Friday, March 16, 2018

Trump as the Political Scientist Full Employment Machine

Ok, Trump may or may not challenge all existing wisdom that we have in political science (I tend to think our theories explain much of the Trump phenomenon quite well).  But what we do know is that he is creating a lot of work for future political scientists.  Lots of research agendas are being born every day, like: are tweets policies? Do distractions work whether intentional or not?  How does a country manage to make its allies fear abandonment and entrapment at the same time?

For me, the "fun" item this morning is this notion that Trump and Kelly have agreed to a truce.

 The only possible response to this is Whuck?!!  As in WTF?!!!  It directly challenges the core notions of principal-agent relations (remember, I didn't start out on that theoretical track but succumbed to it thanks to a NATO book on delegation).  While we may forget, Trump is the principal--the boss--who has hired an agent--John Kelly--to do his bidding.  John Kelly's job as Chief of Staff is to manage Trump's time, information flow, and activities so that Trump can be successful.  Kelly is not a peer of or equal to Trump--he is a subordinate.  In principal-agency theory, the agent can often have conflicting incentives or interests so that they do not want to work hard or they want to do the job the way they see fit (both are called shirking).  So, much of the trick in P-A theory for the principals is figuring out ways to vary the discretion the agent has, design systems of oversight, and the provide rewards for good behavior and penalties for bad.

Perhaps a truce could be considered one of the means by which the principal makes sure the agent is behaving appropriately?   Ordinarily, no way.  Because in a normal p-a relationship, the agent can't threaten the boss.  What does it mean to have a truce?  That both sides will stop firing on the other, right?  Well, how does a subordinate get away with saying that I'll stop attacking you if you stop attacking me?  There should be no real latitude there.

Of course, the challenge is this: Trump is a truly shitty principal.  The evidence: normal principals do not fire, compel to resign, or lose dozens of operatives in the course of a year.  Principals ordinarily do not want to waste time and effort with the churn of replacing personnel.  What happens when principals lose their agents?  They have to find new ones, and if one picks the most suitable ones first, then one loses something when replacing generation after generation of agents--the quality of the individuals may go down, the distance between the preferences of the agent and of the principal may widen, etc.

Trump is a lousy principal because not because he delegates lots of discretion to his agents.  He is lousy in part because he revises the delegation contract all the time--giving responsibility to a person and then overriding them capriciously.  His form of oversight is rivalry: encouraging the various agents to compete with each other.  This would be fine if Trump was as smart as FDR.... but he is not.  So, instead of getting conflicting advice and then deciding which path is best, Trump requires his people to compete to suck up to him and undercut each other, which they do, leading to all kinds of communications breakdowns, policy failures, and public displays of incompetence.  Finally, Trump's main form of incentive (other than allowing his people to steal from the American people) is to humiliate them.  Not sure that works for long.  So, bad delegation, bad oversight, bad incentives.

Which ultimately means that one of his agents threatens him, leading to a truce.  This means that political scientists using principal-agency theory in the future will need focus less on why agents might shirk and more on why principals might screw up their relationships with their agents.

In short, lots of presentations start with "here's this puzzle," and Trump is providing ample puzzles for the next generation.  Good luck, kids.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Circle of Trust Narrows Even Further

I am doing a heap of media (as are other IR types) about the musical chairs at the White House: Tillerson out, Pompeo up, Haspel in.  Drezner had a sharp take, and Vox summarizes my views on Tillerson pretty well.  Oh, and the process, which continues to play out, is a shitshow.

