Country Research | Venezuela’s Shocking, Impending Collapse


A chronicle of the sad dissolution of a formerly democratic country: Venezuela. Previously, the stuff of former Soviet states, a Latin American economic powerhouse has been bankrupted in every sense of the word.

How does this cut against a common conclusion of political science research, namely that democracies rarely collapse into authoritarianism? Thank chavismo, mismanagement, institutional destruction, bad policy, and corruption, according to Moises Naim and Francisco Toro.

And in the NYT’s Interpreter, Max Fischer offers this:

Distrust of institutions often leads populists, who see themselves as the people’s true champion, to consolidate power. But institutions sometimes resist, leading to tit-for-tat conflicts that can weaken both sides.

“Even before the economic crisis, you have two things that political scientists all agree are the least sustainable bases for power, personalism and petroleum,” Mr. Levitsky said, referring to the style of government that consolidates power under a single leader. …

Because populism describes a world divided between the righteous people and the corrupt elite, each round of confrontation, by drawing hard lines between legitimate and illegitimate points of view, can polarize society.


Why the Russian Revolution in 1917 Matters

A new book by China Miéville stakes out “the key political event of the 20th century“…an “astonishing, inspiring story” of what the American diplomat George Kennan described the “bitter first fruit” of the Great War, “the seminal tragedy.” And yet, this year the Kremlin skipped the national commemoration this past March 12.

In one sense it’s uncontroversial that 1917 matters. After all, it is recent history, and there’s no arena of the modern world not touched by its shadow. Not only in the social democratic parties, shaped in opposition to revolutionary approaches, and their opponents of course, but at the grand scale of geopolitics, where the world’s patterns of allegiance and rivalry and the states that make up the system bear the clear traces of the revolution, its degeneration and decades of standoff. Equally, a long way from the austere realms of statecraft, the Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko and others remain inextricable from the revolution that so many of them embraced.Their influence is incalculable: the cultural critic Owen Hatherley calls constructivism “probably the most intensive and creative art and architectural movement of the 20th century”, which influenced or anticipated “abstraction, pop art, op art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk … brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism”. We can trace the revolution in cinema and sociology, theatre and theology, realpolitik and fashion. So of course the revolution matters. As Lenin may or may not have said: “Everything is related to everything else.”

Source: Why does the Russian revolution matter? | Books | The Guardian

Terry Gross on How to Talk to Anyone

Diplomats, salespeople, missionaries, and journalists all talk to people. Some do it better than others. But nobody does it as well as Terry Gross, the NRP interviewer par excellance–who kept me informed and entertained as I worked a painting conservation job in college, swabbing dirt inch-by-inch across a gigantic, room-filling canvas. Foam-covered 1980’s era headphones attached to a Sony AM/FM/cassette Walkman were my lifeline to a world of fascinating ideas and people, thanks to Gross.

So when I saw this piece by Susan Burton on the art and craft of WHYY in Philadelphia’s master interviewer I wanted to see what could be learned. One insight: it takes a lot of work (and a little luck) to get a “real moment” in a hard-earned conversation, and it can be uncomfortable:

When the interview ended, Gross and her producers asked themselves, ‘‘Are we going to keep that in the edit?’’ Yes, they decided: ‘‘Maybe there’s not a really satisfactory, conclusive answer,’’ but ‘‘it felt like a real moment.’’ Gross went on: ‘‘Even if the real moment isn’t somebody being really honest and forthcoming and introspective, a real moment of friction, a real moment of tension, is still a real moment.’’

Occasionally the ‘‘real moments’’ can be awkward for Gross. In July, in an interview with the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Gross began laughing in response to a story he told about being yelled at by a teacher. ‘‘See, it sounds like you’re laughing because, like, it’s funny if you’ve never been in the environment,’’ Coates said. Some on social media pegged Gross as a clueless white lady. But the exchange was constructive. Gross was simply reacting, and then listening as Coates explained his perception of her reaction. In doing so, he illuminated an experience of growing up in a culture of fear and violence.

Source: Terry Gross and the Art of Opening Up – The New York Times


The Disadvantages of Peace (According to Michael Desch)

Thanks to Professor Walt, we get this interesting peace on academic research by Michael Desch in International Organization in 1996 on why giving peace a chance may not work.

Don’t get me wrong: I think peace is wonderful, and I wish more politicians talked about it openly and did more to further it. But prolonged periods of peace may also have a downside: They allow divisions within different societies to grow and deepen.But prolonged periods of peace may also have a downside: They allow divisions within different societies to grow and deepen. Even worse, they may eventually drive the world back toward war.

Source: The Case Against Peace | Foreign Policy

Over the last two decades, Walt sees this idea as better than other IR standards such as the “end of history” or “clash of civilizations”.


