Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Coming on Monday:
A post about David Bell's The First Total War.   

Saturday, September 13, 2014

'Offensive realism' and state motivations

One of the weak points of structural realist theories (or at least of Mearsheimer's, which has been the topic here recently) is their lack of a strong theory of state motivations. M. says states want more rather than less power, because that's the best way to be secure, or safe, in a world in which, according to M., "uncertainty about [other states'] intentions is unavoidable." (TGPP, p.31)  

In the body of the text of Tragedy of Great Power Politics, M. says that "the only assumption dealing with a specific motive that is common to all states says that their principal objective is to survive...." (p.32) But because "there are many possible causes of aggression" [what are they? he doesn't say] "and no state can be sure that another state is not motivated by one of them" (p.31), assuming that all states all the time want nothing more than survival is not warranted. Indeed, in an important end-note -- why this material is buried in an end-note rather than being in the text is rather perplexing -- M. makes clear that:
Security concerns alone cannot cause great powers to act aggressively. The possibility that at least one state might be motivated by non-security calculations is a necessary condition for offensive realism, as well as for any other structural theory of international politics that predicts security competition. (p.414 n.8)
Again, he doesn't say what these "non-security calculations" or motives are, but this is nonetheless an important clarification. It's one that tends to get lost later in the text, however, for example at the beginning of ch.6 when he writes that "security considerations appear to have been the main driving force behind the aggressive policies of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union" in the twentieth century (p.170). This, of course, is in some tension with the statement in the end-note that "security concerns alone cannot cause great powers to act aggressively." It may not be a fatal logical contradiction; it's probably more the result of careless use of shorthand phrases (and, to be fair to M., I have quoted only part of the end-note here, not the whole thing). Still, someone who only reads the text of TGPP and doesn't read the notes is likely to be even more puzzled about this issue than someone who has read the notes.

Harknett and Yalcin, in their 2012 article "The Struggle for Autonomy," which I discussed in this post (where, I see, I also quoted the Mearsheimer end-note I've quoted here) recognized some of these problems about state motivation in realist theory and attempted to deal with the issue more satisfactorily than had been done previously. Although I was critical of their effort (not that I have gone back and carefully read that post), they should be given credit for having recognized and tried to address the problem.

Added later: For one useful discussion of this set of issues (and, of course, more thorough than the discussion in this post), see Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations (2000), ch.2, "Human Nature and State Motivation."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Pearl Harbor, once more

Since I occasionally make cryptic, sniping remarks about Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, I should make clear that there are at least a few things in the book that I find  illuminating. One of them is his discussion of the situation that Japan faced in 1941. (Btw, the prompt for this post is a discussion about Pearl Harbor on an LGM thread that started off being about the Russo-Japanese war.)

He notes that in mid-1941 the U.S. applied a "full-scale embargo" against Japan, "emphasizing...that it could avoid economic strangulation only by abandoning China, Indochina, and maybe Manchuria." (p.223) The U.S. was determined that Japan should not dominate Asia or be in a position to strike the USSR, then on the ropes against Hitler's invasion. This left Japan with two bad, from its perspective, choices: "cave in to American pressure and accept a significant diminution of its power, or go to war against the United States, even though an American victory was widely agreed to be the likely outcome." (ibid.) The Japanese chose the latter course, he goes on to say, as the less bad of two very bad alternatives. That does not mean the decision was irrational, though it was an extremely "risky gamble" (ibid., 224).

Where I would part company (or so I assume) with Mearsheimer is in seeing the entire Japanese militarist-imperialist enterprise as irrational -- and also immoral and criminal -- from the outset. However, given that Japan's leaders at the time were committed to that enterprise and given the particular circumstances that they faced, their decision to go to war with the U.S. was not 'irrational'. Whether the specific decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a mistake is really a secondary question; the more basic question has to do with the decision to launch war against the U.S.

