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“The Importance and Role of Women in Development: A Panel Discussion” – Live Blog

Women vote in South Sudan’s referendum on independence. 09/01/2011. UN Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran.

Women vote in South Sudan’s referendum on independence. 09/01/2011. UN Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran.

Welcome to the live blog of tonight’s Prospect event, “The Importance and Role of Women in Development: A Panel Discussion“, which is being co-hosted by the Model UN at UCSD. Together with Prospect Editor-in-Chief Megan Magee, I’ll be relaying tonight’s discussion. I hope you enjoy.

Our panelists:

  • Prashant Bharadwaj is a professor of economics at UCSD. Professor Bharadwaj received his Ph.D. from Yale University, and focuses on labor and developmental economics. He has written extensively on the economic effects of the partition of British India.
  • Nancy Gilson is the Director of Academic Degree Programs at UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. Dr. Gilson received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, and at UCSD, Dr. Gilson has taught courses on immigration, the politics of race and ethnicity, civil liberties and civil rights law, and social policy and gender. In addition to her academic work, Dr. Gilson has worked in the UCSD and IR/PS administrations.
  • Jay Silverman is is a Professor in the Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine, at the UCSD School of Medicine. Dr. Silverman’s academic work focuses on the public health consequences of gender-based violence against adolescent and adult women, and he has advised the WHO, UNAIDS, and UNDP.

Dr. Bharadwaj starts off with a presentation, “Growing Pains – Health and Education Challenges Faced by Young Women in India”. Professor Bharadwaj begins by explaining that health and education are important for economic growth, and are extremely important inputs in determining whether countries grow wealthier or remain in poverty traps. Because women comprise half of the population in most countries, their welfare is an extremely important aspect of development. However, women in developing countries face incredible challenges in access to health and education.

Dr. Bharadwaj begins by exploring gender discrimination in prenatal care in India, which is a relatively under explored channel of sex discrimination. Because of the widespread availability of ultrasound technology in modern India, even poor families can often determine the gender of their child early in pregnancy. Early life health is important for later life success, making prenatal gender discrimination detrimental to future human capital. Even if sex selective abortion — the most extreme form of prenatal gender discrimination — can be prevented, more mild differential levels of prenatal care can still have long term impacts on gender equity. Mothers in India are 1.1 percentage points more likely to visit antenatal clinics when pregnant with a boy, and in northern India mothers are 4.6 percent more likely to visit antenatal clinics when pregnant with a boy, and are 3% more likely to receive tetanus shots. Even more severely, they are 16% more likely to deliver in a non-home environment. This same discrimination appears in China, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even in the womb, female babies are discriminated against. This tendency towards gender-differentiated levels of prenatal care become more extreme for mothers that have already had two or three girls. Women with existing female children devote enormous effort to ensuring the health of a male fetus, while often neglecting female fetuses.

Indian law actually forbids telling expecting parents the sex of a fetus, but these laws are often flagrantly violated. There aren’t credible alternative explanations for these findings. Male fetuses do not medically require higher levels of care, nor is there any evidence of a recollection bias by Indian parents that would prompt them to recall providing more prenatal care for male children, even if they actually did not.

Dr. Bharadwaj continues by outlining his work examining educational challenges for females in India and Bangladesh. Many female students are thought to drop out of school early due to early marriages. While India and Bangladesh’s female school enrollment in quite high, years of schooling actually attained by women is low. Because the average age of marriage is 17, early marriage is a likely candidate to explain low educational attainment. Evidence from India and Bangladesh suggest that girls get married soon after puberty. Girls that reach puberty earlier tend to drop out earlier, hinting that the marriage channel plays a role in low education attainment. What can policymakers do to correct this? Raising the legal age of marriage seems like a reasonable policy prescription. However, only 35% of Indian women are report knowing the minimum age of marriage when polled, suggesting that legal marriage ages play little role in actual marriage practices, and raising the actual age Indian and Bangladeshi women marry will likely be challenging.

Next up in Dr. Nancy Gilson, with “What Does it Mean to Be “Equal” In a Diverse World: Defining Gender”. Analytically, it is widely accepted that gender equality is a universal good, but what it means to talk about equality in one setting isn’t necessarily applicable in another setting. Issues of gender equality are of paramount importance to human welfare. The World Bank, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, World Health Organization and investment bank Goldman Sachs have all argued that gender inequality hurts economic growth. CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, was adopted by the UN in 1979, though it was not ultimately ratified by the United States.

CEDAW is emblematic of the first form of assault on discrimination against women through legal channels. But this isn’t sufficient — inequality should be seen as a collection of disparate and interlinked problems that sometimes work against each other: that is, fixing something in one area can lead to a problem in another realm. Divorce law in the US is a key example of this complexity. Despite efforts to create more equitable US divorce law, women remain more likely to fall into or remain in poverty after divorce, and still bear the majority of child care burdens. Legal efforts to reverse these disparities have been unsuccessful.

The situation in developing countries is similarly complex. Efforts to increase female education attainment by simply encouraging more girls to attend school are typically unsuccessful, because social biases — often prejudice against menstruation — make it difficult for girls to remain in school.

Today US women are more economically independent and richer than they used to be, but it’s important to note that other women are still paid to take care of the children of working women, ultimately perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Women remain stuck between a “sticky floor and a glass ceiling” — US women remain responsible for 80 percent of child care, while working equally long hours in the board rooms. When developed world women work more and are still expected to do the majority of child rearing they just sleep less — chronic sleep-deprivation is an increasingly severe problem for US women.

Attempt to combat gender inequality must be based on local contexts. This isn’t to say that gender discrimination is ever acceptable — women aren’t a cultural minority, but rather half of the world’s population! Gender can be self-defeating if you view it as simply adding or changing society by means of policy or law. Any argument about rights must be somewhere in the middle of relativism and universalism.

Last up is Dr. Silverman, with “Gender-based Violence against Women and Girls: A Major Barrier to Health”. Between 15 and 76 percent of women ages 15-49 across the globe experience Intimate Partner Violence at some point in their lifetimes. Intimate partner violence (IPV) has a major impact on global health. Women who are abused during pregnancy are much more likely to give birth to preterm or underweight children, and children born into abusive households are more likely to suffer from major morbidities. Women who are abused have much less control over their reproductive health and contraception, and IPV is a major factor in unwanted pregnancy and adolescent pregnancy.

Early marriages are also more likely to be violent. In India half of all girls are married under the age of 18, and 20 percent under the age of 16. Girls married young are more likely to die in childbirth, and are more likely to give birth to children with poor health outcomes.

Women in abusive marriages are at greater risk of STIs and HIV. Part of the abusive mindset includes the mentality that it is permissible to take risks with extramarital relations and abuse children. Abusive men’s tendency to attempt to control women violently extends to sexual control, and abusive men are more likely to practice unsafe sex. While India is not considered a high prevalence country for HIV, and enormous number of Indians — 2.5 million people — are infected with the virus. Heterosexual sex is the dominant transmission route, and married women comprise a larger and larger percentage of cases. Men’s sexual behavior is implicated in spousal transmission, and men who violent towards their partners are much more likely to engage in sexual activity outside of their marriages.

What can we do to reduce this risk? Community-based education program can be effective at reducing HIV transmission rates by increasing women’s ability to negotiate with abusive husbands’ high risk behavior.

Dr. Bharadwaj closes with an admonishment to the men of UCSD: easily seventy percent of the audience tonight is female, and UCSD males students should show more interest in gender equity issues. We can do better.

We’re now entering our question and answer segment, where our speakers will take question from our live audience and from Prospect’s Twitter followers. Thanks all around, and please continue to check out Prospect’s content and events.

You can follow questions and reactions to this event on Twitter. #prospectevents

nequality should be seen as a collection of disparate and interlinked problems that work against each other — that is, fixing something in one area could lead to a problem in another realm.

Governance Failure in San Diego – An Interview with Steven Erie

By Taylor Marvin

Note: This post is part of a series dedicated to highlighting recent books by UCSD professors.

Dr. Steven Erie

Dr. Steven Erie

Steven P. Erie is a professor of political science and is the director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at UCSD, where he focuses on urban politics and public policy. In addition to Dr. Erie’s academic work, he has also served on the Governor’s Infrastructure Commission and advises San Diego public officials and city leaders. His latest book, Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego, explores the roots of San Diego’s persistent failure to deliver good governance to its citizens. To learn more about the book and government failure in my adopted city, I sat down with Dr. Erie to discuss Paradise Plundered.


Prospect: What motivated you to write Paradise Plundered, and what can you tell me about the book?

Dr. Erie: What motivated me to write [the book] is that I’ve lived in San Diego for 30 years, and in that time I have been involved in a whole lot of civic issues: airports, charter reform, water supply issues, etc. San Diego is a very understudied city; of the top ten cities in the country it’s the least studied, so it’s low hanging fruit. The book, Paradise Plundered, started out as Troubled Paradise, and [originally] was going to be a political biography of an understudied sunbelt city when we started the project in 2006. Over the course of five years as events unfolded, the tone and the title got darker: from Troubled Paradise to Paradise Plundered.

