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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

WPA Federal Art Poster, via the Library of Congress.

WPA Federal Art Poster, via the Library of Congress.

What I read this week”

An interesting look at Egypt’s violent, three-way transitional contest.

 Michael Martoccio discusses moving beyond Tilly’s classic war and state-making model.

Suparna Chaudhry explores patterns of human rights funding.

I missed this at the time, but why many in China found Iron Man 3’s special China-only scenes condescending and pointless. Back to the transnational drawing board, Hollywood.

Elsewhere, I co-wrote a post with Barbara F. Walter asking why so few prominent IR blogs are authored by women (jokes about why I’m qualified to write on this topic are justified and welcome).

Cultura Profetica – De Antes.

Thoughts on Snowden, Civil Disobedience, and Cowardice

By Taylor Marvin


NSA leaker Edward Snowden apparently intends to seek refuge in Ecuador, a country, like Snowden benefactors Russia and the PRC, not exactly noted for its free press and civil liberties. As many have noted, there’s a certain irony to Snowden fleeing to countries with much, much worse records of repression and civil surveillance than the United States. At best this is hypocritical, and many allege that Snowden’s desire to evade US justice weakens his credibility as a whistleblower. Like many others, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews went so far as to call Snowden a coward for fleeing punishment, and others claim his flight make him a traitor.

First, I a very skeptical of PRISM, surveillance of routine communications, and the general government culture of secrecy. Moreover, the security bearucracy’s natural tendency is to grow if unchecked. In a perfect world whisleblowing would not be necessary, but we obviously don’t live on that plane of perfect oversight and moderation. That said, I am also wary of endorsing Snowden’s actions. Much like Dan Nexon recently wrote, I believe that security clearances are very serious, and low-level employees should not be able to unilaterally decide what should, and should not, be secret. As Kevin Drum noted, with too many Snowdens it would be impossible to run any intelligence service at all. I also feel that Snowden sacrificed credibility by apparently attempting to avoid having his material thoroughly vetted (though this is notably better than going to WikiLeaks, which has proven itself entirely irresponsible and unable to responsibly release secrets).

That said, it’s perfectly natural for Snowden to try and avoid punishment for his actions. Kevin Drum sees Snowden’s flight as a reasonable desire to avoid punishment for civil disobedience if that punishment is a lifetime in prison. Suffering legal penalties can’t be separated from legitimate civil disobedience — this willingness for self-sacrifice demonstrates commentment and strength of belief, and is an important part of the public performance inherent to civil disobedience. However, Snowden’s actions aren’t civil disobedience per se. It appears that Snowden’s goal was simply making PRISM public; of course, his public announcement and media embrace is self-aggrandizing, but isn’t inherent to his goal. It’s true that Snowden escaping legal consequences will encourage future leakers by suggesting that releasing classified information has no penalty (though it’s also arguable that never being able to return to the country of your birth is a penalty in and of itself). But as Snowden appears to see it, unlike many other civil disobedients there’s no real value in his public martyrdom. As long as the information is made public, suffering extreme legal penalties adds nothing to the discussion. If he can leak classified information and escape US justice so much the better. Without condoning Snowden’s actions, this isn’t cowardice, it’s simple self-preservation.

Update: This originally read “good sense,” which in retrospect doesn’t convey the sentiment I was aiming for. Additionally, while accepting punishment isn’t an integral part of Snowden’s performance, it is true that putting himself in Chinese and Russian custody is a best enormously irresponsible.

Game of Thrones, Racism, and White Saviors

By Taylor Marvin

Credit HBO.

Credit HBO.

Two weeks ago HBO broadcast the season finale of Game of Thrones’ third season. In the climactic final scene lead character Daenerys, after conquering the slave-trading city of Yunkai, is met by an adoring crowd of freed slaves who proclaim her “mother” and their savior. The season ends with a dramatic bird’s eye shot of the white-skinned Dany surrounded by a sea of darker-skinned supplicants, all reaching inward to touch, salute, and worship her.

Critics immediately attacked the scene’s staging as, at the least, racially uncomfortable, and accused its depiction of a light-skinned foreigner effortlessly freeing people of color from  similarly dark-skinned oppressors as perpetuating the tired white savior trope. George RR Martin responded to criticism of the scene, arguing that slavery in his books is not based on race and has much more in common with the Roman and Greek world, where debtors or prisoners of war were enslaved regardless of ethnicity. Indeed, Martin goes out of his way to avoid race in A Song of Ice and Fire altogether. Unlike in our world, skin tone in Martin’s follows no real geographical pattern, and the inhabitants of some of the most exotic and otherized locals in the series — Qarth and Asshai — are explicitly identified as some of the whitest in the series. Indeed, Martin is one of the few fantasy authors to write protagonists of color who tell their own stories through their own voices.

But it’s natural that images of a white savior surrounded by adoring people of color would draw more controversy on the screen than on the page, especially when — in contrast to how Martin wrote the scene in A Storm of Swords — Game of Thrones’ crowd of slaves appear uniformly darker than the white protagonists. In his response Martin attributed this to logistical necessities the show faces but his books do not. As the scene was shot in Morocco, local extras filling in as slaves were necessarily darker-skinned than the leads — unless the production is going to fly in hundreds of foreign extras (which would have its own very troubling connotations) crowd scenes are always going to reflect the local prevailing skin tone, which in Morocco is by no means uniform. This echoes Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which if I recall correctly cast many dark-skinned extras as Orcs simply as a way of including local New Zealand actors in Tolkien’s white-dominated narrative.

