It’s a tough time to aspire to have civilized conversations about anything related to American foreign policy, obviously. Since a president has more control over it than over domestic policy, Donald Trump has been able to take us into radical new terra incognito. He is openly wrecking our traditional alliances, realigning us with authoritarian powers and their dictators, and implementing Russia’s foreign policy wet dreams. He has pulled us out of long-standing international agreements and started trade wars. More broadly, Trump seems to view all international relations (and thus negotiations and crises) as zero-sum, with a dominant winner and a dominated loser.
[Update: To be fair, Trump also might be able to accomplish some things, like an opening to North Korea that has to be done by somebody, sometime. Putting “America first” doesn’t have to be belligerent and counterproductive, at least in its long-term effects.]
All of this is a profound departure from the consensus foreign policy that was the postwar norm. Yeah, yeah. We dominated the West, not always for the better, perhaps. But ther3 was also a strong consensus in favor of a multilateral and positive-sum approach; a belief that we needed other countries’ cooperation to help maintain U.S. security and prosperity and would prosper best in a rules-based commerce system.
To be sure, Trump’s precise goals and strategy are a bit unclear underneath all of the bluster and tweeting. But, one POV is that if Republican voters and elites continue to back him to the hilt Trump may take the GOP – and all of us – back to its pre-Cold War foreign policy rooted in mercantilism, belligerence, and xenophobia. Who cares about a little brinkmanship?
We all should. Brinkmanship is inherently dangerous and requires very careful attention to both short-term tactics and long-term goals – and empathy with how adversaries think and what they feel. Sound like Trump to you? Worse, bullying and making wild threats until the other side backs down has been Trump’s core negotiating tactic all of his life. He likely will use it as a first resort in almost every situation. The agreement he just cut with North Korea is only going to feed his confidence that making dire threats work like a charm, just like in real estate. Ooh, boy.
Moreover, it’s not just Trump. At least some foreign policy brinkmanship is as American as apple pie. Kennedy used it in the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon and Kissinger played good-cop, madman-cop in Vietnam. Both George Bushes relied on showdown-style tactics in Iraq, with (ahem) varying results. The aforementioned postwar consensus was based on the threat of instant, massive nuclear retaliation after all, as we discussed a few weeks ago. Brinkmanship will always be with us, at least as a tool to pull off of the shelf by any president.
I will start off our meeting with a brief introduction. Then we can discuss whether Trump really is this radical departure from the norm and/or these questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is brinkmanship? How differ from a strong diplomacy backed by a willingness to act?
- When has brinkmanship worked for the United States? Why? When did it fail? When was it not used when it almost/could have been used?
- Are there any general lessons about when brinkmanship might be necessary or foolhardy?
- How out of control is this guy re threat-making? Who can get him to dial it down? What would the country lose if they don’t?
- Will the public and GOP keep supporting his risky foreign policy? Why are they willing to do so?
- After Trump? Will brinkmanship go back in the bottle?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- [Way late UPDATE: This is the core of Trump’s new foreign policy.]
- ABCs of brinkmanship as used in the Cold War.
- Trump: Bullying IS the strategy. Under Trump nuclear brinkmanship is the new normal.
- But his blustering/bullying could lead to some good outcomes.
- Putin loves to use brinkmanship, too. (Meddling in our election an news media is exactly that – a dangerous high-wire gamble.)
NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together?
This topic idea and its wording are blatantly stolen from a memorable 2012 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly. (In 2 parts, links below.) But, scientists all over the world are racing to find new ways to prolong the human lifespan. The idea that they could one day succeed has such enormous implications that a lot has been written on the subject in recent years. General interest magazines and popular science websites have been all over it, as have, obviously, more technical scientific publications.
We know that extending human lifespans by even another half-decade or so would have profound consequences for our society – because it already has. Since 1840, U.S. life expectancy has increased on average by about three months every year (source). Having longer, healthier lives (and far lower infant mortality) has vastly increased Americans’ health, wealth, and happiness. But, it also has required many changes to the way we live, work, and govern ourselves. What new changes will be necessary if Americans (and people around the world) one day routinely live to 100, or 125, or 164?
Here are a few general interest articles that discuss the promise and pitfalls of radically-enhanced lifespans. I also added an excellent one on how big a change it would be just to raise it to 100 years. Please see if you can read/skim/get the gist of at least the recommended readings. I will start us off on Monday with a brief overview of some of the major issues that are likely to arise if lifespans either continue their slow, steady rise or suddenly increase.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- “When I’m 164:” Atlantic Monthly, 2012. Both recommended, at least part 2.