ETA: And it's the more basic questions that tend to get shunted aside or overlooked when discussions focus narrowly on specific strategic decisions.

2nd update: Googling "sagan origins of the pacific war" brings up results, including Scott Sagan's 1988 article that M. cites (although my browser didn't like the pdf) and a 2010 paper at academia.edu by a UCLA grad student ("Revisiting the Origins of the Pacific War") that appears, on a quick glance, to take M.'s view, more or less. (But I've already conceded in the comments that TBA could be right.)

3rd update: For a somewhat different take on this, see John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday (1989), pp.229-30.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The 'authority' debate, once more

At the time of the Libyan intervention, there was a debate about the President's authority to participate, with air assets etc., in that French-initiated operation (without congressional approval). Now there may be a rerun of the debate with respect to his authority to expand air strikes against ISIS. Except that Congress is going to fall over itself in its haste to pass something that says "yes yes," so in the end the debate about presidential authority in this case won't, practically speaking, matter much. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Question of the day

Why has Kissinger, at 91, published a 400-page volume called World Order that seems, judging from this review, to be mostly a repetition of things he's said before?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

False confessions

It is well known that a problem with the U.S. 'justice' system is the way in which false confessions are sometimes obtained under often coercive circumstances from young or otherwise vulnerable suspects: see here (h/t P. Campos at LGM). See also here.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The alignments in the M. East

On Friday the NewsHour had a segment with Hisham Melhem and Steven Simon talking about the somewhat tangled alliance patterns in the Middle East: starts at about 14:00 here.

ETA: The segment referred briefly to this June post at ThinkProgress, which featured a chart of the "tangled web" of alignments in Syria.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Blaming 'manifest destiny'

In a case of timing so bad that it would seem close to unbelievable (not that any time would be good for this), the Netanyahu government has announced its intent to convert 1,000 acres of land on the West Bank into 'state land' (here).

The linked Wash. Post story has generated a torrent of comments, which at a glance appear to be mostly negative, not surprisingly. One somewhat history-challenged commenter insists the 19th-cent. U.S. doctrine of 'manifest destiny' is to blame for the current situation in the Mideast. Why? Well, according to this commenter the Zionist movement at the turn of the twentieth century must have taken its cue from the U.S.'s westward expansion and the concomitant displacement, resettling, brutalization, killing etc. of Native Americans. I asked this person if there is any evidence that Herzl or the other early Zionists were even aware of the phrase 'manifest destiny' or anything in detail about the U.S.'s westward expansion. (I'd be surprised if there were such evidence, though I'm not sure.) Anyway, drawing a straight line from the Trail of Tears to the displacement of Palestinians in the 1948 war and subsequently strikes me as -- how shall I put it? -- tenuous. (As if Israeli soldiers in 1948, when asked for their heroes, would have answered: "why, Andrew Jackson, of course.")    

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stent vs. Mearsheimer

Caught them on the radio last night. Although the conversation made it sound as if they disagreed about almost everything, I'm not sure they actually did. To the extent they did disagree, I think Stent had a somewhat more nuanced perspective on what's going on in Ukraine. (Which may be what happens when you put a regional expert up against an IR theorist, especially one who, like Mearsheimer, doesn't often "do" nuance; he could if he wanted, but my impression is he usually doesn't.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Intent" does not matter here

Based on the circumstances as reported here, the criticism of the IDF missile firing that killed ten people near a UN school is justified. Targeting three people on a motorcycle riding by a compound where civilians are lining up to buy food and other items amounts to an attack on civilians; the missile, according to the linked article, "hit the motorcycle" and then "crashed into the road," sending shrapnel flying "in every direction." The fact that the three people riding the motorcycle were the intended targets (and were apparently killed along with the others) does not matter, under standard notions of proportionality. So the UN Sec-Gen's statement ("a moral outrage and a criminal act") is justified.

(Note: Post edited slightly after initial posting.)