After the 2007 wildfires, I suddenly realized that we were no more prepared to fight major fires in 2007 than we were in 2003. I began to look into that, and realized that San Diego simply didn’t want to pay for fire safety. They wanted somebody else to do it: Cal Fire, or mutual aid with Orange County or Los Angeles County. And then of course the fiscal crisis, the pension scandal, the near permanent budget deficit… The book morphed from a political biography into a much more focused look at the City of San Diego’s fiscal crisis and related government failures. There’s a chapter on redevelopment San Diego style and a peculiar institution in San Diego called the Center City Development Corporation; no other California city has a non-profit corporation that traps all of its tax increment financing downtown. The others are all citywide, and the funding is spread to the neighborhoods, not just kept downtown. There’s a chapter on planning and the legacy projects like the Storybook library and convention center expansion, a new Chargers stadium, a new city hall. How, as we’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, do we go full speed forward with these monumentally expensive city projects downtown, all of them of course at no additional cost to taxpayers? So the book really became focused: four of the six chapters are on the City of San Diego since 1990 covering the fiscal crisis and its impact on public services and governance. And that’s how we ended up with Paradise Plundered, instead of Troubled Paradise.

Prospect: The book characterizes San Diego as America’s most badly governed large city. Can you elaborate on that claim?

Dr. Erie: That’s not the way that San Diego proclaims itself to the world, and actually San Diego won awards for being very well governed in the 1990s. But what we mean by badly governed is is that there is a lack of recognition of what the fundamental problem in this town is, which is the lack of revenue and resources. In the book we benchmark San Diego with the other leading ten American cities — we throw out San Francisco, because it’s a combined city/county, which throws the spending pattern there off — and San Diego today spends fifty percent less per resident on basic public services than just the average of San Jose, Anaheim, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, and the other California cities. Part of our fiscal crisis is self-induced; we want the services, but we don’t want to pay for them. But at the same time, there is San Diego’s aspiration for civic greatness in these huge downtown legacy projects in a time when we’re closing libraries. We have an unaccredited fire department, and are 22 fire stations short of meeting national accreditation standards. We have the smallest police force per capita in the country. This is not Chicago-style corruption, but instead just basically a town that wants public services but doesn’t want to pay for them, and then has to find someone to blame when there are lapses or failure in public service.

I don’t know if you want to call it the most badly governed city in the country, and it’s not an issue of official corruption — a political machine or a dominant party, etc. — it’s the fact that basic public services are not being adequately provided to residents, and we don’t see any solution in sight.

Prospect: What makes San Diego different from other California cities? Why is there such a disconnect between spending and revenue here?

Dr. Erie: There’s a very strong libertarian culture in San Diego, and it goes back quite a ways. We looked at things like voting on tax and bond measures and since 1995 sixty percent of the tax and bond measures — almost all of them requiring a two thirds vote — have been approved in the other California big cities. In San Diego: zero. If you look at city revenue and expenditures you’ll find that San Diego is the only California big city that believed in Proposition 13. Every other California city with a wink and a nod found new revenue: utility taxes, higher business license fees, higher hotel taxes… except San Diego. And that’s one of the reasons that we are in the situation that we are today, where the demand for services so far outstrips the available revenue. But there’s something about the culture here, and the absolute irony is that it’s an absolute contradiction to how San Diego was built. San Diego was built by big government. Look at the military and the State and the University of California [higher education] systems to see how jobs have been created in San Diego! But when it comes to local government there’s this strong libertarian streak, even more than in conservative Orange County. Orange County has a county fire authority, and they’re willing to pay money for it! But somehow in San Diego, there’s a tremendous demand for public services but there’s an incredible unwillingness to pay for it. We call it a free lunch town.

San Diego skyline. Image by Wikimedia user Ted Rufus Ross.

San Diego skyline. Image by Wikimedia user Ted "Rufus" Ross.

Prospect: What lessons can we draw from San Diego?

Dr. Erie: Let’s put it this way: the San Diego way has gone nationwide. San Diego was just an early, eager adopter. It goes back to the 1970s — in the early seventies San Diego’s fiscal profile is virtually identical to other California big cities. You then begin to see a divergence, particularly after 1978 and the passage of Proposition 13, which raised the bar in terms of requiring voter approval on tax increases. Somehow, other places were able to get tax increases anyway because they had leadership that convinced the public that they were an investment in the future. LA County did that to fund their county fire department in the late 1990s to the tune of $900 million, and over 67 percent [of voters] approved. But that’s not the case in San Diego: we don’t have the leadership to tell people “hey you the voters, the emperor — you don’t have any clothes.”

Tax is a four letter word in this town.

San Diego was an early adopter of this kind of free lunch attitude towards local government. What we’ve seen in the last ten to fifteen years is that it has spread throughout the state, and then nationwide. San Diego is just a precursor to an awful lot of national trends.

Prospect: What if anything can residents do to improve city governance?

Dr. Erie: Residents certainly can, but the question is what are they going to do? Right now what’s happening in San Diego is two things: one is that we’re moving towards called managed competition, i.e. city agencies have to compete with outside private firms for things like landfills, garage services, and street repair, with the argument being that the private sector can do it more cheaply. That’s not always the case — the jury is still out on the economic benefits of privatization. The other thing is that the source of the city’s fiscal crisis — its structural budget deficit — has been popularly identified as public employee pensions rather than the gross underspending on basic public services. So we now have a proposal to freeze city salaries for five years and for new hires to move from a defined benefit to a defined contribution program, which is probably going to pass. This is going to make it a lot harder to recruit and retain city workers, when they can go to [neighboring] Chula Vista and get a more generous pension and fringe benefits package.

But the crazy thing is is that people don’t realize that the spike in the pension [costs] and the so called $2.1 billion pension liability today has very little to do with the so-called generous pension programs of the late 1990s, what are called “Managers’ Proposal 1” and “Managers Proposal 2”. Those two [proposals], which increased pension payouts and also some retrospective pensions, only accounts for 15 percent of the $2.1 billion unfunded liability. The vast majority is due to investment losses. Public pension systems decided that there was a free lunch, and went to Las Vegas — Wall Street. That change [shifting pension funds from safe, low-yield investments like bonds and Treasury bills to higher-yield but riskier stocks] is the largest source of the spike in [pension] liabilities, and the pensions’ share of the city budget. The second cause is that we have systematically underfunded and diverted money from the city pension system for years. We underfunded it to pay for things like the Republican National Convention and public safety back in 1996.

The cause of the pension spike is complicated, but to this date it’s not the so-called “Cadillac pensions” of 1996 and 2001. But you’d never know it from reading the newspapers or listening to the debates in this town. [The rhetoric] is all about Cadillac pensions, and the public of power sector unions. Public sector unions were the junior partners in most of these agreements. It was really elected and appointed officials concerned about balancing budgets and not going to voters and using the “t” word — the four letter word “tax” — so they took money out of the pension fund.

Moving forward, there are going to be no revenue increases in the City of San Diego, in terms of new taxes and all of the savings from pension reform are going to be at least twenty years out. But managed competition and pension reform seem t o be the only options on the table. What’s going to happen to basic city services, to libraries, parks, and police and fire? I don’t see any easy solutions, unless some leader is willing to have the cojones to tell the public that if you want these services, you’re going to have to pay for them. And nobody wants to do that.

PROSPECT Connect – “Rethinking the War on Terror” – Live Blog

Welcome to the live blog of tonight’s Prospect event, “Rethinking the War on Terror”. Together with Prospect Editor-in-Chief Megan Magee, I’ll be relaying tonight’s discussion. I hope you enjoy.

  • Michael Provence is Associate Professor in the History Department at UCSD. He has lived and studied in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. He is the author of The Great Syrian Revolt and several articles on the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East in the early 20th century.
  • John Armenta served in the US Army Reserve in a Psychological Operations unit. During his enlistment, Armenta was deployed to Bosnia, Qatar, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Armenta is currently a graduate student in the Communications department at UCSD.
  • Joshua Rich graduated from Texas A&M in 2003 and was commissioned as an officer in the US Navy the same year. Rich graduated from Navy Dive School in 2003 and was later deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal officer. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in International Relations at USD.

Our first question:

“Ten years after the attacks of 9/11, we have seen a dramatic rise in Islamophobia in the US. From the Park 51 mosque debate and the burning of the Quran in Florida, to the controversial congressional hearing in March 2011 on the radicalisation of Muslim Americans, how Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners are perceived in the US has been the subject of heated rhetoric and debate. Are these perceptions important? What effect do they have on the US effort to combat and prevent terrorism?”

To begin, panel member John Armenta argues that the US wastes time, labor and money that could be used to fight terror when we focus instead on promoting Islamophobia, which creates counterproductive generalizations like “even moderate Muslims support terrorism.” If more people think we are at war with Islam, the more these generalizations will happen.