- Forget 164. Just living to 100 will change our country in profound ways. Atlantic 2014 different author. Excellent survey of the topic.
- More on how a widening rich/poor ”longevity gap” could reinforce our large economic inequality gap. NYT.
- More on “trans-humanism,” the quest to enhance human beings to the point where we become a different species (or maybe live forever in machine form). We discussed this topic last year.
- Do Americans want to live a long, long time? They say they don’t.
NEXT WEEK: Big Data – Privacy and Power in a Brave New Age.
How can nuclear war be thinkable? Everybody knows these weapons are unusable. Their only purpose is to deter other countries from nuking us. Trying to stop other countries from getting the technology has been a top global priority for decades, as we have discussed recently. But other than that isn’t “nuclear strategy” an oxymoron?
Not really. The absence of nuclear wars may have been an intrinsic feature of mutually assured destruction (the infamous MAD). but, we have always had a formal deterrence strategy. The Trump Administration has updated it. Our nuclear posture has many moving parts and the basic concepts underlying deterrence are a bit complicated.
In short, U.S. nuclear weapons strategy involves:
- Maintaining the stockpile: Keeping our nuclear arsenal in working order and able to survive a first strike, so as to keep a credible deterrent.
- Managing crises: Minimizing the risk that nuclear war could break out in a crisis or by accident, and maximizing our ability to stop one once it starts.
- Stopping proliferation: Preventing other countries from developing nuclear weapons programs and stopping those that have them (like North Korea and Pakistan) from helping other countries or terrorists to get them.
- Managing deterrence: Keeping the threshold for using nukes very, very high and NOT doing anything stupid that would lower that threshold, like flirting with the idea of using them ourselves in a preemptive strike or in a conventional war, or weakening the global commitment to non-proliferation.
On that last one, funny story. President Trump has taken steps to do all the dumb things. There is also (1) his high-wire brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran and the increased risk of regional nuclear arms races if his gambles fail; and (2) serious concerns over this president’s mental health, impulsiveness, and the quality of the advice he is getting. Worse, as a key article below explains the march of technology is edging closer to having an impact on nuclear strategy – notably in missile defense and cyberwar – and no one is really sure how.
To be sure, the danger of nuclear war is small and likely will remain small. After all, despite some close calls deterrence has worked for 70 years. One might even argue that Trump’s foreign policy could end up lowering the risk of a nuclear war, at least one involving the United States. (I wouldn’t.) Still we’re talking about nuclear war here. So, even though nuclear deterrence is a surprisingly complicated topic it a timely and appropriate one for our Memorial Day.
Plus, there’s coffee.
I am supposed to know a fair amount about this topic. So I will open with a short explanation of how deterrence functions and some of its weirder and paradoxical qualities. Then I will summarize recent developments in this area with a focus on the steps the Trump Administration is taking/not taking. I will leave the astonishing Trumpian moves towards North Korea and Iran for our discussion.
Here are the usual optional background readings. Some are a little technical, so skim for key ideas or just stick to the recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- FYI: Which countries possess how many nuclear weapons? Did you know this?
- Has nuclear deterrence worked?
- How Russia and Putin think about nuclear weapons and how it complicates our choices.
- Trump’s rhetoric on nukes has swerved from reasonable to naïve to disturbing.
- Our new strategy:
- “The World Doesn’t Need Any More Nuclear Strategies.” Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
Is this the future of political conservatism in America: Right-wing? For the moment, President Trump has made the Republican Party and the movement conservatism that dominates it anti-immigrant, openly corrupt, contemptuous of governing norms and legal restraints, and oddly schizophrenic on foreign policy.
Our questions for this week are two. How real is all of this; i.e., has Trumpism taken over the conservative movement in substance or mainly in style? And how lasting will it prove? Is Trump transforming U.S. conservatism or has he just borrowed it for a while? To do this we will need to look at both what conservatism in America has been and what the Trumpists are trying to make it become.
Traditionally of course, American conservatism has been described as a coalition of interest groups and voters with a range of substantive needs and philosophical and ideological beliefs. Among these were the Religious Right and other culture warriors, big business, supply side-loving ideological elites, libertarian voters, and a mix of small town working class and upscale Whites. Over the last two decades several other major players have joined the conservative movement, notably the right-wing infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and internet; and billionaire dark money donors like the Koch Brothers.
YMMV, but I found these distinctions less and less useful for understanding the conservative movement even before Trump. There is almost a universal consensus that in the last 20 years American conservative has grown increasingly united and ideological. I think it is largely because of the growing dominance of those last two groups above, but there are other possible reasons.