Advising Someone You Hate


What do you do when you disagree with your boss? What about when your supervisor plays an important policy role? OK, keep going here…what if your boss is POTUS….President Trump? (And you despise him?)

This intellectual exercise-cum-mindgame played out here, outlining two paths that can be followed by smart people who disagree with their superiors–the inside or the outside path:

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote an interesting essay in Middle East Law and Governance about what Syria experts should do when it’s obvious that the current administration does not share their assumptions that indirectly touches on this quandry. In essence, he notes that there are inside and outside paths. The inside path is all about having a direct “policy impact” on the policymaker. But if the people in power do not share one’s basic assumptions, then the outside path — op-eds, essays, media appearances — might be the proper course of action:

Because there are so many different paths to influencing policy and so much uncertainty over the exact nature of that influence (to say nothing of lag time effects), policy researchers shouldn’t necessarily make policy impact into an all-consuming objective. In this respect, influencing policy is a bit like love: you hope it happens, but you also don’t want to try too hard. We should write with a mind to helping shape, broaden, and enrich a public conversation (in the implicit hope that, over time, innovative outside-the-box ideas – assuming they’re good – will be recognized by someone, somewhere in government and at the right time).


Reading for Realism

And now this from (realist) thinker Stephen M. Walt, identifying a major gap in how we look at the world–the lack of a smart realist writing in the opinion pages of the three top U.S. newspapers. (Realism being a major field of international relations theory.)

At the New York Times, the list of columnists regularly writing on foreign affairs includes one neoconservative (David Brooks) and several well-known liberal internationalists (Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, and Roger Cohen). Ross Douthat is a more traditional conservative, but he rarely writes on foreign affairs and is certainly not a realist. Despite certain differences among them, all of these writers are eloquent defenders of U.S. interventionism all around the globe for all sorts of reasons. The Washington Post employs four hard-line neoconservatives—editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and Jackson Diehl–and used to feature William Kristol as well. Its regular columnists also include former Bush administration speechwriters Marc Thiessen and Michael Gerson and far-right blogger Jennifer Rubin, along with the more centrist  David Ignatius and the increasingly bellicose Richard Cohen. Needless to say, none of these writers is a realist and all of them strongly support an activist U.S. foreign policy. As James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn observed in The National Interest last year, Hiatt has in effect “turned the paper into a megaphone for unrepentant warrior intellectuals,” and now leads “the most reckless editorial page in America.”

Source: What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like? | Foreign Policy

So who should they hire? Walt helpfully provides human resources with this list (and I’d add him to the list, as well):

Paul Pillar, Chas Freeman Jr., Robert Blackwill, Steve Clemons, Michael Desch, Steve Chapman, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Andrew Bacevich, or Daniel Larison


Booklist | Best Diplomacy Books of 2015

Add these 2105 books that focus on the history, practice, and key issues in diplomacy to your reading list:


Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy by David Milne – the most important rethinking of American foreign policy, dividing key thinkers between artistic and scientific approaches

Realpolitik: A History by John Bew – unraveling a German contribution and distinguishing it from the realist school of thought

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen – explores the first grand attempt at international governance and a failed attempt to outlaw war

The Deluge, by Adam Tooze – an original take on the interwar period as power gravitated from Europe to the US

ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger – the must-read book to understand the Middle East disruptor

King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant by Stephen Church – commemorating the 800th anniversary of a foundational doc

Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson – making the case that he cannot be ignored as a major diplomatic strategist, an effort to “revise the revisionists

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin – on his institutionalizing failures, using intuition over facts, and forming the foundation for neoconservative missteps

Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko – avoiding groupthink by thinking like the other side

The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft by Hal Brands (Editor), Jeremi Suri (Editor) – what can policymakers really learn from history?

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century by Alistair Horne – a longtime writer of military history isolates a key factor

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turtle – how technology makes it harder for us to be together, diminishing empathy

The New York Review Abroad edited by Robert B Silvers with introductory updates by Ian Buruma – around the world in 27 essays


Global Economics

Inequality: What Can be Done? by Anthony Atkinson – to follow up on Piketty’s big idea last year, how about a solution?

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis – revealing how Africa sits at the bottom on of the global industrial chain

Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin by Nathaniel Popper – from a global joke to a movement and new currency

Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik – taking on the dismal science in the form of a defense


Country Focus


Global Rules: America, Britain, and a Disordered World by James E. Cronin

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, by Dan Ephron – a murder that didn’t make peace inevitable or settle the big Israeli debate

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day by Carrie Gibson

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
by Sudhir Hazareesingh

The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War by Arkady Ostrovsky

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky

The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business by Alex de Waal


Finally, take a look and James Lindsay’s complication of ten American foreign policy influencers who died in 2015. Happy New Year!