Again, these logistical limitations are reasonable, and George RR Martin is right to note that many instances of historical slavery lack a racial component. But Game of Thrones is produced and consumed in a cultural context where slavery is overwhelmingly identified with the subjugation of dark-skinned people by lighter-skinned people. “It’s not the most-racist thing you’re going to see on TV, most days,” commenter witlesschum writes of the scene on Sean T. Collins’ site. “But living in the 21st century US, I can’t see that scene without the racial implications pinging and taking me out of the narrative.” It doesn’t matter if slavery in the ancient world was race neutral, because Game of Thrones isn’t broadcast for an ancient audience. In our world slavery is not, and the show’s producers should have anticipated the controversy the scene would draw.

However, it’s unclear if the audience is intended to take Dany’ triumph as an endorsement of her victory, and the white savior narrative it embodies, at all. Whatever the merits of freeing slaves, Dany’s actions represent a top-down, violent attempt to reform a society she knows literally nothing about. In a word it’s imperialism, “liberal” qualifier nonetheless. While the now-freed slaves may hail Dany as their mother, “as joyful as that sequence was framed to be, a family conceived not in genuine compatibility or a shared vision of the world but in desperate need and a rush of affirmation contains great potential for harm,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes. At Rolling Stone Sean T. Collins questioned the writers’ endorsement even more strongly, noting that “Dany’s triumph outside the gates of Yunkai came with its fair share of visual and narrative warning signs that we’re not to take it at face value.”

[Begin spoilers for A Storm of Swords through A Dance with Dragons]

Dany’s moment outside of Yunkai may be a genuine victory, but later events make it clearly a hollow one. Dany’s subsequent attempt to rule the third city of Slaver’s Bay, Meereen, is a failure, undermined by an insurgency organized by the elites she violently overthrew and the economic importance of the slave trade she abolished. Her conquest and emancipation of Astapor led directly to the total destruction of the city, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In this sense Martin’s narrative is a bait-and-switch. Much like A Song of Ice and Fire evokes narratives of righteous young princes avenging their fathers before Robb’s betrayal and murder pulls the rug out from under our feet, A Dance With Dragons explicitly undermines the white savior narrative by suggesting that violent interventions to reform foreign societies are always more complicated than they appear, no matter how good their intentions. But this nuance may be lost in the television medium. Game of Thrones presents viewers with a climactic visual — literally climactic, as it’s the last shot of the season — that appears to endorse a white savior narrative and will only be subverted two seasons later; casual viewers may not get the message. This is partially a problem with translating a so-far 5,000 page plus book to television, and ultimately a narrative that subverts a trope is still an instance of that trope. Wired’s Laura Hudson is right to remark that “I’ve seen this trope so many times before that it feels emotionally flat and boring.” It won’t once Dany’s idealism begins falling apart around her, but it does now.

The simple truth is that images of white characters surrounded by grateful, otherized people of color are loaded ones in our civilization, and have been created far, far more often as part of narratives that endorse colonialism rather than critique it. These narratives should be subverted, but it is inherently difficult to do so.

As I’ve previously written, I don’t think A Song of Ice and Fire is orientalist or racist. While its depictions of societies modeled after the Mediterranean and Middle East ring more stereotypical than its main, Western Europe-inspired setting, this is partially a deliberate choice — Martin predominantly shows societies populated by people of color through the eyes of foreigners, who have good reason to see them as alien. It’s also impossible to paint A Song of Ice and Fire as an endorsement of European values. In A Dance With Dragons Martin repeatedly suggests that while Westeros’ culture abhors slavery its own serfdom is fundamentally no different. “Some slaveowners and their overseers were brutal and cruel,” Martin writes, through the eyes of Tyrion, “but the same was true of some Westerosi lords and their stewards and bailiffs.” In this context, Martin’s depiction of slavery is if anything a critique of orientalism, suggesting that Western-identified travelers ultimately find just as much barbarism at home as they do in the “Orient”.

Indeed, this critique is one of the most fascinating aspects of Dany’s character. Just as her denunciations of King Robert as a “usurper” ring false given that her own claim to power is an ancestor who took it by force, Dany abhors slavery yet seeks to return to a throne resting on the backs of serfs who are slaves in all but name. The fact that we’re talking about white saviors at all, and not Dany’s own entitled orientalism, tells me that Game of Thrones’ writers missed a step.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Diego Velázquez, "Dios Marte", 1638. Via Wikimedia.

Diego Velázquez, “Dios Marte”, 1638. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Don’t underestimate Iran’s election upsetNavid Hassanpour looks at the context of Rouhani’s win. Kevin Lees has had excellent coverage of the election.

Vali Nasr asks if Rouhani’s election could lead to progress on the nuclear issue.

Daniel R. DePetris sees the Obama administration’s decision to begin arming Syrian rebels as a dangerous internationalization of the conflict. Meanwhile, heavy weaponry has already begin arriving in the rebel’s hands.

Josh Busby asks if there’s a right way to do development.