So, quick hits on all of this:
  1. Why now? Who knows?  Trump is easily triggered, and has not been happy with Tillerson since... he was appointed? Was it because of the different positions on Russia's poisoning of a British town?  Probably not since this might have been in the works since Friday.  Maybe because he contradicted Trump on North Korea and trade recently?
  2. What is Tillerson's legacy? Burning down State for a generation while not making much of a dent on foreign policy.  
  3. Will Pompeo be better?  He is far right (his American Conservative Union rating was 96% before leaving the house), but there were few stories of him burning down CIA.  He may or may not support State in bureaucratic battles.  He is closer to Trump, so he has more credibility BUT if he ain't in the room and Trump decides to do something, he will do it without consulting Pompeo. 
  4. What about Gina Haspel at CIA?  First reaction?  Phew, not Tom Cotton. That is also my second, third, fourth and fifty reactions because Cotton would have tried to politicize the agency, perhaps destroying it and American democracy.  Haspel is a professional, so the CIA is likely to mosey along without too much strain.  However, she may be a war criminal, given her role in torturing folks under the Bush Administration.   This makes her hardly unique since those above her in the chain of command have kept on keeping on.  If she pays a price and the males don't, that would be a problem.  And I prefer a professional with, yes, some blood on her hands than a Trump zealot who has no experience at all. 
  5. What does this mean for North Korea talks?  Well, since North Korea hasn't gotten back to the US, who knows?  Tillerson was utterly irrelevant for the NK talks, and had no expertise to bring to bear.  So, no loss.  Pompeo?  Not sure.  He is more likely to blow up the Iran deal since he seems to have preferences on that. I have complete faith in Trump to screw this up, no matter who is advising him.
  6. What about Canada?  Yeah, that has been a question I have been getting from the media here.  My basic take: Tillerson got along well with Freeland, but Tillerson was largely irrelevant. Pompeo is not a from a steel producing state, so he probably is not all that riled up about trade.  And much of US agriculture (Pompeo is from Kansas) seeks export markets.... so I guess this does not really matter too much.  So, keep on working the rest of the US political system.  
  7. I wonder if this will screw up the presentations of my students who are taking on the various roles in the US foreign policy process.  The Tillerson-players will have to get smart on Pompeo fast!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Russian Poison, Britain and NATO

Now that Theresa May has said that it is "highly likely" that the Russians used a nerve agent fairly recklessly as they sought to kill a double agent, lots of questions arise.  One could easily code this as an attack, not the first one since other Russians have been killed in the UK, but a more severe one given the number of bystanders and first responders who may have been exposed.  And once you use the word "attack," one of the first things that comes to mind is: an attack upon one equals an attack upon all--NATO's Article V.  It has only been invoked once, after 9/11, despite other attacks against NATO allies--Russian cyber attack against Estonia, Syrian shells and bombs hitting Turkey, etc.

Consulting NATO via Article IV is a natural way to proceed.  It would allow the UK to establish the seriousness of what has happened, that this is a very warlike thing to have happened.  However, bringing in NATO involves larger risks.  Specifically, the US, which has not acknowledged that Russia is "highly likely" to be guilty here, and with Trump never saying an unkind word about Putin, the danger is that the UK tries to get NATO to take a stand and fails.  That would cast doubt about the alliance itself.  It is like the US non-response to North Korean missile tests: sure, you can try to shoot them down, but, if you fail, you might reveal that the system does not work so well.  Well, with Trump being so hostile to NATO and pretty unfriendly to May, one can easily imagine the US blocking consensus at NATO probably with help from Hungary and Greece.  And then what?

With the economic fiasco that is Brexit going on, the UK has not many choices, especially with an unreliable US (today's alliance dilemma horn is abandonment), May is stuck.  What can she do?  I will agree with those who suggest new economic sanctions, the end of Russian oligarchs moving to London, and kissing RT goodbye.  Oh, and, this might sound awful, but the old spy game had some rules, and if one breaks the rules, one should pay.  So, yeah, the British should find the most guilty Russian spy, and remove him from the game.  Teach the Russians to be more careful.

So far, the Russians have not paid much of a price for their reckless moves across the globe--meddling in elections, using poisons in ways that harm bystanders, and on and on.  The US under Trump is not going to act as strongly as it should--the allies will need to do so.

Oh, and when folks say that Trump hasn't made that much of a difference in foreign policy yet, the refusal to respond to the election mess and now this are big pieces of evidence that, yes, Trump is making a difference and not in a good way.

Friday, March 9, 2018

CIPS 10th, Grand Strategy, and Feminist Defence Strategy

The conference was in Alex Trebek Hall!
Yesterday, I participated in an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the U of O's IR research center: CIPS (by law, all Canadian IR centres and think thanks have to have a C in their acronym).  It was an honor because of all the sharp people involved and despite U of Ottawa being Carleton's in-town rival.  One of the big boons to moving to Ottawa has been that there is another school in town, full of interesting folks doing great work and also full of friends. 

The theme of the conference was "Disorder, Disruptions, and Directions" and a fourth D was implicit in the title and not so implicit in many of the talks: Depressing.  Why?  Trump, Brexit, populism, the apparent decline of the Liberal International Order.  I was assigned the topic of Trump (I wonder why, I rarely think or write about him).  The other speakers were from Canada, the US, and Europe. Because we had a bunch of government types, we had to follow Chatham House Rule, which means we can talk about what was said but not attribute to anyone.  I am not a fan, but I mostly behaved.  I then asked a couple of the speakers if I could cite them, and since they are academics, they said hells yeah.... or something like that.