Joshua Rich just related that in his 8 years in military he has experienced mandatory cultural training in all parts of the military to think in the way Mr. Armenta was describing, with civilians in Iraq teaching him and other US servicemembers cultural awareness. A good portion of time is spent training Afghans. Mr. Rich’s troops trained Afghans so there was a sense of responsibility for them in his units; “if we didn’t teach them the right way they would die.” As Mr. Rich says, he started appreciating cultural differences – training is one thing – “but we developed friendships with the interpreters and camaraderie with the soldiers.”

Dr. Provence emphasizes that John and Joshua have both made good points. When US soldiers go to foreign countries and meet people, it’s hard to not imagine them as human beings. “Islamophobia starts at the top.” and the events that triggered the events of the last ten years is something the United States need to critically examine. 9/11 was a criminal conspiracy, Dr. Provence argues, and the US response to it has been massively out of proportion, at enormous cost to the world. “The last decade was a period of temporary madness on the part of the American political leadership,” Dr. Provence states, and the actions of the Obama Administration have demonstrated that the US hasn’t recovered from this mistaken strategy.

Our second question:

“After 9/11 the US looked vulnerable, and the terrorist attacks illustrated a pivotal shift in US foreign policy in the Middle East. The initial reaction to the attacks can be seen in the shift of power towards the US executive branch, and the the last decade has been the US military’s most brutal period of sustained combat since the Vietnam War. How effective have US military efforts to combat Islamic terrorism been? Which tactics and strategies have been effective, and which have not?”

How effective has the US military been at combating Islamic terrorism in the decade since 9-11?
Dr. Provence responds that he does not know the answer to this question. He explains that if the definition, hypothesis, or thesis in a paper are flawed, if the premise is wrong when asking a question, you cannot access the truth value of an argument. With a faulty structural premise for the war on terror, there is basically nothing good that can come of occupying countries militarily.
For Josh: would you like to mention what it was like in Afghanistan with regards to the question?
Josh argues that not all hope is lost. We aren’t handling Afghanistan in the same way we handled the Vietnam war, where the strategy was to kill as much as possible. The tactic that is working and will work is training Afghans and engaging in special operations. 16,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam and we are nowhere near that, though there were surely mistakes made during the Afghan war. The situation in 2001 held better prospects and opportunity – the military had defeated the Taliban – and where we have ended up is a shame.
What tactics and strategies have been effective, and which have not?
What are some of the costs and benefits of controversial US strategies like drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Dr. Provence replies that he doesn’t personally know the answer to this question. Instead, he answers with a metaphor: if the definition, hypothesis, or thesis in a paper are flawed, if the premise is wrong when asking a question, you cannot access the truth value of an argument. With the faulty structural premise of the war on terror, the likelihood of a successful outcome of US military operations in the Middle East becomes vanishingly small.

For panelist Joshua Rich:

“Would you like to mention what it was like in Afghanistan with regards to the question?”

Mr. Rich argues that not all hope is lost. We aren’t handling Afghanistan in the same way we handled the Vietnam war, where the strategy was to kill as much as possible — the famous “body count” logic. The tactic that is working and will work is training Afghans and engaging in special operations. Roughly 50,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam and the US is nowhere near that level of losses in the Iraq and Afghan wars, though mistakes have certainly been made. The situation in 2001 held better prospects and opportunity — the military had defeated the Taliban — and where we have ended up is a shame.

Mr. Armenta argues that we have always faced the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan the fact that local people are against US military intervention. Counterinsurgency, while imperfect, seems to be a better way to address issues. Helping people by taking support away from terrorists, even if they don’t fully support the US, is valuable. There will always be groups and individuals who refuse to surrender, and that’s where counterterrorism comes in.

Next question:

“What are some of the costs and benefits of controversial US strategies like drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan?”

Drones (like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper) are primarily built here in the San Diego area, Dr. Provence points out, so they affect our economy directly. Other costs and benefits of drone warfare are more abstract. The cost of the War on Terror to each world citizen is high — a gallon of gas now costs $4 whereas it cost far less in 2002 — a price increase Provence argues is due to the War on Terror. The cost of conflict is immeasurably high.

The costs in soldiers, as John Armenta argues, isn’t high, but the cost in dollars is extremely high. On the same theme Dr. Provence points out that one year of defense appropriations — not war — would be sufficient to fund every one of the 10 University of California campuses with nobody paying tuition for 52 years. That is less than $1 trillion dollars, which helps to put the wartime propagated debt of $5 trillion into perspective. Dr. Provence remarks that he can see from the audiences’ faces that they are unhappy to hear this, as he is.

Joshua Rich argues that one benefit of US war spending is that many Soldiers, Sailors, Airman, and Marines have acquired the opportunity for a paid education that they would not have otherwise enjoyed.

Returning to the cost/benefit dilemma of drone warfare, Mr. Rich remarks that small drones are cheaper than an M-16, allowing for significant cost reductions. Similarly, the flexibility of drones means that US service members now have a ‘middle option’ of taking out the bad guys instead of civilians.

Mr. Armenta responds that while drones can be used well, they make war too easy and too cheap. It enables the removal of ground troops in favor of just one Airman to fly in and push a button. This logic has the potential to lower the costs of war, lowering the psychological threshold required to go to war and perhaps making politicians more likely to enter conflicts.

Final question:

“We now examine the extent to which America’s national security is impacted by the perception of the US in the Islamic world. In the decade after 9-11, it has become apparent that the perceptions of the US in the Islamic world have a direct impact on US security. The argument goes that the United States’ relationship with countries in the Middle East would have a direct correlation with eradicating terrorist groups. So, it is important to ask: how can the US government work to improve these relationships?”

John Armenta responds that it is important to put yourself in another’s shoes, and the US political establishment must agree not to do anything that is overtly racist and hateful. Unfortunately, Mr. Armenta argues, this is not going to happen. He references the so-called Ground Zero mosque and American reactions, and how Muslims witnessed anti-Muslim sentiment in the US and felt that it was a larger element of American opinion than it was. This is because the voices of bigots sometimes stood out above the others. However, some religious authorities came forward and attacked anti-Islamic sentiment. The key is to establish empathy with the other.

Thanks for tuning in, and apologies to our speakers — due to the constraints of blogging live, this live blog doesn’t do their comments full justice. We’re now entering our questions and answers segment, where our speakers will take questions from our live audience and a from our Twitter followers. Thanks all around, and please continue to check out Prospect’s content and events.

You can follow question and reactions to this event on Twitter, #prospectconnect.

Update: Mildly edited for clarity — due to being written live, some phrasing was unclear or incomplete. Apologies for any confusion.

Unraveling the Arab Spring

By Taylor Marvin

Image by Flickr user Kodak Agfa, modified by Wikimedia user Jbarta.

Image by Flickr user Kodak Agfa, modified by Wikimedia user Jbarta.

The events of the Arab Spring have rocked the world. In less than a year, unprecedented democratic protests across the Arab world have unseated autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt, threatened the ruling regimes in Syria and Bahrain, and sparked the Libyan civil war that overthrew the brutal government of Muammar Qadaffi. However, the Arab Spring is still unfolding, and its ultimate outcome in many Arab countries is still uncertain. Important questions remain: what factors caused these protest movements to unfold so dramatically, and are they likely to continue in the future? Similarly, the Obama Administration’s response to the Arab Spring remains controversial, both in the US and abroad. To answer some of these questions, I was able to sit down with UCSD history professor Dr. Michael Provence, an expert on Middle Eastern history and author of The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism to discuss the causes and future of the Arab Spring.

Prospect: Many Middle Eastern countries have had a long history of stable autocratic governments, at least for the last thirty years. What conditions, in your opinion, allowed a mass democratic protest movement like the Arab Spring to emerge now for the first time in decades?

Middle Eastern countries have a long history of stable autocratic governments. What conditions,
in your opinion, allowed a mass democratic protest movement to emerge for the first time in
2. It has been frequently

Dr. Michael Provence

Michael Provence

Dr. Provence: It seems that there were lots of things that coalesced. There is the demographic issue of young population who are educated and worldly and engaged in digital media, paying attention to the news and who are not well employed — either unemployed or underemployed. Additionally, there is the issue of official corruption which has been made more front and center by WikiLeaks releases, and there’s the likelihood that governments in the region will be passing succession to people who are younger, and considered unqualified and extremely corrupt like President Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak in Egypt. These feed the belief that things will not get better, because the people who are in power will continue to subvert the system to make themselves rich and deny everyone else a voice.

Governments have responded to these movements — which are in the eyes of most people legitimate — with delusion, violence, and repression, responses that have undermined their legitimacy.

Prospect: How important would you say that communications technologies like mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter have been the success of the these protest movements? Could the Arab Spring have happened without them?

Dr. Provence: There were protest movements before we had [these technologies] and there would have been protest movements if we didn’t, but they would not have been the same. One thing that’s interesting is that in Syria, where there’s no unofficial media and no journalists that aren’t working for the government, people have combated, undermined, challenged and critiqued the official narrative of events with digital technology — with their cell phone cameras, with videos, with media that they’ve uploaded to Facebook immediately. In some cases they’ve done this as soon as an official version is broadcast and they’ve become quite sophisticated, and far more sophisticated than the government in the use and manipulation of this technology. So uprisings would have happened, but they would have been different uprisings in important ways.