This speculative piece by Nimrod Goren and Elie Podeh at Open Zion on the Arab Spring’s opportunities for Israel strikes me as fantastical, at best.

Massive demonstrations and brutal, if unsurprising, police violence hit Brazil. Why the protests are about more than bus fares. Greg Weeks warns academics and journalists not to “witness a protest, then just walk backwards to identify what conditions were present, then correlate the protest with those conditions.”

Earlier this week I rounded up links on political violence and conflict for PV Glance. I also contributed to this week’s Friday Puzzler post.

Thom Yorke – Harrowdown Hill.

Why the Broken Red Line Didn’t Force the Administration’s Hand in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week the Obama administration decided to expand the “scope and scale” of American assistance to the Syria opposition and begin arming rebel forces. Concluding that the Bashar al-Assad regime had indeed violated the “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces, the administration announced Thursday that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition, though the White House maintains it has no interest in imposing a no-fly zone at this time. While reporting from this April suggested that the administration was slowly moving towards a consensus in favor of arming the rebels, the news still comes as a major shift in President Obama’s Syria policy.

In a statement Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes framed the administration’s decision as a response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons use, arguing that “while the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

However, its rhetoric aside it is difficult to argue that Obama was compelled to act by Assad’s apparent breaking of the international red line prohibiting chemical weapons use. Instead, the administration’s decision to arm the rebels can only be understood as a deliberate choice.

First, as many others have argued, there is no compelling reason why the murder of 100 to 150 Syrians by chemical weapons demand international restitution more than nearly a hundred thousand by conventional means. But despite arguments that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible it is incorrect to claim, as Rhodes does, that strong norms against chemical arms use have existed for decades and requires enforcement. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that chemical arms — which are difficult to handle, subject to dispersal by weather conditions, often just as likely to incapacitate friendly troops as the enemy, and widely stigmatized – are rarely used because of their few practical battlefield uses and reputation costs, rather than any enforced international norm. Indeed, the United States has turned a blind eye to chemical weapons use when it is politically convenient, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War and only nominally punishing his chemical massacres of Kurdish civilians decades later. Given that the norm against chemical weapons use is strong in spite of, not due to, international enforcement efforts and few leaders have incentives to use chemical arms anyway, it is unlikely that Obama administration officials were compelled by the belief that the norm against chemical weapons needed to be upheld.

Secondly, it is similarly unlikely that the administration was forced to act by its previous rhetoric. Red lines sanctioning chemical weapons use are inherently fuzzy. Unlike, say, nuclear weapons, there is nothing inherently intolerable about chemical weapons use. If Assad had used chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians in a single, high-profile attack, the United States would likely have been compelled to act. However, Assad did not; instead, he apparently used chemical weapons in limited, isolated attacks. Indeed, the fact that it took the US government nearly two months to officially verify his use of chemical weapons is indicative of just how limited this use was. Perhaps Assad’s limited use of chemical weapons suggests that he lost political control over them rather than ordering their use, or that he was deliberately testing the strength of the international red line. Whatever the reason, though, this inherent fuzziness made it difficult for the Obama administration to issue an obviously credible red line prohibiting any specific degree of chemical weapons use, and it similarly could have ignored Assad’s limited provocation if it really wanted to.

Third, the Obama administration had deliberately avoided binding itself to act if Assad did violate the red line. Red lines often suffer from a fundamental credibility problems, because their targets can often not distinguish a credible threat from a bluff. Since leaders rarely like being forced into unpopular wars, red lines work best when the actor issuing the threat constructs mechanisms to force their future self to respond if their bluff is called. However, the administration had used shifting semantics and ambiguities about what the red line actually entails to avoid rhetorically binding himself to action, suggesting that Obama wished to avoid an iron-clad public commitment he might later regret — exactly the kind of commitment device he’d value if Obama valued credibility over flexibility.

All these factors suggest that, contrary to its own rhetoric, the Obama administration is not being forced into the Syrian conflict. Despite the administration’s red line, President Obama could have avoided further intervention in the conflict if he truly wished to. Arming the rebels is growing less, not more, popular among Americans, and Obama is unlikely to face any significant domestic political costs for inaction. Finally, it is immediately obvious that the Obama administration is doing the least it can to punish the Assad regime’s transgressions. Small arms supplies are unlikely to turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, and if anything the Obama administration’s present actions send a reassuring signal to potential human rights violators: as long as you abstain from chemical weapons the international community tolerates massacres, and even if you do use chemical arms, it will only half-heartedly begin arming your enemies. As Sara Bjerg Moller recently wrote, “rather than redeem American credibility, the lesson other states are likely to draw is that (at least in the short term) they can get away with crossing well-established red lines while the US government conducts a multi-month internal policy debate on what to do next.”

While the Obama administration’s decision to begin arming Syrian rebels is unlikely to quickly end the conflict, it is a major shift in Obama’s Syria policy. Despite its public justifications, however, it is a mistake to see the administration’s decision as a forced reaction to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Instead, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war more decisively than ever before is a deliberate policy choice that reflects his own views on liberal interventionism, the precarious position of the secular opposition, and international responsibilities.

Understanding the Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Image via Wikimedia.

Image via Wikimedia.