So, maybe on Monday we could begin by trying to look at today’s conservatism (and thus tomorrow’s too) from some perspectives that might be more illuminating than just interest groups and ideology. Specifically:
- Psychological type and world view.
- Status in society, cultural as well as economic.
–> FYI, we can save some of this for next Monday’s mtg on status anxiety.
- Philosophy and ideology.
- Policy preferences.
This may seem like a tall order. But, as with progressives the Venn diagram of these four groups overlap quite a bit and, IMO, does a lot to explain the direction conservatism seems to be moving in. Of course, we must be careful not to reduce conservatism (or any other political belief) to a mere byproduct of its adherents’ cognitive makeup. Yet, I hope that thinking about conservatism in this way (political beliefs flow from cultural beliefs and worldviews as much as from material interests) will help us to shed more light than shadow on this topic.
This will be a busy, vibrant meeting. Thank you in advance for your self-restraint and empathy for your humble moderator. Mr. Humble will start the meeting with a short introduction that explains some of these different ways of thinking about what American conservatism is and what it “stands for.”
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Yesterday’s conservatism –
- How conservatism today differs from that of the 20th century and earlier. A must-read from 2007 or brief update here. (this is just one POV, of course)
Today’s conservatism –
- Voters: Pew survey reveals four distinct groups of conservatives.
–> DavidG will explain and use these terms.
- Well, “conservative” can mean many things. This conservative lists 20 of them.
- The right-wing infotainment complex wields the ring of power that rules them all. Recommended.
- On policy, is the GOP exhausted and obsolete. If this is wrong why did Trump win GOP nomination so easily?
Tomorrow’s conservatism –
- The Right-wing is only one faction of the GOP and its continued dominance is NOT assured.
- In key areas Trump is closer to conservative voters’ POV than are GOP elites, so big changes are in store on trade, immigration, etc. Recommended + Conservative POV.
NEXT WEEK: Status anxiety as a social and political force.
A discussion on the benefits of the United States nurturing democracy in other countries may seem a bit quaint. Democracy promotion has lost much of its luster in the 25+ years since the fall of communism. As we have discussed, the last ten years has seen backsliding on democracy and the rule of law in a number of countries, including in the former USSR, eastern Europe, and Latin America.
And now, we have a president who is an avowed opponent of promoting democracy abroad and openly admires a number of authoritarian foreign leaders. With other wealthy democracies turning inwards and/or experiencing their own domestic crises of faith in liberal democracy, at the very least democracy promotion will lack global leadership for the rest of this decade.
So, what? Beyond being kind of noble, is the cause of spreading liberal democracy also practical and in the American interest? If so, how can it be made more effective, especially in bang-for-the-buck terms, since not much money is devoted to it?
We have discussed these issues before, most recently in 2016. Here are a few other optional background readings. See you Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Should we promote democracy Y/N?
- Sure, but given our past failures we should stop expecting much success.
- Long/optional: Yes, done right it is a vital progressive cause.
Has Trump abandoned democracy promotion?
- Update Sunday: Trump is a “body blow” to democracy promotion but he can’t reverse everything we’re trying to do.
- He despises it. But the U.S. Govt does promote democracy and rule of law – Trump just probably hasn’t noticed! Recommended.
How to promote democracy
- Institutions matter way more than elections. Recommended. Also, economic development has to come first.
- Ultimately, democracy requires six preconditions.
- The way we’ve done globalization hinders democracy. Interesting.
- A harsh condemnation of neoconservatism as imperialism, not democracy promotion. (Lefty)
- Long/highly optional: We should quietly promote “civil society” abroad and some day it will bear fruit.
NEXT WEEK: U.S. conservatism: What does it stand for now?
How screwed are we? The Trump Administration’s open corruption and contempt for any person or institution, public or private, that challenges its power goes on apace. Republican Party leaders either stay silent or collaborate.Yet, does the Trump Administration really pose a serious threat to American democracy itself? Is the rule of law here really so fragile that it can be toppled by one president and his enablers?
The answer will depend, obviously, on what is meant precisely by the “rule of law” and how strong the institutions and people that sustain it really are. Oh, boy.
I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief soliloquy on what the term can mean and the role that different institution play in maintaining it. Then, we can debate how corrosive Trump’s actions and rhetoric have been, why he’s getting away with it (and is cheered for doing it!), and prospects for unwinding the damage, if any, in the future.
To preview what the topic is trying to get at, consider the words of one legal scholar:
…it is a mistake to focus on [Trump himself] rather than on the institutions that give rise to the rule of law. Leaders with authoritarian personality traits are common, but authoritarian governments exist only when surrounding institutions enable them to express their authoritarian impulses and do not throw up barriers to restrain them…As long as our legal and political institutions remain resilient, we need not worry about Trump becoming an authoritarian leader. And these institutions, ultimately, are made up of the beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and practices of the people who hold official positions.