Prospect: Do you think that mass protests are going to become a much more common feature of Arab politics in the future?

Dr. Provence: It’s hard to say. I doubt it, and I think the best thing that one could hope for would be more just, more representative and more equitable political configurations would emerge; one can say more democracy, more representation and less corruption and succession by election. If these things do not emerge, and I hope that they do, people will protest. In Egypt people have protested for a long time. I visited Egypt a few years ago, and at that time people were protesting the price of bread. The IMF had told the Egyptian government that it had to reduce the subsidies on the price of bread — bread was subsidized heavily — and it’s what people eat if they’re poor. There are a lot of poor people in Egypt, and the government said ‘we have to serve the IMF, they hold our loans and if we don’t do what they say we won’t get more’ so they cut the subsidy on bread. People couldn’t buy bread, they couldn’t eat, so they went out onto the streets. Those kind of protests take place and a lot of times we don’t hear or know about them but they are happening, and they will probably continue to happen.

Now, what the protesters today would say and what some people said then, especially politically engaged people, was ‘this is the government of Egypt, we’re Egyptians, and the government is serving the IMF and not serving us. Bread subsidies are something we need to survive, and they [the government] should preserve them’. This is a pretty potent argument, and arguments like that will continue to be made.

Prospect: Governments’ responses to these democratic protests have varied widely in their use of violence, from the relatively moderate response of the Tunisian government to the widespread brutality of the Syrian and Libyan regimes. What factors would you say explain this variation?

Dr. Provence: It probably has to do with the degree of integration between the ruling establishment and those elements of the government that are endowed with coercive and repressive force. In the case of Libya and Syria, the intelligence agencies and the special division within the military’s destinies, well-being and interests are intimately bound up with the government. There’s no seam there. In Tunisia and Egypt this really wasn’t the case. In Libya and Syria if the government falls, the army falls, and the leadership of the army will be denied their privileges, may be objects of vengeance from their neighbors and may even become international criminals. A lot of these people don’t have Swiss bank accounts, so when the government says ‘you rise with me, you fall with me’, this is an argument that they take seriously.

In Tunisia and Egypt that situation didn’t exist. There were civil society organizations and institutions that were not fully hollowed out by the government, and consequently there was some argument to be made that the Army could preserve itself: the government can change, but the Army can preserve its privileges. In Syria and Libya that wasn’t the case.

Syrians protest in Hama, July 22. Image by Flickr user syriana2011, via Wikimedia.

Syrians protest in Hama, July 22. Image by Flickr user syriana2011, via Wikimedia.

Prospect: Speaking specifically about Egypt, one interesting theory argues that the Egyptian military’s close ties to the US military, specifically that a large portion of the Egyptian officer corp was educated at US military colleges, has been a moderating influence on its response to the protests. Do you find this theory credible?

Dr. Provence: No. American military officers don’t have any problem killing Iraqi civilians, so I don’t find it credible. I don’t think that the US is a singularly enlightened element in the training of officers, actually. Sadly, that’s they way we’d like to believe it, but I don’t think that’s supported by the facts. I think that the armies in those situations are independent state institutions in the same way that the army in this country is an independent state institution with independent collective interests. The main one is survival and preservation of their social privileges and their prestige. So at some point the army in Tunisia and Egypt said that this guy is costing us more than we’re benefiting from him, and he should go. It seems likely that as a recipient of a colossal amount of American aid the Obama administration was able to make plenty of calls to generals and say, ‘listen, you don’t have to go, but he has to go. And if you help him go in an orderly way the Egyptian Army will still be in our good books. We have a relationship with you, and this isn’t going to damage it’. Those telephone calls were probably not made by the US Army, because the Army here, as in Egypt, isn’t supposed to be involved in politics. Those calls were made by people in the State Department, in the Central Intelligence Agency, and by people in the Administration. But those contacts that existed between the [Egyptian] Army and the US Embassy, the State Department and the CIA, those were the operative relationships, and they didn’t come out of being trained together at West Point and so on.

Prospect: Would you say that the United States’ lack of a diplomatic presence in Syria for most of the last decade has been a mistake in light of the events of the past year?

Dr. Provence: I thought it was a mistake at the time. There were many reflexive boneheads in Congress and the White House who said ‘our Iraq policy is a disaster and the Syrians are to blame, so we have to punish them and they way we punish them is recalling our ambassador’. It hurt the US much more than it hurt the Syrians. So it was dumb policy, and it’s possible that if there had been five or six years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Syria at a higher level, then the United States might have had more influence. But it’s probably unlikely. The French never left — the French are very engaged with what happens in Syria, and always have been — and as far as I know Assad isn’t even taking Sarkozy’s calls. So it might not have made any difference.

Prospect: How would you asses the Obama Administration’s response to the Arab Spring. What did they do right, and in your opinion what could they have done better?

Dr. Provence: Well, I think that they dealt with Libya and Tunisia quite well, far better than the previous administration would have done. I think that there is a tendency to support our dictators until they don’t do us any good, but we should take a lesson from the Egyptian Army. I think that there were plenty of people within the Obama Administration, likely including the Secretary of State and possibly the Secretary of Defense, who were critical of cutting Mubarak loose. But this was a losing hand. Supporting these people after their entire population had turned against them for legitimate reasons would have been a stupid policy. The United States is not exactly covered in glory in the Middle East in any sense of the word, but being against popular movements of democratic protest is a place that policymakers shouldn’t want to be, and they shouldn’t choose pliable dictators over demonstrating public movements, ever.

So the [US] government deserves some credit for that — for being smart and agile in dealing with Egypt. In Syria they can’t do anything and they haven’t done very much. Robert Ford, the [US] ambassador went to Hama and probably kept some people from getting killed. That’s about the [most] they can do. I think the bombing of Libya was done for reasons that have to do with French politics mostly. It was an unfortunate situation: Qaddafi was extremely unpopular, and it would have been better to maintain a coalition of states including the Arab League, because if that had happened and the Libyans had been able to kick him out by themselves — and they might have been able to, and I don’t think it it’s conclusive that they wouldn’t have been able to — with just a no fly zone, that would have been better. If the Libyans had done it themselves it would have been better for them and everyone else, and it would have preserved a bit of credibility of the Western countries — of France, of the UK and the US — that is gone. When the next crisis emerges and there is felt to be a need to act, they won’t be able to get anyone behind them. The other thing that bothers me about Libya is that people on the right who are in France, England, and the US who are always eager to prosecute a Middle Eastern war will feel this was a success and that they can do it again because it’s actually the disastrous failures of the past that are the anomaly, and this proves that they can go work their magic with a bunch of bombs and have a good outcome. I think this is dangerous self-delusion.

The Future of the PLAN and Chinese Grand Strategy

The ex-Varyag. US Navy photo.

The ex-Varyag. US Navy photo.

By Taylor Marvin

In August the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) begun sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, a modernized former Soviet ship termed the ex-Varyag in Western media. The launch of an aircraft carrier, a prestigious military asset essential to effective power projection, is one of the most visible aspects of China’s ambitious military modernization effort that includes the development of a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft and the acquisition of advanced anti-ship missiles.

The Chinese military’s aggressive modernization program have been viewed with widespread apprehension in the US, with the Wall Street Journal heralding the launch of the ex-Varyag “a defining moment in its effort to become a top-tier naval power that seeks to challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia and protect Chinese economic interests that now span the globe.” However, China’s military and Communist Party leadership is notoriously secretive, and the exact nature of China’s military modernization effort remains controversial. Hoping to explore this topic, I sat down with Dr. Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on Chinese defense issue and the author of Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy and China’s Entrepreneurial Army to discuss the significance of the ex-Varyag, PLA modernization efforts, and the future of China’s grand strategy.

Prospect: China recently launched its first aircraft carrier. This event has drawn heavy attention in the United States and the Western media, with many commentators characterizing it as a watershed moment in China’s military rise. How would you describe the significance of the ex-Varyag, and do you see it as a credible symbol of Chinese military development?

Dr. Cheung.

Dr. Cheung.

Dr. Cheung: That’s a big question, and you can look at it from a number of different perspectives. Of course, from a symbolic perspective the aircraft carrier is a very potent symbol because it is a symbol of power projection, industrial capability, and the ability to integrate and apply critical elements of military technological and industrial capability. But the problem for China, and in particular the Chinese Navy, is that it’s very much a mixed symbol. This aircraft carrier isn’t something that originated in China, but was acquired from the Ukrainians, and it was acquired quite a long time ago. It’s undergone a very difficult and long process to get to its sea trials, which began last month. So in terms of a military and technological perspective the symbolism is much less – it’s a foreign design platform the Chinese have spent a very long time trying to modify, and it’s still a question whether they have been able to successfully incorporate some of their own [technologies] needed to actually turn it into a functioning platform. We see that there are important aspects [already] there such as the ship’s power plant, its radars and some of its launch capabilities but there are still question marks about what they are, and they remain in the experimental phase. The Chinese are incorporating these technologies into the original Soviet platform, so the ship is a hybrid of the two. How much of it is actually derived from the Chinese’s own capabilities is a big question mark, and I think the answer if fairly small. As the media reports about the ship, it’s going to be a very long time before it actually is operational – from undergoing sea trials to being actually launched as an operational aircraft carrier we are talking in terms of five to 10 years.