In late January Iran made the startling announcement it had successfully launched a monkey into space. Claiming to have sent the monkey on a twenty minute suborbital flight, the launch was showcased as a demonstration of the Iranian regime’s technical ability. But international observers quickly noticed that the monkey recorded entering the capsule didn’t resemble the one showcased after the flight, an embarrassing inconsistency the Iranians chalked up to a botched photo release.

Deception aside, this story is a reminder that the drama of space exploration, genuine or faked, remains a powerful tool for building national prestige. At a time of enormous sanctions-imposed economic strain, Iran claims its recent test flight is a prelude to one day sending a human into space. Human spaceflight ambitions aren’t limited to political-outcast Iran. In 2003 China became the third country to send a human into space, and plans to send a taikonaut to the Moon by at least 2020. India has also articulated tentative ambitions for its own crewed space program at some point in the future.

But despite the growing number of nations expressing space ambitions today’s achievements in crewed spaceflight still fall short of the Space Race, the famed Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union that saw the world’s first satellite launch, first human in space, and, climactically, the Moon landings. This modern shortfall fits the broader pattern of the post-Space Race era: after the the American Apollo lunar landing program ended in 1972 the practical ambitions of crewed space programs, in contrast to contemporary forecasts, dramatically declined.

Clearly, high-profile achievements in space remain an alluring goal for prestige-minded governments. But any framework explaining why governments chose to invest in civilian space programs must also explain why no human has ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972. Did space exploration become less prestigious after the end of the Apollo program, or did the conditions that precipitated the Space Race somehow fundamentally change? How do today’s aspiring space powers like Iran fit into this framework?

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface and into history. Optimistic observers celebrated the Apollo 11 landings as the birth of a new era in human exploration. Apollo would be followed by further, far more ambitions crewed exploratory programs – Moon bases, Mars landings, and crewed flybys of Venus filled the dreams of NASA planners. But instead of heralding a new beginning, today the Apollo program is seen as the end of an era. New budgetary realities dawned, and the US and USSR restricted their crewed space programs to Earth orbit. Today, 44 years after Apollo 11, the ambitious dreams of crewed missions beyond the Moon have not materialized.

Perhaps depressingly, this dramatic shortening of ambitions isn’t puzzling, because the Space Race was never really about exploration at all. Instead, the triumphs of Sputnik, Vostok, and Apollo were driven by the cold cost-benefit analysis of hardened Cold Warriors. Crewed space programs are long-term projects that require massive, front-end investments with no guarantee of success – national governments do not invest in them for idealistic reasons. Consequently, governments that elect to pursue crewed space programs perform sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before embarking on them. These costs and benefits move together depending on a program’s goal: more ambitions programs will cost more, but can intuitively be expected to return a greater boost to national prestige and international standing.

This cost-benefit analytical framework is the key determinant of whether governments elect to fund ambitious crewed space exploration. The most obvious benefit of human spaceflight – which captures public attention in a way uncrewed exploration does not – are heightened domestic pride and international prestige; other benefits can include technical advancements and economic stimulus in strategic science and engineering sectors. Both an increased sense of nationalistic pride among domestic audiences and prestige on the world stage is a valuable good for governing regimes. However, the value policymakers assign these prestige-driven benefits is not decided in a vacuum. The practical value of marginal gains and losses of national prestige is driven by politics. Unpopular leaders facing domestic unrest will benefit more than secure ones from increased national pride among their selectorate. Similarly, international prestige is more valuable for states facing a hostile world system than an unthreatening one.

The costs of crewed space programs are obvious, but vary in nonintuitive ways. First, some objectives are more expensive to pursue than others. Secondly, some of the technologies required for crewed space exploration have military applications; particularly, rockets. These “dual-use” technologies allow policymakers to clear civilian space programs’ technological barriers with military development they would fund anyway, reducing the dedicated cost of the program.

If the decision to heavily invest in civilian space programs can be understood as a cost-benefit calculus, the uniquely dramatic achievements of the Sputnik-through-Apollo era must be explainable by a similarly unique confluence of inputs. This appears to be the case. The US-Soviet space race was the unique product of a bipolar, ideologically divided international order and transient period of technological development that allowed civilian space programs to heavily leverage military necessities. The Space Race ended when these costs and benefits diverged. After the Apollo program ended the expected investments required for further ambitious civilian human spaceflight achievements grew, while the extent these prospective achievements’ prestige would contribute to national security fell.

First, the benefit side of the equation. The Cold War divided the world along ideological lines, with the twin Soviet and US-led blocs surrounded by a periphery of nonaligned states. In this bipolar system each opposing bloc sought to favorably shift the balance of power by attracting ideological allies. This made national prestige enormously important. The US and USSR both sought to attract unaligned nations to their respective camps by demonstrating the military and technological superiority of their system, superiority that was seen as evidence of eventual victory.

John Glenn aboard 'Friendship 7', 1962. NASA image via Wikimedia.

John Glenn aboard ‘Friendship 7’, 1962. NASA image via Wikimedia.

Spaceflight was a vital arena of this competition for prestige. News of space achievements, President Kennedy argued in a 1961 speech, had a powerful impact “on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” Importantly, these demonstrations were understood not only as peaceful achievements, but also as PR-friendly proxies for military prowess. Americans greeted the unexpected launch of Sputnik with something like panic, realizing if the Soviets could put a satellite in orbit, they could do the same with a nuclear warhead.