William Wohlforth of Dartmouth gave the keynote, and focused on US Grand Strategy After Trump.  It was actually US Grand Strategy before and after Trump.  As a reasonable Realist who has written on such stuff, Wohlforth raised a basic question--what is the reference point one has to "the good times."  I was reminded of my own piece, currently in process that asks a meta version of that question--when was peak Grand Theory.  Anyhow, his basic point is that the US had overextended before Trump--either under Clinton or under Bush, and so the US under Obama and now Trump has to deal with the realities of commitments and efforts being beyond the capabilities of the US.

He argued that the US had three tasks--to manage the global environment to keep threats away; to manage the economic order, and to foster an institutional order.  Doing more than that--democracy promotion, fighting terrorism everywhere, regime changing Iraq--is not sustainable.  With the end of the Soviet Union, the primacy of the US, Wohlforth argues, allowed the US to become a revisionist state--trying to change other states and the world as the US became less tolerant of risk.  One of the basic problems is that folks treated the international liberal order as a bicycle--if it is not always moving forward it falls over. 

So where are we now?  Wohlforth asked us to focus on what Trump has been doing, rather than what he tweets (alas, any effort to suggest Trump is not too bad is usually undone within hours by Trump behavior). The power balance shift is significant but exaggerated.  There is still only one superpower.  The interests of US engagement, when not overextended, are still greater than the costs. The institutional stuff is actually pretty robust.  So expect a less revisionist, more status quo President after Trump.

Overall, I found the talk super engaging, and it make me think about my priors.  Definitely shared points of agreement, as I have long argued that Obama was not retrenching, but just less willing to risk money and blood for dubious gains.  I am not so sure that Bosnia or Kosovo were really over-extension.  While the folks in the Pentagon thought they were expensive efforts that challenged readiness, they were nothing in comparison to dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq plus all of the lesser conflicts.  I think the real over-extension was not Kosovo or modest democracy promotion but Iraq--that was incredibly expensive, demonstrated American ineptness, and created so many problems that continue to cause the US to expend much effort (Syria, Iraq).
The key for Realists and for pragmatic folks like myself (I am realistic about stuff, but I think that anarchy is not so determining and that interests come from domestic politics more than from the international system) is that grand strategy is about balancing capabilities and commitments.  The US, by getting stuck in Iraq, skewed commitments, and by the domestic political effort to condemn taxes as evil, have undermined American capabilities.  The gutting of governance, I think, besides racism, is the real cause of rising populism.  Yes, international trade and automation cause shocks and disruption (damn, I hate that word), but governments failed to react because key actors in domestic politics thought austerity was the way out.  Which meant people paid the price, not corporations. 
Anyhow, a great talk and now I feel that I read Wohlforth's book without actually reading it. Woot!

The other talk I'd like to highlight is Andrea Lane's.  Andrea is a graduate student at Dalhousie, but I think most people think she is a junior prof.  She definitely held her own in a crowd of graybeards like myself.   She was tasked to consider what a feminist defence policy would look like, and she started by invoking my favorite movie for any presentation:

Lane was right was that Liberals are doing very little:
  • eliminating sexual harassment and assault is "a bare minimum."
  • there is more to the problems of CAF recruitment and retention--systemic stuff.
  • training others to do better gender stuff while peacekeeping rings hollow if Canada isn't doing peacekeeping.
The ingredients of a feminist defence policy were very interesting:
  1. Less defence $ as they go mostly to men, helping men "all the way down", whereas "butter" or social programs tend to help women more. Fun pic of shipbuilding stuff featuring men, men and men. 
  2. Smaller defence industry as these largely male jobs are much better paid/pensioned & tax subsidized while women's jobs are none of things.
  3. Defence exports go to places where women and children are killed (Saudis make the LAV look mighty bad)
  4. Radically revise recruiting--stop recruiting men until we reach 50% women?  
    1. A subpoint on this slide was more realistic and one I would really like: stop the steady increase in use and valorization of SOF.  Male only SOF being used means women don't get combat experience which stunts their career development. And for me, this is bad because SOF have less oversight and are ways for politicians to use the military without being as accountable. 
  5. Reduce domestic abuse in military families.  This was in her radical proposals but should be in her "the least one can do" section.
  6. Her less radical proposal--focus on girls/women when building the cyber force.  Make that a woman's job--good pay, flexibility, etc.  The super important point: "without concerted effort to create woman-friendly cyber program, it will be male-dominated."
Lane did a great job of giving one of the last presentations--she work up and energized the crowd and, um, put the first female Canadian Brigadier General who came up through the combat ranks into a semi-awkward position.  To be fair, BG Carignan did a nice job of reacting to Lane's talk and was much more open and interesting in the Q&A than in her presentation.