Overall it is a symbol of a capability that is still in its early stages and while regional countries may worry about the PR side of things, they don’t have to worry from an operational perspective anytime soon. But the Chinese have talked about an aircraft carrier dream for a very long time, and they have been looking at this in a serious was since the 1980s. So to get from where they were to where they are now is a significant step, but we shouldn’t over analyze and over exaggerate what it means from an operational perspective.

Prospect: Reportedly the PLAN is in the process of constructing two new carriers of a completely indigenous design. In your opinion, what can we expect to see in these designs? How do you expect them to compare to the Admiral Kuznetsov-class the ex-Vayag is based on?

Dr. Cheung: Right now there is a lot of speculation, but there is no hard concrete evidence that the Chinese have embarked on their own indigenous carrier program. There are reports, especially from the Japanese media, that Chinese shipyards in Shanghai have been recruiting large numbers of workers. There’s a lot of gossip and circumstantial evidence, but there is no firm proof that the Chinese are building their own carriers. The Chinese government and official news sources have not made any references to this, so it’s entirely speculation and reporting from secondhand sources. We have to be very careful about where the evidence is, but from this speculation the Chinese appear to be embarking on building large size aircraft carriers. When you look at carriers, they come in several different sizes: most countries when they begin to build carriers they tend to make them smaller – less than 10,000 tons – and to focus on helicopter carriers to learn the ropes. Once they do that they move on to what we call medium sized aircraft carriers, [which are] what most countries have now. The Indians, the Brazilians, the Spanish, the Italians, and even the British tend to go for medium sized carries in the 20,000 to 30,000 ton range. Only the US now builds 100,000 ton big carriers.

So for the Chinese to be able to focus on this upper range is an extremely ambitious feat, and it not entirely clear if they can actually do that. You would expect them to follow this sequential evolution, learning to walk before you run. The Chinese are running now. But building a carrier of a very large size requires massive industrial capabilities, and large systems integration capabilities. It’s an ambitious naval and grand strategy to try to match all of that. The Chinese are looking to build large carriers, but I think it would really stretch their technological, industrial and military capabilities to do so, and I’m not quite sure they can actually pull that off. If you look now the largest Chinese naval vessels are 10,000 ton destroyers, and to move that up is a big leap.

Prospect: Building off this, the US Office of the Secretary of Defense recently released their annual report on the state of the Chinese military, which sees these two indigenous carriers potentially entering service as early as 2015. Do you see this as in any way credible?

Dr. Cheung: I see that as very unlikely. In 2011 they have only begun the sea trials of the carrier, and then only for a few days. They didn’t launch any aircraft, and the Chinese don’t actually have any carrier aircraft – they’re still in development. To be able to [operationally use] the carrier platform – to be able to sail extended distances – that’s something the Chinese still have a ways to do. To begin to operate at a sustained level we don’t see any evidence of that. Then, to build a carrier battle group and all the elements that go into that is another challenge, and we don’t see the organizational structures in place for that. There are a lot of components that need to come together. If we look at other countries like the Americans and the British in their formative eras of carrier development this would take decades. For the Chinese to bring all of these elements together will take many years, and to have an aircraft carrier that is able to operate in a warfighting sense is not going to happen for another decade. They may have a carrier that can fly helicopters and is capable of less significant military activities like humanitarian operations in a shorter period of time, but to be able to have an aircraft carrier that can be deployed and fight in a theater of operations like Taiwan is very questionable. Of course it’s in the US military’s interest to hype up the danger of this carrier, because the US defense budget is under stress and as lots of debates about whether the US needs as sizable aircraft carrier capability as it currently involve questions about the Chinese carrier capability.

Prospect: What is actually interesting about the Chinese indigenous carrier program is that it is actually secret, unlike other notable Chinese acquisition programs like the J-20, the J-15, or the ex-Varyag which are nominally secret but are very much marketed for consumption in the West. Do you read anything in this contrast?

Image at

J-20 flight testing. Image at

Dr. Cheung: I think that this is a fairly typical Chinese approach. When they build new programs – assuming these programs are in existence – especially in the early years they really don’t make much announcement. We’ve seen this in their submarine and other naval aviation programs and other aviation programs like the J-10. In their formative periods they really don’t provide much information if any, and it’s only when they come closer to final development and production do they signal and provide more information about these programs. I think that this has a lot to do with the secretive nature of the Chinese system, but it’s also because with these new generation producers there’s often a high risk of failure, as well as a lot of bureaucratic infighting, so they don’t want to release more information until they are confident how good these products are. For example, the J-20 or the ex-Varyag were quite secret in the early stages and leaks emerged only when the Chinese leaders became confident enough to use them as signals to the outside world. I wouldn’t read too much into how secret these carrier projects are, because it is going to be years before they even see the light of day in terms of production.

Prospect: To Western observers watching the growth of the Chinese Navy, the natural comparison is the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. The Soviet Navy was notable for predominantly practicing a sea denial strategy with their focus on attack submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles. Do you see the formation of the Chinese blue water navy in the next decade as focused on an asymmetrical area denial strategy in the western Pacific, or do you see them aiming for a more conventional power projection capability?

Dr. Cheung: If you look in terms of what the core missions and the importance of maritime power is for China itself, then you can begin to sketch out what the Chinese Navy will look like over the long term. Of key importance is to be able to gain control and to deny threats close to its shores and to gain control exclusive economic zones and project power within what they call their first island chain a couple hundred miles offshore. They need to have both sea control capabilities, especially when dealing with smaller powers like Taiwan, Japan, and other neighboring countries, but they also need to have sea denial capabilities when dealing with their principal concern — the US Navy — which has a very dominant maritime presence in the Asia Pacific region. While that is just one key goal, it’s where the Chinese have put a lot of focus, especially given the Chinese Navy’s main concerns in the 1990s and the 2000s deal with the issue of Taiwan and preventing Taiwan from gaining independence and the military contingencies surrounding that they are very much focused on a sea denial capability because they are very much focused on a US or allied intervention in that scenario.

But more broadly, and looking in terms of the next 10 20 and 30 years China is increasingly dependent on trade and its resources from the rests of the world. If you look at where its trade comes from more than 90 percent is seaborn trade, so sea lanes and communications are critical to China’s national and economic health itself. So, sea denial around its shores is one important component, but even more important is the ability to protect these critical sea lanes of communications and the ability to deal with potential blockades in these areas where you can seize choke points in the seas of Malacca and elsewhere is South Asia. So the [goal of] the Chinese Navy, especially with aircraft carriers, is the ability to project power, to defend these sea lanes of communication and its large maritime global interest. The Chinese have been free riding on the US, but as China’s place in the world and its military power grow it doesn’t want to be dependent on the US. I think you will very much see that the Chinese approach will be different from what it was. Their initial motto may have in terms of the first decade of building maritime power may have been similar to what the Soviets were originally, but you have to remember that the Soviets were not a maritime power, they were a continental power. China is fundamentally different in that way, because China is a critical player within the global trading system. In that way it is both a maritime and continental power. So the role sea power is very different.

The Chinese are doing this very much as an incremental approach: first securing and protecting out to their first island chain, and then to the second island chain, and then beginning to project power over a much further distances for economic and trading interests but not having the capabilities to rival the US and other powers beyond China until the medium to longer term.

Prospect: What does it mean for other nations in the region, notably countries like Vietnam and Japan whose long-term strategic goals seems to conflict China’s?

Dr. Cheung: First of all, you do see that there is a naval arms race that is taking place. You see it in acquisitions of submarines, acquisitions of arms with offensive capabilities. The Vietnamese are buying Russian submarines, and are trying to expand their naval air capabilities, and the Japanese with their new mid-term defense programs are moving in that direction [as well], placing more emphasis on their maritime and naval capabilities. We also see this in other Southeast Asian countries like the Koreans and Taiwanese. You are seeing this greater concern. But the problem with these countries is by themselves they are never going to be able to compete against the Chinese. So what else are they going to do? You see  the Japanese moving much closer to the Americans, as are the Vietnamese and some of the other southeast Asians. But that doesn’t really help you over the longer term, because what you get is you spiral into these security dilemmas as the other country builds up and you have an action/reaction sequence. So what you really need to focus upon is you need to work out multilateral areas of discussion and cooperation and to try to find confidence-building measures. We don’t see that yet. There is no trust. And if we don’t begin to see these dynamics of focusing upon building trust mechanisms and defining regional norms of behavior etc. then you are going to get greater spirals, and greater concerns about arms races and and mistrust. That then deepens the potential for confrontation, misunderstandings, and conflict. We are, I think, in for a growing period of tensions, especially in the maritime region, in East and Southeast Asia.

Prospect: It has been suggested that over the past decade the PLA has pursued a more nationalistic, confrontational strategy than the rest of China’s civilian government. Do you find this theory credible, and how would you characterize the state of civil-military relations in China today?