Second, the cost. Space Race-era programs were enormously expensive; at its height NASA funding consumed over four percent of American federal spending. However, the era’s crewed space programs benefited from a unique synergy between civilian and military technological development. The new technologies required to put the first men in orbit – powerful rockets, dependable guidance systems, and heat shields that allowed a spacecraft to survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere – were the same developed in the quest to construct nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Early nuclear weapons, particularly thermonuclear devices, were heavy objects that required powerful rockets to deliver to their targets. These rockets were easily adapted into civilian launch vehicles: President Eisenhower once explicitly noted that the military rocket engines required to deliver nuclear warheads were also “so necessary in distant space exploration.”

Much like the ideological rivalry between the US and USSR made civilian prestige projects a determinant of the balance of power, the military rivalry between the two superpowers and emerging awareness of the primacy of ICBMs in nuclear war made these technological developments top priorities. As deployed ICBM numbers rose the technologies required to put men into space were materializing, regardless of the value policymakers assigned exploration. It is difficult to overstate the role dual-use military developments played in allowing the early achievements that opened the Space Race.

This dual-use synergy allowed US and Soviet policymakers to leverage technology already in development for their civilian space programs. But importantly, there is no inherent reason why the technological requirements of civilian space programs and the cutting edge of military development must align. Indeed, this dual-use synergy was transient, and began to break down by the late Space Race. Medium-lift liquid fuel rockets similar those powering early ICBMs are the dominant technological hurdle only in comparatively primitive civilian space programs. Once these rockets matured new hurdles less related to military requirements began to appear – for example, the heavy-lift Saturn V rocket and lunar lander vital to the Apollo program had little technological relevance to military armaments.

By the mid-1960s the preconditions that spurred the Space Race had clearly changed. Funding for crewed space exploration evaporated in both the US and USSR. In America, once it became clear that the Apollo program would be a success NASA’s budget as a percentage of federal spending fell precipitously. The final Apollo missions were cancelled, as was the Apollo Applications Program, intended to adapt existing Apollo hardware to ambitious new missions. Likewise, the Moon bases and crewed missions to Mars early space planners and science fiction authors judged just around the corner never materialized.

Why? Space achievements had not grown less prestigious. To be sure, Americans lost interest in the Apollo Moon landings as the novelty wore off, but that does not mean unprecedented achievements would not have remained a powerful tool for building national prestige. Instead, the value policymakers placed on the benefits of national prestige had changed along with the international order.

The Space Race was conceived during some of the hottest years of the Cold War – Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, five years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the time the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon, the dynamics of the Cold War were changing. The Nixon-era détente between the US and USSR relaxed tensions, making it harder for policymakers to justify expensive prestige projects on balance of power grounds. But of course, détente did not last, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric made the 1980s one of the most dangerous decades of the Cold War.

Soviet 'Buran' spacecraft, 1988. Via Wikimedia.

Soviet ‘Buran’ spacecraft, 1988. Via Wikimedia.

But if Cold War tensions were so high, why did another civilian Space Race fail to materialize during the 1980s? Clearly, the prestige motivation had not vanished. President Reagan, eager to regain the American national prestige he perceived as lost in Vietnam and Carter-era malaise, pushed for an aggressive Space Shuttle launch schedule that contributed to the Challenger disaster. But despite heightened Cold War tensions, the political benefits of ambitious space spending were now lower. Spaceflight as a whole were no longer novel, making it arguably less impressive and high-profile. Adversaries’ achievements also became less threatening. Unlike during the opening days of the Space Race, Americans could not spin Soviet space achievements as a threatening aspect of a “missile gap” because by the 1980s ICBMs were a proven, stockpiled weapons technology.

But the cost side of the ledger was what shifted the most. First, the dual-use synergy between civilian and military space technological development largely vanished. Unlike the advances in rocketry of the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1980s the technical requirements of civilian and military space programs had diverged, making broadly dual-use technologies rare. Staged rockets that powered ICBMs were now mature technologies, and later missile development worked towards improved accuracy and increased survivability. Expanding crewed space exploration beyond the Moon would require major progress in novel propulsion technologies, life support, system reliability, and automation. All of these advancements had only tangental military relevance. Instead, the military space programs of the post-Apollo era brought research funding to technological fields unconnected with crewed spaceflight. The Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious ballistic missile defense scheme, focused research on laser and missile interception technology. None of these military projects spurned major advancements in dual-use technologies that could be leveraged for new, ambitious crewed space programs. This remains largely true today.

Secondly, the post-Apollo space establishment suffered from a lack of clear, obvious goals. This was not the case for the classic Space Race: first, put a satellite in orbit; then, a man; finally, the Moon. But after Apollo, the next goal of crewed space exploration was unclear. Mars was an obvious, high-profile choice, but a crewed mission to Mars likely would have been much more difficult than the Apollo program, and national leaders never pushed for one in a serious way. To be sure, NASA had grand preliminary plans for human exploration beyond the Moon, but funding – and likely, technical capabilities – for these ambitions missions were never available. This absence of a obvious, achievable goal hampered prospective Reagan-era and later American Cold War crewed spaceflight programs.