Of course, in the long run the rule of law in a republic is sustained by a supportive public. Citizens must believe that the law and the political system that creates and enforces the law work for them. See the last two discussion questions, below, for some reasons to worry about that, too. If the tide of anger that Trump rode to the oval office never ebbs and is forever ignored by elites, it is hard to see a fully-democratic, non-authoritarian American future.
Lots of detailed links this week. Except for the recommended ones maybe consider them mainly as a reference source for the future. Thank you in advance for being so civilized during this one.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is the “rule of law?” Why is it important + how relates to democracy? Which institutions and people are supposed to protect RoL – Congress, courts, political parties, news media, etc.? How important are norms?
- Did we have genuine rule of law before Trump? What/who was missing?
- How fragile is rule of law – lessons from U.S. history and abroad?
- Trump: How damaging have his actions + rhetoric really been to rule of law so far? How so? Evidence? Worst vs. overblown damage?
- Enablers – GOP: Why is the party of Lincoln supporting this?
- Practical/cynical: Electoral calculations, fear of GOP base, fear of Fox News conservative media, etc.
- They are authoritarians themselves.
- Enablers – Others:
- Democrats (centrists or left-wing)? Mainstream media? Social media? Passive voters? Angry voters – why?
- Events: 9/11, Great Recession, Electoral College, Russian bots?
- Future I: How bad will it get + how easily reversed?
- Trump era – Before 11/18, if Dems win in November, next 3 (!) years.
- After Trump: Will lawlessness and authoritarianism be a hallmark of the Party going forward? Will Dems follow?
- Future II: If economic/cultural anxiety persist or worsen (AI/robots, gig economy, rising inequality, rural decline) how can rule of law be…
- Sustained (or restored).
- Consistent with both liberty and social justice?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Trump and the rule of law –
- Our lawless president and his many accomplices. We are in a democratic emergency. Both recommended.
- Trump’s assaults on a free press are unprecedented.
- Trump’s tweets and rhetoric are NOT harmless; they are very corrosive to rule of law.
- House Republicans are actively interfering in Mueller’s investigation to protect Trump.
- Lessons from other countries and from Trump’s first year. Recommended.
Less alarmed POVs –
- So far Trump’s efforts to undermine rule of law have been thwarted. We will survive this presidency, says Joe Scarborough.
NEXT WEEK: Do/should the USA support democracy worldwide?
Next Monday’s topic will be a welcome breather before we tackle some much darker stuff the next week and in early May. The latter will explore the most urgent and important issue in American public affairs in a generation, IMO: How serious is the Trump Administration’s assault on our country’s democratic institutions and rule of law, and will the Republican Party’s current acquiescence to and collaboration with authoritarianism survive his presidency? Told you we’d need a breather, and thanks to Gale for suggesting this interesting one.
She asks: Does a good life need to have a “purpose?” What does that even mean, for starters? What kind of a purpose can a life be directed towards? Service and altruism? Fighting injustice? Finding love and nurturing close family relationships? Money and material acquisition? Social status and approval? Spreading Gospel’s good word and God’s plan?
How many of us have ever had a single purpose or goal that we used to drive our life choices? Where did we get the notion from? Is being highly purpose-driven a function of personality type or upbringing? Does it come from religious faith or personal philosophy? From our educations and/or personal experiences?
How many people do this sort of thing? We all know of famous people that were driven to have their life turn out a certain way and they succeeded, like Bill Gates, LeBron James, and so on. Are they the exceptions? How do most highly goal-directed people react to disappointment? When should they (and you) give up their dreams? There are many other good questions.
Do we have any answers? I think some of us in CivCon underestimate how good our discussions are in some of our more personal topics. So, I’m looking forward to Monday’s meeting. April 23 is our can democracy survive meeting, so let’s enjoy this one! Here’s a few light reading suggestions this week.
(GALE: Would you like to start us off by describing what you had in mind?)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A happy life needs to pursue meaningful things. Recommended.
- You don’t need purpose to live a happy life. Recommended.
- Yeah you do, says this 21m TED talk lecture by Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life).
- Having a life’s purpose lets you connect with the present moment and dig deeper into yourself.
- Besides, science says it’s good for you. Recommended.
Or: No, science has found being happy and having a meaningful life are different things.
- Does life itself (just being here) have a purpose? Perhaps not.
- “Meaning of Life” long entries at:
NEXT WEEK: Is the rule of law under serious assault in the USA?