardest part.
  3. Grant application is approved by funder.  Does not always happen as I keep saying: rejection is inherent in the enterprise
  4. Get research ethics clearance from university committee.  The aim here is largely not to harm our research subjects--the people we interview.  These processes were developed after psychologists did bad things to the people they studied (Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram experiment)
  5. The university receives money
  6. Fund research assistants, organize events, arrange travel, etc.  
  7. Be reimbursed (one can sometimes get advances) for money spent on planes, trains, automobiles, hotels, per diems (usually something like $70/day for meals) with the aforementioned research accounting offices tracking what we spend and rejecting inappropriate expenditures..
  8. Report on activities and spending.
  9. Publish and engage the public/media.  Sharing our knowledge is one of the essential components of the job.