This cost-benefit framework offers an explanation for why the US and USSR invested heavily in crewed space programs during the 1950s and 1960s, but not during last decades of the Cold War. While the international system has changed immeasurably since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this same cost-benefit logic drives today’s policymakers’ decisions to invest in crewed space programs.

Again, first the benefit side of the tradeoff. High-profile crewed space achievements remain impressive. While modern China and India may not be ideological states in a bipolar world, they still retain significant prestige-motivations for crewed space programs. This is particularly true for China, which seeks to improve its position in the world order through demonstrations of economic, military, and technological power. Much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to Chinese policymakers the civilian space program – here “civilian” is a description of goals rather than administration, as China’s crewed space program is run by its military – is intended to cement China’s great power status in the minds of international observers. But importantly, China’s prestige-driven impetus for space investments is nowhere near that facing the security-minded Cold War-era US and USSR. This lower value assigned to the benefits of space achievements is reflected in the relatively relaxed priority of China’s crewed space program: China has achieved notable successes in space, but the pace of its efforts is not comparable to the Space Race. Clearly, China – which isn’t facing a potentially existential conflict with an ideological foe – does not judge space gains to national prestige as valuable as the Cold War rivals. This, of course, makes sense. For China, prominent achievements in human spaceflight are a means of bettering its international position, not a top-priority national security issue.

Importantly, all of today’s new or aspiring space powers have only replicated the feats accomplished by the Soviets and Americans a half century ago. This, again, is practical: as today’s comparably peaceful international order lowers the value of national prestige projects, aspiring space powers accordingly set their aspirations lower. The comparatively modest scope of these practical ambitions – “been there, done that,” in the words of uncharitable American observers – also allow new space powers to benefit from the dual-use synergy between military and civilian rocket technology, allowing them to reap prestige benefits from the ICBM technology they pursue anyway. In lower capability states aspirations to extend rocket development to human spaceflight may only be a rhetorical public relations stunt. Indeed, Iran’s space program is frequently alleged to be noting more than cover for ballistic missile development.

During the 1950s and 1960s a bipolar international order and a fortuitous alignment between the technologies required for civilian space exploration and nuclear deterrence combined to create the conditions that motivated heavy investments in civilian space programs. This is not an exaggerated description – the only reason the Space Race occurred was that the US-Soviet rivalry happened to coincide with the period when long-range military rockets were an emerging determinant of the balance of power. Without this synchronicity between an adversarial international system, conflation of national prestige and security, and convergence of civil and military space technological requirements, the Space Race would not have materialized. Barring a massive fall in the expected costs of ambitious human exploration, this logic suggests that the aspirations of new and aspiring spacefaring nations are unlikely to surpass the Space Race unless the international system reverts to the hostility of the Cold War’s height.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

 Franz Marc, "Fighting Forms", 1914. Via Wikimedia.

Franz Marc, “Fighting Forms”, 1914. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The White House is preparing to increase the “scale and scope” of its involvement in Syria in response to alleged Assad regime chemical weapons use. CJ Chivers and Max Fisher explain why small arms supplies are unlikely to shift the conflict in the rebels’ favor. Sara Bjerg Moller argues that Washington’s policy shift couldn’t come at a worse time.

Dan Drezner sees the decision as evidence that Obama cynically wants al Qaeda and Hezbollah to bleed each other dry, and Daniel Nexon assesses the administrations’s Syria policy: “The problem, of course, is that ‘prudence’ and ‘deliberation’ can translate into ‘hoping for the best.'” 

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon recently profiled the divisions on Syria between the State Department and Pentagon, and Daniel Larison accurately describes the policy shift as one that will satisfy no one. 

Why Assad is loving the protests in Turkey.

While I missed it last week, Jeremy Pressman offers an interesting retrospective on the anniversary of the Six-Day War.

Iain Banks has died. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson has a nice retrospective on his value as a writer and thinker. If you haven’t read Look to Windward (probably one of the best books on loss I’ve ever read) or Use of Weaponsplease, please do.

A beautiful map of all the rivers in the United States, and nothing else.

Given that Star Trek’s an explicitly money-free utopia, Planned Parenthood might have rethought this framing:


Equal work for equal pay, but only when remuneration in exchange for labor is an obsolete concept. 

Yusef Lateef – The Plum Blossom.

Why Don’t Anti-Drug Campaigns Highlight Violence?, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

Image by Borderland Beat Reporter Buggs, via Wikimedia.

Image by Borderland Beat Reporter Buggs, via Wikimedia.

Two weeks ago I authored the weekly Friday Puzzler at Political Violence @ a Glance, asking why few American anti-drug campaigns offer drug trade-fueled cartel violence as a reason to abstain from illegal drugs. As I wrote here at the time:

“To be clear, I’m not saying that highlighting cartel violence in Mexico would convince many of the young people public anti-drug campaigns typically target to abstain, but it’s possible that campaigns focusing on the violent drug trade  – rather than the personal health and social problems that these campaigns typically highlight — would be effective. I think that today’s anti-drug campaigns are often ineffective because potential drug users are able to see the costs of illegal drug use they highlight as hypothetical: sure, drug use ruins other people’s lives, but it can’t happen to me. Highlighting the violence inherent to the international drug trade, while more remote, is also more real: if I buy illegal drugs my habit will directly lead to further violence.”

