Avoiding absolutist reactions

The Wilson Center has an interesting article based on a book about US-China competition in the developing world–worth a read!


“There are many important takeaways from Winning the Third World. During the Cold War, American officials with very limited knowledge of China often exaggerated the Chinese threat and misunderstood Beijing’s motives. Today, there are still too many so-called China experts in think tanks and the government who don’t speak Mandarin and don’t have a deep knowledge of Chinese history. They tend to be most prone to drawing the wrong conclusions about the PRC’s motives and actions.

Perhaps the most important takeaway, however, is the danger of thinking in terms of absolutes. Beijing often insisted that countries side with it in the struggle against imperialism and revisionism or be considered enemies. Similarly, Washington had difficulties countenancing any form of contact between the PRC and countries receiving American aid. As a result, both countries sometimes seemed domineering and ended up damaging rather than enhancing their prestige.

While there are undeniably areas where the United States must compete with Beijing today, it is important to remember that demanding that other countries side with us on every issue ultimately will not help us to win their loyalties.”


Hoffman on Values vs Interests: A false binary…


I believe, however, that the distinction between interests and values is largely fallacious, and that policy which would ignore the domestic crises that affect so many states and pseudostates today would have disastrous consequences.


The national interest is not a self-evident guide, it is a construct. It is the sum of the objectives that the policymakers have set. Some of these are indeed imperatives, imposed by the nation’s location on the map of power or by clear threats and needs. But many of the goals that states, and especially the major powers among them, pursue go beyond such imperatives, and result from preferences and choices. These goals are usually controversial. Those who support them cover them with the mantle of the national interest, and those who do not back them argue, like Mandelbaum, that they deal with developments that “could [not] affect the lives of . . . citizens” and thus are not in the national interest. Even during the Cold War, the United States pursued goals that could be connected only remotely to the imperatives of national security and deterrence of the Soviet threat. Mandelbaum presents the invasion of Grenada as part of the Cold War, but does not mention the intervention in Panama, which, of course, took place after the Soviet threat had crumbled. On the other end of the spectrum, the human rights policies that American administrations pursued, in their different ways, in the late 1970s and in the 1980s cannot be explained away as mere tactical moves in the battle against communism.

Great powers pursue both what Arnold Wolfers has called possession goals and what he terms milieu goals. National security deals essentially with the former. But much of foreign policy is concerned with shaping an international milieu that will provide a modicum of order (i.e., reduce the inevitable loads of violence and chaos that an anarchic international system carries) and in which the nation’s citizens will feel not only safe from attack or economic strangulation but, so to speak, morally at home. Among the reasons the opposition between interests and values is a sham are that a great power has an “interest” in world order that goes beyond strict national security concerns and that its definition of order is largely shaped by its values. Many of America’s policies during the Cold War–especially in relations with allies and so-called Third World countries–and many of the institutions and international regimes it helped establish resulted from preferences that could not be reduced purely and simply to the need to resist the Soviet menace or communism.



More work has been done to document the impact of technology on student behavior than any other population, as technology is more readily available to these individuals and they are the first to have grown up immersed in a technology-rich environment with ever-increasing opportunities for interference. In one study, middle school, high school, and university students were observed while they were instructed to study something important for a short period of time (only 15 minutes).25Regardless of age, students were able to stay focused and attend to that important work only for a short period of time—three to five minutes—before most students self-interrupted their studying to switch to another task. During the 15-minute study period, students were able to actually study for only nine minutes. The major culprits that spurred the constant interruptions had two sources: social media and texting. Both of these were apparently offering such important information that the studying student’s attention was transferred from the task at hand—an identified important area for focus—to another source of information through the two most popular communication modalities among the younger generations.

Deliberative democracy?

Fascinating piece on deliberation vs argumentation in democracy.


Advocates of political deliberation usually defend it as a collaborative activity motivated by the possibility of agreement. Even when agreement proves elusive, deliberation helps people come to grips with one another’s views, draw on their different experiences and expertise, and better understand the contours of their enduring disagreements. People’s views will be better informed, and the decisions they make will be of higher quality than if they had not deliberated. When study after study reveals most people to be appallingly ill-informed about much public policy, deliberation’s appeal seems obvious. Two minds are better than one, three better than two, and so on. Democracy will be improved if its decision-making can incorporate, and build on, the benefits of deliberation. Or so it is frequently claimed.1

Deliberation should not be confused with argument. When people argue, there is an expectation that one of them will, or at least should, win. Even when we speak of one person making an argument, we see this as something that stands until it is contradicted, or challenged and beaten by a better argument. Like the deliberationists, proponents of argument believe it will enhance understanding and improve the quality of decisions. This was the essence of John Stuart Mill’s defense of the robust clash of opinions in On Liberty: it would lead people to hold better-informed and more accurate views. Mill even went so far as to worry – needlessly, it turned out – that as advancing science expanded the realm of settled knowledge, people would be deprived of argument’s benefits. No longer forced to sharpen their wits by defending their views in the marketplace of ideas, they would become mediocre dullards; less able to think for themselves and more easily manipulated by others.2

My claim here is that the argumentative and deliberative ideals should be more clearly distinguished than they usually are. They support different and incompatible institutional arrangements. I also maintain that the argumentative ideal is superior because, when appropriately institutionalized, it helps hold governments accountable for their actions. By contrast, the deliberative ideal cannot easily be institutionalized – and perhaps cannot be institutionalized at all – because people who prefer to bargain can easily abuse rules designed to promote deliberation. But deliberation’s difficulties run deeper. Its defenders fail to appreciate that, in politics, deliberation and the search for agreement are – to borrow an antitrust analogy – unhealthy forms of collusion in restraint of democracy. They should worry less about voter ignorance, which, as Anthony Downs noted long ago, might well reflect sensible budgeting of scarce time, and worry more when office-seekers fail to engage in robust public debates over the policies that, if elected, they will enact.3

Truth in an age of trolls

Good piece on Cold War propaganda machinery, which also speaks to our era of “fake news.”

Domestically, too, the tactics have the effect of polluting the conversation. “The paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction,” says Kremlin critic Navalny. “The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it.”


When politics becomes a hobby …

But civic duty and self-interest do not capture the ways that middle- and upper-class Americans are engaging in politics. Now it is the Facebooker who argues with friends of friends he does not know; the news consumer who spends hours watching cable; the repeat online petitioner who demands actions like impeaching the president; the news sharer willing to spread misinformation and rumor because it feels good; the data junkie who frantically toggles between horse races in suburban Georgia and horse races in Britain and France and horse races in sports (even literal horse races).

What is really motivating this behavior is hobbyism — the regular use of free time to engage in politics as a leisure activity. Political hobbyism is everywhere.

 … What, exactly, is wrong with political hobbyism? We live in a democracy, after all. Aren’t we supposed to participate? Political hobbyism might not be so bad if it complemented mundane but important forms of participation. The problem is that hobbyism is replacing other forms of participation, like local organizing, supporting party organizations, neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion, even voting in midterm elections — the most recent midterms had the lowest level of voter participation in over 70 years.