Overall, a great day--they brought in very interesting people, kept things moving, and had us all drinking from the firehouse of insight. CIPS did a great job of celebrating their 10th anniversary.  I definitely will try to steal their recipe for successful conferences in case one of my network grant applications succeeds.

A Modest Revision to Chatham House Rule: Academic Exception

Later today, I will post some of what I learned at the 10th Anniversary of CIPS (the U of Ottawa research centre).  It was a great one day conference, full of sharp people that made me have a significant case of imposter syndrome.  And, yes, I talked about Trump---because that was my assignment.

Anyhow, what was kind of frustrating is that they applied Chatham House Rule to the event--which means we can talk about the stuff, but not attribute what was said to those who said it.  I get it--it makes it far easier for government types to speak freely or semi-freely, although it is often the case that the government types don't (it varied yesterday).  But academics?  Our job basically involves two fundamental things: to figure stuff out (I always find "create knowledge" to be a bit high falutin') and to share what we have figured out (disseminate knowledge).  It is completely contrary to the academic enterprise to limit one's audience.  This is not about citation (ok, mostly not) but about the reality that it is hard to talk about what people are saying if you can only share it in ways that mask their identities.  Because programs are generally online, live-tweeting, for instance, can easily give away who is saying what.

So here's my modest proposal for conference organizers: tell your audiences that CHRXA (Chatham House Rules Except Academics) applies: Chatham House Rules applies to the stuff that non-academics say, but feel free to tweet or blog about the academic mutterings.  I did ask after the conference if I could blog about a couple of the presentations, and the two academics said: duh, of course.  So, I will.  But I'd prefer for all those in the audience to share what they heard, so we need to be clear at the outset of these events. 

Let's make CHRXA more popular than fetch!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Aging Profs: When Will They Retire?

Image result for old muppets in balconyThis story got a lot of academic attention: that profs in Ontario (and elsewhere in North America) are not retiring.  With the end of mandatory retirement, professors seem to like their jobs and keep on keeping on.  One of my former colleagues at McGill is now significantly over 90 and still thinks he is the future of the department (my sniping since he is still involved in department politics and not in a productive way).  And, yes, I remember being told when I was in grad school, that there would be tons of jobs as folks retired... which never seems to happen.  So, I have mixed feelings and tweeted thusly:

Let me explain.  First, the retirement age of 65 does not makes sense anymore.  It was developed when half the folks would be dead at 65. Ok, maybe not quite, but the basic idea is that if you make it to the average lifespan, then you can stop working and live a few more years.  Now, folks who make it to 65 are very likely to make it another 10-20 years.  That is both a long time to live off of one's savings and to be unemployed.  So, if we start to change retirement ages to keep up with folks living longer and living better longer, then 65 is probably too soon.

On the other hand, more than a few folks who are over 70 and more so those over 75 often seem to be behind the times--not up on the literature, not up on the methods and trends, and so they make lousy advisers, not that great teachers, and so on.  And they are filling up lines that might be filled by younger, more energetic, more innovative folks who might also bear more of the burden of supervision, of service and all that.

On the third hand, one of the trends that has been going on since I graduated long ago is that retirements are often not filled.  That when the department loses a person, they lose that line and, instead, you might get a temporary person.  So, you get someone who teaches but can't provide much service to the department and is unlikely to produce much research (not because they are not up to it but because their load is so much heavier).  So, kicking out a somewhat productive older person might be a bad idea if the replacement is someone who produces less because they are teaching at multiple places to make up for their poor pay.

On the fourth hand, this stuff is gendered but not in the ways some folks expected (but Frances Woolley did expect because she is very smart).   Older profs are mostly male since the profession was very male for quite some time, so they are blocking spaces for younger women to move in and up.

And, yes, now that I am on the other half of my career, closer to retiring than to when I started, I am a bit more sympathetic to the old folks that people want to kick to the curb.  My goal has been 70, which I think is a fair compromise between getting out when I am still pretty young and hanging on forever.  Then I realized if I continue my sabbaticals at this rate, I would be eligible when I am 71.  Hmmmmm.   Of course, it all really depends on how the various retirement funds/plans are when I get older.  Moving to Carleton late in my career means working past 65 to get to twenty years, and the calculator for pensions (yes, a pension of some kind) builds in years of service, so there's an incentive to stick around.

What will I do when the time comes?  Damned if I know.  I do know I will feel less guilty if my department can't replace me with a tenure track line.  I know I will feel willing to leave if my various funds do well (that they can bounce back from the Trump damage of today) and if Carleton doesn't mess with my pension.  I can't blame people for sticking around for a few extra years, especially since most of us deferred making money for the 5-7 years of grad school and many of us lost control of where we could live long ago.  But I can see the challenge facing governments, and I can also see that if I become obsolete and out of touch, then I should get out of the way.  So, that is really it--will I be contributing when I am 67 or just draining?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Decoupling and the Alliance Dilemma: Get Out!?

