Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Power, Misbehavior, and Sorrow

Like anyone not deliberately cutting themselves off from the news, I've been inundated with the daily drumbeat of stories regarding Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court confirmation process, and the increasing number of women accusing him of various assaults and misbehaviors in the past. I finally had to shut it all off, because in the end it all just makes me sad.

The chances are extremely high that Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court. As a justice on the bench, he will likely add another (hopefully thoughtful) conservative voice. I don't go in much for Court politics, and tend to eschew predictions of the end of the world because the 5-4 split on the court shifts.

So up until a few weeks ago, I wasn't overly concerned about Kavanaugh's nomination. In the traditional sense - in the realm of concern for how the Court will rule on various matters - I'm still not. What will be, will be. I realize this isn't everyone's view, but it's mine.

What makes me sad about the whole thing is the damage that this process is doing once again to the right of women not be assaulted/harassed/abused by men. Just like Anita Hill a generation ago, women across the country are being re-taught the lesson: if you tell your story about a man in power, you will lose.

We thought we were making progress. Bill Cosby fell. Harvey Weinstein was brought down. Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Les Moonves - a host of figures from TV and Hollywood were (at least temporarily) laid low by what seemed like a burgeoning movement. #Metoo seemed to finally have broken down the walls, gotten people to listen to women and brought men to account for their often atrocious behavior.

A few voices pointed out that all of these figures were in show business. What we're learning now, I believe, is just how powerless those men are. Or how much power women have obtained in that particular sphere. Which would be a good thing, but it's clearly limited to that arena.

Other areas are different entirely. Men in sports seem to continue to enjoy protection against similar accusations. In sports, the crime of choice is often domestic violence rather than sexual harassment - arguably worse than the depredations of Harvey Weinstein, or at least equal to them. But coaches and players alike seem to continue their careers unaffected by the discovery that they beat their wives or girlfriends. Kneel during the national anthem, and your career is over. Hit your girlfriend repeatedly on camera and you get to keep playing. Joe Paterno was brought down because he failed to report child abuse. But Urban Meyer just enjoyed a brief vacation from his job for failing to report spousal abuse.

Then there's politics. When Rep. Jim Jordan was tied to a sexual abuse case at Ohio State on the wrestling team, his party and his fans flocked to his defense. Catholic priests accused of the same are defrocked and shamed, but not politicians. We believe the accusations when the target is a priest. When it's an elected official in our own political tribe, we don't.

Then there's the President, who has so far been unscathed by a host of credible allegations of his own misconduct, bolstered by his own on-mic admissions, to say nothing of his tone-deaf, retrograde tweets that make it clear that he doesn't understand women's point of view and has no interest in trying. If ever there were a poster child for the protection that politics affords men who abuse women, Trump is it.

So even as the #Metoo movement forges ahead, winning well-deserved victories, I can't help but wonder if they're only working on the fringes of the problem. Those with relatively little power - entertainers, Catholic priests, local high school teachers - can be brought to account. But the truly powerful remain unaffected, perhaps immune.

And that makes me sad. I am sad that after so much time - the entirety of my lifetime, now approaching 50 years - women (and some men) have been struggling to right this wrong, to afford to women the basic dignity of their persons, to win the right simply to be people. And in far too many ways, we seem little nearer than we were back in the 1970s and 80s.

When Kavanaugh is confirmed - and I expect that he will be - it will be yet another reminder that power and abuse go hand in hand, that our systems of justice are still radically imperfect, and that women are still denied the dignity afforded to men.
I recognize that by "men" here we need to acknowledge that this is largely about "white men". Men of color, especially black men, face their own problems in our society, from Colin Kapernik to Tamir Rice and too many others. But that's a topic for another day.
And so I am sad to see daily the evidence that for far too many men, partisanship and "victory" for their party is more important than women's right to be heard, to be respected, to be granted dignity, and for men to be held to account for their behavior. We want very much to claim that "we're better than this". But I have yet to see evidence that we are. And until powerful men change - or are forced to change - it is who we will continue to be.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Did Hegemonic Stability Theory Predict Trump?

When I was in graduate school, we spent a lot of time studying theories of international politics - how the world works at the macro level. The dominant theory of the day was Ken Waltz' structural realism, which purported to explain how a bipolar system (two superpowers, the US and the USSR) could be so hostile and yet produce a world without major war. The historian John Lewis Gaddis picked up this theory and used it in his seminal work The Long Peace.