I don’t think that the PLA is a rouge actor in itself. If you look at the PLA today it has increasingly become more professional, and it sees its key role as the guardian of Chinese sovereignty and national prestige. There have been elements within the PLA, some very vocal strategists, who are more vocal in the media expressing what they say are the Chinese military’s views. However, if you look at how Chinese military leaders have expressed themselves and at the deployment of Chinese military power in and around the region and Chinese military power as a component of overall Chinese grand strategy, they’ve taken a fairly modest and balanced approach to pushing for Chinese interests and to showcase Chinese military power. Of course we’ve seen that they can be aggressive in areas that they deem to be in their core interest, such as dealing with Taiwan and increasingly pushing against interference with Chinese sovereignty, like intrusions by US espionage or surveillance and reconnaissance activity around the perimeter of Chinese territory. But you also see that the Chinese military has been fairly cooperative in a number of international fora — in anti-piracy efforts, supplying the UN with peacekeeping troops, and trying to mediate tensions in various areas and also developing multilateral military cooperation organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia and other Asian states, etc. — so you’ve seen that there’s this parallel approach but there’s also assertiveness and an effort to be seen as a cooperative stakeholder in the global military order.

Of course within the overall state of civil military relations the Chinese military have become increasingly seeking to push its interests and it’s not as subservient as it used to be, especially because it wants to have more resources, meaning its defense budgets, to allow it to support this fairly aggressive military modernization. But overall though, especially within the nature of the party army system within China, the military remains very much subservient to the rule of the Communist Party and you don’t see it becoming an independent actor trying to push for its own interests outside of the interests of the Communist Party.

Professor Interviews — David Victor

By Taylor Marvin

David Victor is a professor of political science at UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies specializing in international environmental regulations. Dr. Victor’s latest book, Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet, argues that international attempts to regulate greenhouse gases in large negotiating bodies like the UN are unlikely to succeed and efforts to abate global emissions should be shifted towards more practical regional and local agreements.

Prospect: What motivated you to write Global Warming Gridlock?

Dr. Victor: I have followed the climate issue for nearly three decades.  I wrote this book because the diplomatic community has been working seriously on the climate problem for 21 years and, so far, made almost no progress.  I wanted to understand why diplomacy has failed so badly, where it might had made progress, and find ways to do better.

Prospect: In Global Warming Gridlock, you argue that efforts to negotiate successful international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions have failed because of unrealistic expectations about countries’ actual willingness to abate emissions. Why is this the case?

Dr. Victor: Most environmental diplomacy creates strong incentives for governments to pretend they are doing a lot.  Global warming is no different.  Over the last two decades governments have focused much energy on setting ambitious goals—such as stopping warming at 2 degrees—but not much real effort on achieving those goals.  There are lots of reasons that diplomacy hasn’t made much serious progress, but one reason is that a lot of energy has focused on nice-sounding goals rather than practical action.

Prospect: What could be done to make these negotiations more successful?

Dr. Victor: The book outlines a full plan, but one place to start is to work in smaller groups rather than the UN system, which spans all nations.  Only a dozen countries really matter on climate—they account for 75% of all emissions.  Just getting those dozen to coordinate serious actions will be hard enough.  Getting them to do that with more than 150 others sniping at the margins—as happened in Copenhagen—makes the task of cooperation harder.

Prospect: Are you optimistic about future efforts to combat climate change?

Dr. Victor: Over the next couple decades I am pessimistic.  There are signs that some of the arguments I am making in the book are being implemented in practice—not just because I am making them but more generally because earlier efforts have failed so much that people are looking for new solutions.  Nonetheless, a serious effort working, initially, with the big polluters will take a long time to organize and implement.  Meanwhile, warming emissions will rise.  Over the long term I am a lot more optimistic—mainly because some credible action on emissions now will spur more innovation in low emission technologies.  Almost all environmental problems get solved through technological change.

Prospect: What contributions do you see political science making to climate change mitigation efforts? What influence do you feel academic political science research has on policymakers?

Dr. Victor: Almost all the really hard policy issues are rooted in the topics that political scientists study.  The science and engineering surrounding climate change are important, to be sure, but they are relatively straightforward when compared with the politics.  Politically, this is one of the hardest challenges on the planet.  It requires countries with different interests to spend large resources now to control emissions with benefits that are uncertain and which arise mainly in the future.  Societies generally aren’t good at doing that.  I don’t think the political science community has been properly engaged in this debate, which is a pity because we have learned a lot by studying other areas of international cooperation that can help guide the proper policies on the design of international institutions to address climate change.

Prospect: Many of your previous books focused on the intersection between international regulation and environmental and energy policy. Why do you find this field interesting?

Dr. Victor: In the 1990s many policy analysts took a turn toward “the market.”  We saw markets as institutions that would solve many of our problems.  I am a huge fan of markets, but the politics of setting up markets are often prohibitively difficulty—especially in environmental issues where one of the goals of a market strategy is to make pollution more expensive.  Political forces usually lead governments to choose regulatory systems rather than markets.  And many of the toughest of those problems are international and relate to the energy industry.

Prospect: What attracted you to academia, and did you consider any other careers before becoming a professor?

Dr. Victor: I have looked at a variety of careers, but academia has tremendous intellectual freedoms that, if not squandered, make it possible to pursue lots of diverse ideas.  I have been blessed in that people have let me have an unusual academic career in that much of what I do is linked to practical policy issues and to issues related to business strategy.  I like spending time with companies because it gives you a feel for what real investors—who are risking real money—are thinking about today’s most pressing policy issues.  The investor perspective forces a focus on reality.

Prospect: What advice would you give to students interested in pursing academic careers?

Dr. Victor: Academic careers require a PhD and they require a record of publication and service in the discipline.  While there is a lot of talk these days about interdisciplinary work—and a role for that, to be sure—the disciplines rule on campus.  Young scholars should focus on making a name in their discipline and avoid too many distractions.

Prospect: Your writing has been noted for its style and accessibility, qualities sometimes rare in academic writing. What is your writing process, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Dr. Victor: I had a few mentors in graduate school who were good writers and who took the time to edit my work.  That made a huge difference because it let me see how I could shorten and focus my writing.  I also write a lot of opeds and short articles for policy and popular media, which offers me a chance to test out new ideas.  The oped format is tremendously helpful because it’s just 800 words long.  If you can’t convey your basic message in 800 words then you probably don’t really know what you are talking about.  My main advice to young writers is to let someone who is a good writer edit your stuff and then to edit your stuff yourself.  In my small seminars I require a lot of writing, and at least once a quarter I line edit a portion of each student’s essay to help them see how they can write better.   My field of research is plagued by articles and books that are too long for what they need to say.  Shorter is almost always better.

The Future of the J-20: An Interview With Tai Ming Cheung

By Taylor Marvin

A major goal of China’s aggressive military modernization efforts is the development of a stealth military aircraft that rivals the US F-22. This ambitious development program recently unveiled its first test aircraft, the J-20, and has brought enormous public attention to China’s growing military capabilities. Prospect Blog recently had the chance to sit down with IGCC senior fellow and IRPS professor Dr. Tai Ming Cheung and discuss the future of the J-20 program and Chinese military ambitions. Dr. Cheung is an expert on Asian security, and conducts Department of Defense-funded research on China’s military capabilities and technological potential.

Image at

J-20 flight testing. Image at

Prospect: Where do you see the J-20 program going this decade?

Dr. Cheung: The J-20 is a clear demonstration of China’s intention to catch up with the few countries that have been able to develop stealth aircraft. The US is  the only country so far to field an operational aircraft and the Russians are attempting to develop a stealth aircraft [the T-50], but the Chinese are a very long way behind. The important thing is that this Chinese demonstration means much more in terms of its intent rather than its capabilities at the moment, and the program has a very long way to go. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs with this program, and I don’t think the Chinese will be able to begin to get an aircraft of this type in operational service for at least the next five or 10 years. Even then, what they can produce will be something that is still 10 to 20 years behind what America can produce. But over the longer term the Chinese have made it clear that stealth fighter aircraft, which in many ways are the height of technological military power, are where they want to go. This is an effort to lay claim to that, but it’s clear that they have a very steep path before they get there.

Prospect: Do you think that the Chinese leadership has the motivation to actually go through with this program? They have several alternatives available — the Su-33-derived J-15 naval fighter for one — and funding a domestically developed stealth fighter is so much more expensive than adapting a foreign model. Do you actual see any desire within the Chinese leadership to actually make this an operational aircraft?

Dr. Cheung: When you look at it in terms of Chinese priorities, what their threat issues are, I think that they see this as a very important program and I think that they have invested the political capital to make this work. To be a global military power that is respected and to be able to defend your own security air power is crucial. We’ve seen this in the Gulf and Kosovo and the conflicts that the US has been involved with in southwest Asia where air power has been critical. China sees its main long-term security concerns in peer-to-peer competition with the US and its allies in the region, and air power is clearly a fundamentally critical component of military competition. If the Chinese don’t have the capabilities the US has, especially in stealth, they think that the US will not take them seriously. Given all of these strategic issues, and also because there is so much innovation that would help the military to drive other parts of their modernization programs that are incorporated in stealth aircraft — in terms of composite materials, engineering, and the engines — developing a stealth fighter would allow them to be able to diffuse this knowledge and modernize their forces. So I see this as one of their most important programs to ensure that they are respected as a global military power.