By explicitly linking the act of purchasing illicit drugs to very-real violence in Mexico and elsewhere, such a campaign would force drug users to confront the social costs of their habit — or that would be the idea, anyway. In addition to its graphic shock value (which are often a feature of anti-drug public health campaigns, particularly those focusing on drunk driving or tobacco use), such a campaign could be effective because many young drug users see themselves as conscientious and globally-minded. Highlighting the social costs of the drug trade abroad could be a more effective way of speaking to this subset of potential drug users than messages stressing the personal costs of drug use.

However, there are many reasons to doubt the efficacy of such a campaign. As I wrote at the time, “one reason for this absence could be that the connection between American drug use and foreign trafficking-related violence is too remote to influence behavior, or that potential drug users are unlikely to see violence visited on others — and foreigners, at that — as reasons not to use illegal drugs.” There are other reasons such campaigns haven’t materialized, as well. One commenter rightly noted that public health campaigns highlighting the costs of drug prohibition, not consumption, naturally bait awkward questions about the purpose of prohibiting drugs at all. Given that nearly all aspects of the American political establishment favor continuing prohibition — conservatives because they truly appear to oppose the normalization of even soft drug use, and liberals because anti-drug rhetoric is a usefully low-priority issue used to demonstrate Democratic law-and-order credentials — this implicit condemnation of the war on drugs would be deeply problematic.

Commenters also suggested that anti-drug campaigners have run public heath campaigns stressing political violence associated with the drug trade. Specifically, after 9/11 the Bush Administration adopted the supposed link between drug cartels and Islamic terrorism as a routine talking point, and ran a series of ads explicitly accusing drug users of supporting terrorism. However, while this campaign wasn’t specifically what I was referring to in the question, it does raise an interesting inference. If anti-drug campaigns have attempted to use largely hypothetical violence targeting Americans as a reason not to purchase drugs but ignored ongoing violence visited on foreigners, the architects of these campaigns must judge that Americans care only for their compatriots. Interesting, indeed.

The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict in Bolivia

Guest post by Danny Hirschel-Burns

The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict in Bolivia (edited).docx

Danny Hirschel-Burns is a rising senior at Swarthmore College and blogs at The Widening Lens. He spent last semester studying in Cochabamba, Bolivia. His month-long final project consisted of interviews with Bolivian academics and political figures, and this post condenses his findings. The full paper, in Spanish, is available here.

The MAS party (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement toward Socialism), which dominates Bolivia’s current government, originated in a mid-1990s confluence of indigenous organizations. In 2005 MAS won its first presidential election, with candidate Evo Morales elected to the presidency, and has been in power ever since. I started this project with the desire to understand how MAS managed to gain power and form one of the most stable governments in Bolivia’s history in the span of less than twenty years. Despite its position of relative strength MAS’ governing coalition remains fraught with conflicts and contradictions, so I also sought to contextualize these issues within the framework of movement governments produced when social movements win elections. My research found that historically divergent forms of indigenous political organization, combined with perceptions of electoral politics and the collapse of the Bolivian right, set the stage for conflicts within MAS. Finally, the comparative section of my paper highlights the importance of the transition period between a social movement and the government it produces.

Led by workers’ unions, the revolution of 1952 signaled the end of the old order in Bolivian politics and the beginning of the liberal nationalist era. Bolivia’s unions grew stronger in the post-revolutionary era, and the popularity of this model led to the formation of many indigenous peasant (campesino) unions that stressed the importance of individual land ownership. While some of these organizations were quite democratic, verticalism, personalism, and patronage were also common. This new type of indigenous organization conflicted with the older version, the ayllu, which was based around communal land led by community councils rather than a separate hierarchy. Significant diversity has always existed within these two forms of social mobilization, and many of the conflicts within MAS stem from these differing traditions.

Another major pre-election factor responsible for post-electoral conflict was the formation of MAS as a “political instrument”, rather than a political party. During the mid-1990s Bolivian society experienced a crisis of confidence in political parties and the political system, which provided an opportunity for an ambitious indigenous force, spurred on by repression from both the government and the DEA, to gain a political foothold. Bolivians’ distrust of political parties made it unwise — and from MAS founders’ perspective, counterproductive — to style their new coalition as a traditional political party. The political instrument MAS was an attempt to do away with the bureaucracy and verticalism associated with political parties. But its lack of a defined organizational structure meant that as the pressures of victory necessitated the formation of a bureaucracy and a division of labor, MAS’ most powerful coalition partners (who mostly came from the union tradition) took the lead. This ad hoc structure meant that institutional channels for weaker coalition partners to challenge the growing power of Evo Morales and his circle of advisors, the coca growers union, and to a lesser extent other union organizers, were unavailable. Despite concrete attempts by more powerful partners to consolidate power, much of the concentration of power around Evo Morales was the unintended consequences of political success. Today, the flows of political power within MAS are informal, and official titles matter less than the relationship between individual leaders and Evo. While various organizations still have the ability to strongly influence government policy, MAS and the Bolivian government are dominated by Evo and his small circle of middle-class non-indigenous advisors.