But while structural realism and its major competition, Keohane's neoliberalism, were all the rage, I was always drawn more to an offshoot of the realist world - hegemonic stability theory. Robert Gilpin's War and Change in World Politics, penned in the early 1980s, seemed to me to offer a better explanation of the Cold War. The superpowers were clearly not equal; by the 1980s it was clear that the US was far superior to the USSR in every category save one: the destructive power of its nuclear arsenal. On this, and this alone, were the two sides equal. But in terms of alliances, economic strength, prosperity, and the influence of "soft power" (Keohane's contribution to the discussion), the US was clearly way ahead.

Gilpin's theory postulated that world stability comes when a hegemon - one clearly dominant power - establishes order and a set of rules for the international system. Those rules are plain to see, and are embodied in the many structures built up after WWII - the UN and its Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, and the GATT (which eventually became the World Trade Organization). Later we added to these the World Court and the International Criminal Court. All of these structures were, for the most part, written up by Americans - in part to make a better world, but in larger part to make a better world for the United States. Because that's what hegemons do - they write the rules of the world to advance their own interests.

The United States, moreover, seemed to have pulled off a singularly historical feat: it wrote a set of rules for the world that benefited not only itself, but also others. Anyone who agreed to play by those rules could participate and prosper*. Those that refused those rules - as the communists of the USSR did, preferring their own - were left out.
* An argument can be made that the prosperity afforded to others was limited and, to some significant degree, racially biased. It is true that chunks of the world were still exploited and left out of opportunity - though the causes were complex. Suffice it to say that the rules written by the United States were more open and inclusive than those of previous empires, even if they were not perfectly so. Africa has not faired well, but South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, and a number of others have.
Gilpin pointed out that the stability thus produced by a hegemon and a stable set of rules would last only so long as the hegemon could maintain its position against potential challengers - other powers that aspired to be hegemon themselves in order to impose their own rules. The Soviet Union was one such challenger, and not a terribly good one. It eventually drove itself into the ground in the effort. The end of the Cold War ushered in an era in which the US has, until recently, been largely unchallenged as the dominant world power.

Challengers do have a structural advantage: they don't have to pay the costs of maintaining the international system, whereas the hegemon does. Eventually, Gilpin argued, that structural advantage would cause a challenger to catch up, leading to a systemic war that would produce a new order - either the hegemon would reestablish itself, or the challenger would upend the existing order and take over. Either way, a new period of stability would then ensue.

Gilpin also pointed out that internal politics play a role, particularly within the hegemon. Because the hegemon has to bear the cost of maintaining the system, it's entirely likely that over time it will grow weary of spending the resources necessary to keep its position. The longer stability lasts, the more people will take it for granted as "the natural order of things", and forget that stability takes effort to maintain. The US did a good job to some degree of sharing those costs (the creation of NATO, for example), but there have been "burden-sharing" debates for decades about whether the US is "paying too much" to "be the world's policeman".

Into this world steps Donald Trump, who understands none of this. As many (supporters and detractors alike) have pointed out, he views the world in very transactional terms: every interaction is a separate, independent event producing a winner and a loser. These interactions appear in his worldview to have no connection to each other. He is the embodiment of Robert Axelrod's early experiment in multi-player prisoner's dilemma (though he obviously never read that article).

Viewed in this way, a trade treaty with South Korea (for example) has particular terms which favor one side or the other (the possibility that both gain is not entertained either - Trump's worldview is clearly always and everywhere zero-sum). The possibility that we might be willing to give something (or gain less) in this one interaction in order to gain something else in another arena (say, security cooperation and basing rights) does not occur to him. "Issue linkage", long a staple of American foreign policy, has been banished. In Trump's view, we must "win" on every single issue, or else pick up our marbles and go home.

The possibility that we might be willing to give up something as the cost of maintaining the international order is completely foreign to this President. Trump assumes that the United States is the dominant power, and the world is structured the way it is, because - divine right? Providence? I don't think he has any idea, because he's never asked the question why the world is the way it is. He is oblivious to the costs that the US has borne over the last 60+ years to establish and maintain the world that he has grown up in.

And so Trump is seeking to stop paying those costs, not because he wants to change the world but because he doesn't understand the consequences. He is like the homeowner who wants to rearrange the walls in his home without first asking which walls are bearing the load of the upper floors. In his view, it is better for us to keep and hoard our money than to spend it maintaining a system that clearly benefits others (as well as us). In his own words, doing so makes us "losers" and "suckers".

This is exactly the kind of behavior that Gilpin predicted 30+ years ago - that the hegemon will eventually grow tired of paying the costs of system maintenance, thereby hastening its own demise as the dominant player. In seeking to "Make America Great Again", Trump is actually moving in the opposite direction, driving the United States towards second-tier status on the world stage.