Prospect: Do you see China’s efforts to develop the J-20 as also motivated by India’s stealth aircraft ambitions as well as a desire to militarily compete with the US in the western Pacific?

Dr. Cheung: I think that India is a fairly low priority for the Chinese in terms of its military modernization issues. China does see the Indian’s cooperation with the Russians in the T-50 fighter program, but there India is very much a junior partner mostly providing funding and economic support rather than the engineering and technological capabilities. I don’t see that India plays much of a role in terms of a driver for what the Chinese are doing with stealth aircraft. It’s primarily focused on the US, and the US’s long-term willingness to sell some of its stealth aircraft to its allies, particularly with the F-35. [US Defense Secretary] Robert Gates was in China when the J-20 had its demonstration flight, and he went to Japan immediately afterward and told the Japanese that they should buy is our stealth aircraft. So, what China sees the long-term security dynamics in the region, especially in the air power domain, that the US has the air power but are willing to export it. Japan and Australia are F-35 customers and the Singaporeans have also expressed interest, so the balance is shifting so that if you don’t have a stealth aircraft you’re not going to be top league. So that’s where the main motivation for the Chinese are focused — mostly in East Asia, not South Asia.

Prospect: One of the things most interesting about the J-20 is just how different it is from the American approach to stealth aircraft. It appears to be much bigger, and much more optimized towards a higher warload and range rather than extremely effective stealth. What do you think these features say about China’s strategic outlook?

Dr. Cheung: Well, I think that it’s very early to tell. My view is that this is a technological demonstrator, and it has a long way to go before it’s finalized in terms of the design specifications that would lead to production and deployment. It is very early to say what the Chinese have in mind from where the J-20 is and where it many eventually go, but it is clear that this is a heavy aircraft. If we are to assume that the design that we’ve seen will stay in the same general configuration, it would be primarily a part of China’s forward defense doctrine, intended to be able to defend Chinese territory beyond China’s territorial boundaries and out into maritime areas, so it is intended for power projection capability. But there are a lot of rumors going out that this may not be the only stealth aircraft the Chinese are developing. If you look at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force today there is a mixed configuration in their fighter power arsenal — a mix of heavy type aircraft like the Su-27 and the J-11B — and they also have a large number of much lighter single engine aircraft. So even if they have the J-20 it would indicate that they would additionally pursue a lighter stealth aircraft as part of that overall mix.

Prospect: What changes do you expect to see between the prototype J-20 that we have seen so far and any potential operational variants, five to 10 years down the road?

Dr. Cheung: This is a very difficult issue. The F-22, for example, first came out in the early 1990s and took ten years to move to eventual production. The aircraft itself went through major changes because a decade is a generation, and a generation in technology development is a very long time. So while the overall airframe might seem very similar, in terms of what goes inside it is very different. Additionally, the threat environment can change is well. The F-22 was designed for the Cold War to operate against the Soviet Union, and today there’s a question about what you now employ it for. The Chinese have to deal with a similar question with the J-20 and in another decade or so they might face a different threat environment, whether it’s dealing with the Americans or another threat. The F-22 was an air superiority fighter but today its advocates are trying to emphasize its importance in network-centric warfare, and the F-22’s use as a coordination point for communicating with other aircraft so it’s not just used for fighter superiority but it has other roles and missions. That is what the Chinese might try to look at with the J-20. So it’s not just designed for one role, but it has a lot of other missions it can perform and can change what types of technologies go into it.

Prospect: Would you judge the J-20 as being competitive with American rivals like the F/A-18E/F series and the F-35C?

Dr. Cheung: I think the J-20 is a very different fighter because if it  possesses all the attributes of a genuine stealth fighter — both in terms of its reduced radar signature, ability to supercruise and ability to serve as a major sensor coordinator within the Air Force —that makes it a far more potent aircraft than these fourth-generation fighters like the F/A-18. In that way I don’t think that they would be employed to directly deal with a J-20 type aircraft. The F-35 is also a very different aircraft, since it’s not an air-superiority fighter but is primarily aimed to be a multi-mission aircraft. It doesn’t fly very fast, and it’s not very maneuverable but it is more cost effective and is designed to perform a whole range of missions relatively well but without one role that it does very well. Because it is much cheaper its capabilities are somewhat more limited compared with the F-22, and putting the F-35 against the J-20 would be somewhat different. I think the J-20 is more pitted against the F-22, two much more similar classes of aircraft.

Prospect: It seems like the J-20 displays a deliberate choice between stealth and affordability. The J-20 appears, at least at this point, to be less stealthy than the F-22 and possibly the F-35. What does this choice say about China’s industrial capabilities and future strategic expectations, and what does this say about the operating environment the J-20 is built for?

Dr. Cheung: I think that when making major extrapolations about the J-20’s affordability or stealth we are still in the rounds of speculation which don’t really make much sense until we know more. There’s much more we need to know before we can make these kind of strategic, industrial and political economy assessments.

Prospect: What affect do you see the J-20 having on American military planning? Does this change anything?

Dr. Cheung: It certainly makes the US, especially the Air Force and the Navy that primarily deal with China, a lot more concerned. Whether the J-20 itself or some other variation actually enters service, that the Chinese allowed the flight of the aircraft to be unveiled publicly was a major strategic signal to the US. Now the US in engaged in a major strategic rethink about how to deal with Chinese military power and is now developing a new doctrine, the AirSea Battle doctrine, in which a critical component is how to integrate US air and naval power in dealing with major power threats. So I think the J-20, along with other Chinese military development projects — especially their anti-ship ballistic missiles and other area denial and anti-access capabilities — are the primary concern for US military and strategic planners going forwards, much more than Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prospect: To what degree do you see the Chinese military achieving parity with the US in the western Pacific in the next 30 years?

Dr. Cheung: Well 30 years is a very long time, and I think that the Chinese military power today has a very long way to go compared to where the US is. For the next 10-20 years the main Chinese focus is on asymmetric warfare. They don’t want any kind of head-to-head confrontations with the US, so they’re primarily focused on finding what vulnerabilities the US has, whether in US naval power projection in terms of forward deployed naval forces or military satellites and communications systems. But much further down the line, after 2030, if current strategic, economic and military trends continue the Chinese may have a far stronger economic base that’s more innovative and technologically developed they may begin to challenge the US. Not necessarily in the whole of the western Pacific, but in what the Chinese call their first and second island chains, the areas closer to continental Asia. Here they may be able to make a major challenge in terms of pushing back US preeminence. Going beyond that into to the Western Pacific closer to the US, I think the US will continue to have a major dominance in that area and I don’t see the Chinese being able to challenge further out beyond that for a long time.

Note: Previous Prospect coverage of the J-20 can be found here and here.

Professor Interviews — Darren Schreiber

By Taylor Marvin

UCSD is home to world-class faculty doing groundbreaking research in a dizzying variety of fields. However, many UCSD students are unaware of the work their professors do outside the classroom, and are often completely ignorant of research going on in departments outside their own. This post is the start of a series where Prospect Blog will interview UCSD professors, discussing their work, intellectual interests, and advice for students. While Prospect is a journal of international affairs, I intend to host professor from a variety of academic fields with research relevant to the international community. For this first installment, Prospect sat down with political science professor Dr. Darren Schreiber .

Dr. Schreiber

Dr. Schreiber

Prospect: You once worked as a practicing lawyer. What motivated you to make the shift into academia?

Dr. Schreiber: Being a lawyer wasn’t that interesting.When I was 23 and was still in law school I had a three day jury trial on a constitutional law issue in a federal court, and it was really cool. What I realized as soon as I graduated law school and actually started working as a lawyer was that that experience when I was 23 would probably never happen again, and I’d already done the most exciting thing I would ever do in a legal career. After practicing for a year and having tried a bunch of different aspects of law — the firm that I was in was a general practice law firm, so I got to do everything from worker’s comp cases all the way up to multi-million dollar corporate litigation and wrongful death cases and everything else in between — I realized was that every evening when I was coming home from my work I would be essentially doing what I’m doing now. I’d be reading the kind of things that were very interesting to me, things that were a mix of social science and science and a variety of other things. I wasn’t coming home and wanting to read more law. When I started off my PhD program, while introducing everyone to the program my dissertation adviser said that if you don’t go to bed at two in the morning wishing that you could do more political science then a PhD probably isn’t for you, because you’re not going to get paid the amount of money you could make elsewhere, it’s going to be a tremendous amount of work, you’re not going to have any job security, all of these other things that you might get in other careers with that level of effort and everything else. You have to do it because you just love it.

Prospect: Do you find your training as a lawyer helpful in your career now as an academic?