As Glenn Snyder and then Patricia Weitsman so clearly identified (as well as Jack Snyder and Thomas Christensen), alliances always pose two threats to those who join: that they might be abandoned despite reassures to the contrary AND that they might get dragged into a war they do not want to fight.  So, abandonment vs. entrapment are the dual horns of the alliance dilemma.  So very relevant today as the story du jour is of "Decoupling" South Korea from the US.

It has long been a concern that North Korea would maneuver to separate the US from South Korea, and they have made a heap of progress lately.  This morning there are reports of talks leading to more negotiations between North and South Korea.  The concern is that South Korea might sign some kind of separate peace, giving into North Korea and leaving the US out. 

For much of the cold war and post-Cold War period, the South Korean concern would be that the US would abandon it.  Jimmy Carter proposed and then reversed himself on pulling the US troops out, as this undermined the credibility of the US commitment to South Korea, for instance.  Just like the Europeans, the South Koreans worried that the US might not show up, that it would be very costly for the US to defend South Korea.  The advent of the North Korean ICBM with the capability to hit the US gave the South Koreans the chance to re-visit all of the "would the US sacrifice Chicago for Bonn or Paris" debates.  So, yes, the South Koreans still fear abandonment and perhaps even more so with an uncertainty engine in the White House who confuses North and South.  You would think that this fear would lead them to focus on tightening the alliance, not decoupling.

Ah, but here's where the other horn of the alliance dilemma gets super-pointy: the US has been making noises about a new Korean war, that a punch in the nose or whatever effort to disarm North Korea, would be harmful to South Korea but not the US.  Indeed, Lindsay Graham has recently agreed with the White House rhetoric of, well, burning South Korea to save American lives.  The South Koreans know only too well that the opening shots of a new Korean war would lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dead South Koreans.  So, with all of the war talk in DC, they have good reason to fear being entrapped in a war they do not want.

So, I can't blame the South Koreans for seeking an alternative path, away from the races up the escalation ladders.  The problem, of course, is that if South Korea is decoupled from the US, that the alliance is broken, then North Korea can break its promises to South Korea and the US will find it hard to respond to a fait accompli in the aftermath of US forces being expelled from South Korea (the possible result of decoupling).  Where does Japan fit in all of this?  Completely screwed but that is an alliance that will be broken via other means (trade wars)....

In sum, Trump has made a difficult problem far more challenging.  The no good policy options problem is now far more likely to be all the worst policy problem.  Thanks, Trump.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Trump Rosetta Time Machine

How do we make sense of Trump?  Yes, he is an uncertainty engine, but there are some basic tendencies that seem to be driving much of what he says and does.  He is a lifelong racist, so not hard to guess how he will act towards non-white folks, for instance.  When it comes to international economic stuff, it all starts with where his mindset stops: the early to mid 1980s (that and he never took Intro to International Relations).

When Trump talks about trade deficits and blasts Japan and Germany, he seem to be invoking a time where those two countries seemed to be the biggest threats to American producers.  Japan's economy has been stagnant for more than two decades.  Both countries have firms that have invested significantly in US-based production.  So, these views have mostly been overcome by events that Trump has not apparently noticed.

Trump's views on steel and aluminum, that these industries are on steep decline, makes sense if you compare the mid 1980s with the previous decades:
Media preview

 but these industries have been mostly pretty steady since then (big dip during the financial crisis, and mostly profitable as of late, and see here for more figures, h/t to Scott Lincicome).
Media previewWell, steady in terms of output but not steady in terms of employment.  Another good tweet last night indicated that the productivity gain for making steel means that 2 people can make as much steel now as 10 could in 1980. So, the problem is not Canada, nor is it Germany or Japan or China, but increased productivity (yes, IPE is more complicated than that so I am simplifying).

Trump's views on NYC as a haven for crime is also outdated, as he seems to remember the NYC of the 1970s or 1980s. This is kind of strange since he spent so much time since then in the construction trade, where one would maybe get a clue about changes in "bad neighborhoods" and all that.

But Trump does not update his priors--he does not learn (he is a lousy Bayesian, overeducated social science types might say).  The only thing he learns or adapts to is when a line works in a speech and gets applause, and then he sticks to it.  So, when trying to figure out how Trump sees the world, imagine what he saw (via racist lenses and without the benefit of reading anything more complicated than a listicle) in 1984 or so.  That is how he views the world today.