Update: Hank in comments has pointed out that the WaPo article, standing alone, does not provide enough info to determine whether this was a legal violation, because for that judgment one has to know what the personnel in the plane knew about the situation on the ground when they fired the missile. That point is right, although as I say in the comments it seems likely to me, as someone admittedly ignorant of jet-fighter technology, that the personnel in the plane either knew or could have informed themselves about what the situation on the ground was, i.e., that the motorcycle when they fired on it was passing a school with civilians standing outside.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A word on the 1976 Democratic presidential campaign

As various commenters have pointed out at LGM, anyone who thinks liberal Democrats supported Carter in any significant numbers in the 1976 primary campaign is wrong. Maybe Perlstein has some poll figures to show otherwise, but I don't believe it. The 1976 Democratic primary campaign is a live memory for me. I think Perlstein was probably not born yet. (Off the internet for the weekend.)

On how to save twenty dollars

I came close to buying the updated (2014) edition of Mearsheimer's Tragedy of Great Power Politics today in a B&N where I happened to see it. It's the same as the orig. ed. except it has a concluding chapter arguing M's view, with which I disagree, that China is unlikely to "rise peacefully." My pb copy of the orig. ed. has fallen apart so I figured why not buy the updated one. But then I decided to buy two CDs for $4.99 each, plus the current (summer) issue of NYRB, and in light of that I decided I really couldn't afford and didn't need the Mearsheimer. What I can afford is a somewhat elastic concept, but it boils down to "why the @#! am I spending this &%!@# money?"

ETA: On similar grounds I ask myself why I flush $130 down the toilet every year to maintain my 'inactive' D.C. Bar membership. There's sort of an answer, albeit not a very good one, but it would be boring and take too long to go into.

ETA (again): TBA will be pleased to know there was a prominent small table in the B&N given over to WW1 bks, including handsome (and not inexpensive, of course) new matched pb eds. of Tuchman's Guns of August and The Proud Tower. They said on them "Barbara Tuchman's great war series," even though Proud Tower is about pre-war Europe. Random House is not dumb.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Steven Cook on Israel, the PA, and Hamas

From S. Cook's blog post for The Times of Israel:
Instead of using the period after the 2012 cease-fire to help Abbas by giving him a political win and boosting his narrative about the promise of negotiations, Jerusalem did nothing. When Secretary of State John Kerry launched a push for peace in 2013, the Israeli government went along, but never gave Abbas anything he could use to close the gap between what he was telling Palestinians about talks and their objective reality, which unfortunately for the Palestinian Authority president included Jerusalem’s announcement of new settlement building and failure to honor its commitment to release Palestinian prisoners.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Of bad captions

Someone recently referred me on a particular issue to the site Sharia Unveiled, with which I was unfamiliar (though the name rang a bell). Without passing definitive judgment on the site on the basis of a brief visit (I read only a particular post, not the site's mission statement), I must say I was not struck favorably by the sidebar, which features among other things the picture of a young girl with the caption "Fight Islam for me" beneath it. Not "Fight extremism for me," not "Fight Salafism for me," but "Fight Islam for me." This kind of thing is politically irresponsible and unacceptable and, frankly, stupid.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

I saw the movie A Most Wanted Man last night, having just read the LeCarré novel on which it's based. Among my several criticisms of the movie, the main one is that it considerably tones down the political edge of the book, which was published in 2008 and is a strong critique of certain facets of the 'war on terror'. The political message is not absent from the movie, but it is muted. Philip Seymour Hoffman is good in his last major role and there are a couple of other good performances, but on the whole I found the film disappointing.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"The fever-dream stage of superpowerdom"

The quote is from Timothy Burke's post on that guy who claimed a "country" for his daughter on a small piece of land in southern Egypt. As Burke points out, the only reason it's unclaimed terra nullius is that Egypt and Sudan, "still fencing with each other about their postcolonial border," each has a reason not to claim it.