He does so, unfortunately, at a time when there is a real and viable challenger in the world: China. The Chinese government has made no secret at all of its desire for hegemonic dominance, and its plans for getting their are fairly plain to see. It will take some time, but that is the direction they are pushing in. As they move up, the United States is rushing downwards to meet them.

This, I suspect, is the source of much of the "resistance" within the Administration to Trump himself. Nearly everyone else in the government - certainly Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, Dan Coats, and their many underlings - understand American power and how our place in the world is maintained. This is not the "deep state", nor is it necessarily the "steady state" - it is simply the state, the natural outgrowth of two generations of foreign policy development in the United States that has always been more bipartisan than it appears.

What the result of this will be is yet unclear. The Trump Administration is young, and already faces resistance to Trump's apparent desire to chuck the role of hegemon and withdraw from the system we built. The midterm elections will matter, as will the next Presidential election. If Trump is just a blip, a future American President could restore the United States to its usual course - one that might forestall, or better manage, the growing conflict with China. On the other hand, if Trump gets his way then we may see a substantial rewriting of the rules of the international order - and not in America's favor.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Minor Controversy, a Major Problem

I read recently about a minor news story in my local paper. It's the kind of story that likely won't make the national news, and if it did it would be for 15 minutes or less:
Beef O'Brady's Beavercreek: No NFL Games Again This Year
The story is about a local pub owner who, for the second year in a row, is cancelling his business's subscription to the NFL direct service so as not to show NFL games in his establishment. Given that he runs a pub, this is fairly significant since some portion of his clientele presumably go to watch sports.

The article points out that the owner is a Marine Corps veteran, and that he has taken this position because his disagrees with some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Presumably, he regards that action (and the NFL's tolerance of it) as disrespectful to values that he holds in high regard. Not all military veterans feel this way, but some do.

So far, this is all fine. He's a private citizen running his own business. He's entitled to run that business as he sees fit, and to express his opinions as he likes. Others are welcome to either support him (as many have online) or disagree with him. Nothing unusual or particularly problematic here.

What caught my eye about the story was a quote from the owner explaining his decision:
“The outpouring of support the Beef ‘O’Brady’s family has received over the past year for taking a stand proves one thing. The majority of the American people is on the side of freedom. We’ve received tens of thousands of visits, emails, and letters from patriots in all fifty states. Donations accompanied hundreds of those letters.” [emphasis added]
The underlined sentence is problematic for three reasons. First, however many letters he has received proves nothing about what the majority of Americans think. We all have a tendency, of course, to assume that most people agree with us. But we're often wrong.

Second, there is an irony here in casting this side of the issue as standing for "freedom". That freedom apparently doesn't extend, in this business owner's mind, to NFL players expressing their own opinions in their place of business. This, too, is common: we tend to use the word "freedom" as a talisman, but what we really believe in is freedom for "us", not for "them".

But the primary problem I see is a microcosm of our failure as a society. By casting the issue the way he has, this gentleman has made it clear that he has not the slightest interest in what other people think. As far as he's concerned, he and those who agree with him are on the right side of everything - freedom, Mom, apple pie, and America. By implication, those who disagree stand against all of those things.

Most folks I know would greet this observation with a shrug. So what? People do this all the time. We constantly denigrate those with whom we disagree and dismiss them as cranks, or unhinged, or up to no good.

Or as Enemies of the State. Or Traitors. Or Animals.

This is why this small thing looms so large. Because this is the moment we are in. We are tearing at the fabric of our society, led by "leaders" who desire power over all things and will do anything to obtain and maintain it - up to and including destroying America as a society.

We know where this leads. It's not a new pattern. But it is new to the United States, at least within living memory. We thought we were different, exceptional. Turns out, not so much.

What we have lost is the capacity to listen. I was reminded of this recently when the following passage from the Letter of James came around in the lectionary:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. (James 1:19-20)
There's a lot of "righteous" anger these days, and precious little listening. For those who claim to be faithful, Bible-reading Christians, apparently this passage has been forgotten. But for all of us, regardless of our faith or religion, we have lost the ability (or the willingness) to try to understand one another.

The pub owner above is not unusual. As he has discovered, there are many who agree with him - people who would rather feel comforted in their tribal righteousness than try to listen to others who might disagree. To understand why some players might choose to kneel during the national anthem rather than stand. And maybe, to work towards solutions instead of divisions.

So two cheers for the anonymous author of yesterday's New York Times op-ed in calling for us all to be Americans first. But that piece, and most others I have seen recently weakly extolling that same virtue, have forgotten the hard work of how we get there. We have to shut up and listen. That's hard work. And it's something we have largely forgotten how to do.