A portion of my project was a comparative section in which I used political theory and two movement government case studies — specifically, post-communist Poland and South Africa after Apartheid — to contextualize the Masista experience in Bolivia. My central conclusion was that the transition period is crucial in determining the type of government social movements ultimately produced. Firstly, elite-driven transitions that do little to incorporate the public are likely to produce centralized governments unable or unwilling to respond to the demands of the people. Secondly, the longer the period of transition, the more likely the chances are that a representative government will form. Longer transition periods provide the opposition with more time to organize and include the public, and government repression harms the possibility of this positive organization. Finally, if movements can clearly articulate their post-transition goals before the transition is actually made, there is a lower chance of subsequent intra-coalition conflict.

In these respects, Bolivia was quite lucky. Unlike in Poland and South Africa, the transition took the form of an election (in South Africa, I’m referring to the end of Apartheid rather than the 1994 elections) which allowed for popular participation. The transition period, defined as MAS’ rise between 1995-2005, was also quite long. While coca growers suffered severe repression, previous Bolivian governments made little attempt to repress MAS as an organization. Lastly, though many groups didn’t foresee getting screwed by MAS, there was a publicly-well understood to-do list when MAS was elected. While Bolivia under MAS is not the utopian movement government Vice President Garcia Linera claims it to be (the logic of social movements and governments is contradictory), it arguably has done better than South Africa and Poland in forming a representative democracy partially due to favorable transitional conditions.

The 2009 near-total collapse of Bolivia’s political opposition was the final factor that allowed for MAS’ consolidation of power. While this collapse mostly affected the right, other sectors also suffered. In-fighting, the failure of the Santa Cruz autonomy movement, the lack of a viable opposition leader, MAS’ popularity, and the new government’s political cunning all divided and severely weakened opposing parties. This collapse allowed MAS to further tighten its circle of support, and to dispense with coalition partners that it didn’t have much in common with anyway. The lack of any potential political challenger has put MAS in a position of relative strength for a Bolivian government.

A second cause for MAS’s near-hegemonic political position is the historical exclusion of indigenous people in the Bolivian political scene. While many indigenous people are frustrated with MAS’ policies, they realize that they are in the best position they’ve ever been in, the alternatives are worse, and working for change within the system is the best policy (MAS has opened up more institutional channels for indigenous social organization participation than any previous administration). An anecdote that best conveys this reality was relayed to me by a Bolivian sociologist, who in an interview quoted an older indigenous woman in El Alto: “Evo can screw up for 500 years and we will continue to support him.” Despite the frequent civil conflicts between MAS and indigenous organizations (a massive series of strikes and roadblocks ground the western half of Bolivia to a near halt a month ago), indigenous civil society mostly works in a way that does not directly challenge MAS’s claims to power, and MAS has become quite adept at knowing its own limits. It is difficult to forecast where a challenge strong enough to topple MAS will come from.

Many leftists academics, including some I interviewed, argue that despite MAS’ indigenous roots, its policies (for example, the marginalization of lowland indigenous groups) are anti-indigenous. However, this critique essentializes indigenous identity by assuming that (monolithic) indigenous people have a destiny fundamentally different from the rest of society. They are anti-modern, and in the case of Bolivia, inhabit rural spaces and practice more “traditional” forms of living. The reality is more complicated. Lowlanders’ loss of power under the MAS government stems from nationwide political dynamics and differing political history between lowlanders and highlanders; the latter form the base of MAS. Another issue many harp on as an example of Evo’s faulty indigenous credentials is his neoliberal and extractive economic policies. The first is the result of the needs of his base: the coca growers (Evo is a former coca grower himself) need a market to sell their product, and therefore neoliberalism, combined with limited government welfare, suits them nicely. The second is a result of pressure from indigenous groups who see environmental damage from mining and hydrocarbon extraction as less harmful than failing to exploit these resources. In and of itself, neoliberal economics policies are not incompatible with an indigenous identity. While some of MAS’ discourse does essentialize what it means to be indigenous for its own political gain, accusing it of being anti-indigenous is hardly valid.

Ultimately, MAS’ social movement origins, Bolivia’s indigenous political tradition, the 1990s political collapse, pressures of electoral victory, and the disintegration of the opposition are the five main factors that have brought MAS to where it is today. While its position at the top is remarkably stable, it will need to find a way to better incorporate indigenous social organizations in the future to retain its grip on power.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, 16th century. Via Wikimedia.

Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, 16th century. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Why aren’t Brazilians more inclinded to promote the secrets of their success?

Alireza Nader looks at the Supreme Leader’s hand in Iran’s upcoming election.

A new overview of the US military’s Pacific-focused AirSea Battle concept. Robert Farley compares the new concept to it’s Cold War-era AirLand Battle predecessor.

Kevin Lees argues that the appointment of Susan Rice as national security advisor and Samantha Power as UN ambassador heralds a new era of liberal interventionism. Suzanne Nossel asks how Power’s support for human rights-minded military intervention will change US foreign policy, and Fred Kaplan explains that Rice’s appointment makes her the most powerful member of the Obama foreign policy team.

Earlier this week I rounded up links to writing on foreign policy and conflict for Political Violence @ a Glance.

A fun look at dialect differences across the United States.

This reading of Star Trek: Deep Space 9’s depiction of Benjamin Sisko’s command strikes me as flawed. Rob Briken has a hilarious take on the new Star Trek movie’s many, many plot holes [spoilers].

Vieux Farka Touré – Ay Bakoy.