Dr. Schreiber: What I tell to my undergrad classes is that being a lawyer, in your first year in particular, is learning how to think like a lawyer. In particular, lawyers are taught a method called IRAC, which stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. The idea is that you learn how to identify what problem you are facing, identify what rules or principles you should use to solve that problem, identify how to apply the rule to the problem, and then finally how to draw conclusions from it. It’s a very structured way of thinking through a problem, and I think it’s very valuable. One of the other positive things that came from being a lawyer is that I was trained to see things with both the law and the facts simultaneously. Most of academia is divided between people who are talking about empirical, positivist sort of research, saying what can we measure and what can we test — the fundamental metrics of what exists in the world — rather than thinking about what ought to be the moral principles and guiding philosophies behind the way things are. Many in academia are very unwilling to cross that line and connect ought to is. But being a lawyer you realize that you just have to do that, because there’s no other option. In law, the way that our legal system is set up, every case has to be decided in relation to a particular legal context, and you can’t have the courts making legal pronouncements unless it’s in the context of a particular case. The facts and the law go hand in hand, and that’s very much influenced the way I think about the problems that I’m facing- not just in the questions of empirical measurement and quantification but really trying to get a sense of what should we do with this. How does this change the world that we’re looking at? I’m fascinated by the core scientific ideas that I get to explore, but I’m also just really interested in how they practically apply, and what to do with them. That goes back to the idea of IRAC. When I’m interacting with students, writing exams, or designing paper topics I’m constantly trying to get my undergrad students to take these theories from a political psychology class and think how you would use them in another context outside of the classroom. I think that this approach comes from my legal training.

Prospect: You specialize in neuropolitics. What can you tell us about this field, and what motivated you to specialize in it?

Dr. Schreiber: When I was a law student I was reading Scientific American because I was very bored with the things that I was reading for law school, and I found myself reading an article about some of the very first uses of brain imaging to study how people think about problems. As researchers were designing these studies, what they would do was have someone in the scanner doing a task they had never done before, and once out of the scanner they would have the subject practice the task a bunch of times until they became very good at it. After, they would brain image them again to see what had changed in their brain after they had practiced this task. When I first started in the PhD program at UCLA, we were talking about all this research showing that people who know and people who don’t know about politics fundamentally think differently about politics. I just asked what’s differently? If there’s all this evidence to suggest that people who really know a lot about politics and are engaged in thinking about politics in a different way, shouldn’t we be able to brain image them and see if there really is a difference between political sophisticates and novices? And so that led me into doing this work, and I got some initially interesting results. My dissertation adviser had had the idea to use response times — how long people take to answer political questions — and we found people to be answering the questions much more quickly than the traditional interpretation would suggest. Political sophisticates would answer questions very quickly because they’d practiced them, and that political novices would take longer because they had to think about the questions, and that they were effortfully trying to do so. The traditional literature suggested that people that knew a lot about politics were engaging in this very deep pontification about these issues, and that people who didn’t know much about politics were just guessing. But they weren’t. People that didn’t know much about politics were trying to answer these questions, and were spending a lot of time trying to do so.

Prospect: What can you tell me about your current research efforts?

Dr. Schreiber: What I’m working on right now is basically a summary of the last ten years of my career, trying to put all of this together in a more coherent story.The story is that we have a brain built for politics, and that the human brain evolved for politics and not to make tools. That theory — man the toolmaker — is one of anthropologists’ earliest theories to explain the huge size of the human brain, which far bigger as a percentage of body mass than any other animal. Our brain consumes a huge amount of our calories; of the smoothie that I ate this morning about a third of the calories are going to go to feed my brain, which is really expensive evolutionarily. So why spend that much on the brain? What does it get us evolutionarily? Well, the toolmaker theory doesn’t work because tools don’t show up at the correct moments in the archaeological record. We’re using tools at some points and then we’re not using them quite as much, and the during the same period the brain expanded in a dramatic fashion. The evidence seems to suggest that the reason that we have the brains we have is to solve the problem of being social animals, and a particular kind of social animal. Ants are social animals- they have very complex supercolonies, one of which is believed to stretch from Canada all the way to Mexico. So while these are really massive, complex societies, what they don’t do is have shifting coalitions. The way that most researchers talk about the development of the human brain was originally titled the Machiavellian hypothesis, suggesting that we think in these kind of Machiavellian ways to strategize about how to interact with each other. However, people became concerned about this title because it inferred a kind of nefariousness, because we associate Machiavelli with a kind of sneaky, underhanded kind of politics. This doesn’t seem to be what’s underpinning the brain, so recently we’ve been terming this core idea the social brain theory.

But we’re not just social. I think that was really driving the evolution of human beings towards the kind of brain that we have is the problem of coalitions. When an individual tries to decide whether you are an us or are you an them, this is a very complex question for humans because while you can be an ally now you might become and enemy, or you might be an enemy but you might be the enemy of my enemy so now you’re my friend. We’re constantly having to make calculations about whether someone is an enemy or a friend, and how much we should compete or cooperate with them, and for humans these are incredibly complex calculations. What we’ve seen is that as human societies have became more complex is that we’ve had a corresponding increase in complexity of the brain. Essentially I’m arguing that the human brain is built for politics. In contrast to the earlier literature that tried to distinguish between people who knew about politics and people that didn’t and treated the people that didn’t follow politics as if there was something fundamentally wrong with them — there’s a lot of literature in academia that terms these people as being dunces or morons — my research suggests that we are all by nature political sophisticates, and that Aristotle got it right. Man is by nature a political sophisticate, which means that even people who don’t pay attention to national politics or vote are still very sophisticated about their office, family or church politics and that we all live as political animals. My current book project is to try to understand the neural mechanisms that people use to think as political animals, and to understand how this shapes political phenomenon. A big part of my argument is that, rather than the rational choice model that sees people as individualists calculating their own utility functions, we are all fundamentally social creatures, meaning that I also consider your utility as well as my own and I’d like to increase both if I can because I benefit from the well-being of all of us. This brain that thinks in coalitions also allows us to think in terms of what moral sentiments we’d like to have towards whom, so if I’m trying to figure out if you’re an us or a them I use different neural mechanisms to think about moral calculations. Do I use a sort of what’s described as a deontological Kantian framework that implies I should never ever push you off a bridge if you’re a friend of mine, versus a kind of utilitarian calculation that says I’d sacrifice one person to save twenty five? Depending on whether you’re judged as an us or a them we make different calculations, and use different neural mechanisms in each of these instances. Knowing this helps to unwrap some of the puzzles we’ve seen in human behavior, and gets us a more fundamental understanding of human politics.

Prospect: Do you see any fundamental difference between the way that humans consider national politics and how we consider every other social interaction?

Dr. Schreiber: I think that largely what we’re doing when we think about national politics is that we’re taking these tools that we use for everyday politics and we’re using them for a particular context. This is a bit different, because national politics are so much more abstract. I’ve never met these people, and disagreeing with them doesn’t have the same consequences as disagreeing with a friend. But I think the brain mechanisms that we’re using are the same.

Prospect: You’re a member of the political science department at UCSD, but your work incorporates a good deal of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Do you ever find that difficult in any way?

Dr. Schreiber: It creates challenges. It’s not obvious where to publish, and when I’m going to give a talk on my research I never can assume that people know what I’m talking about. That’s a challenge, but it’s also provided a lot of opportunities for me. When I’m working on the book it’s important for me to be aware if I’m explaining everything, so that if a political scientist is reading it it’s clear what the neuroscience is all about, and I think that it forces me to explain myself better.  But when I’m interacting with neuroscientists it also forces me to understand the limitations of the brain. I think that — as much as I’m making a pitch to political scientists that they need to understand the brain — for every political philosophy going back thousands of years there’s been an understanding of what human nature is, and neuroscience and genetics is helping us to fundamentally understand that human nature in a different way. Similarly, political scientists have been trying to understand human nature for a very long time, and I think that we have a comparative advantage in that we’re studying human nature in the context that human nature developed. Understand humans as political animals changes the kind of questions that a neuroscientist would ask. One of my favorite analogies is if I take a pigeon and a rat, and I train them to both push levers — which neuroscientists and psychologists have done for a long time — we can learn all sorts of things about stimulus response function. But if we take rat and a pigeon and push them off the edge of a table two very different things happen, because they’re not the same thing. They’re not both merely lever pressers, they’re creatures that developed in two very different evolutionary contexts and have a range of different faculties available to them. Human beings are to politics what pigeons are to flying, because human beings developed in the context of politics, and if we want to understand the human brain more effectively we need to understand how it evolved to solve the problem of politics. The idea that we’re hardwired for something is highly problematic, even though many people assume that neuroscience and genetics claim that humans are hardwired for certain tasks. But my argument is that we’re hardwired to not be hardwired, and that the incredible advantage that we get as being humans is that we’re constantly having to evaluate the question of are you an us or are you a them in these constantly shifting conditions, and that means we have to be constantly flexible. What we see in the human brain is tremendous flexibility. We can do experiments where we blindfold a seeing person and teach them to read braille, and they’ll learn to read braille using their visual cortex. So you’re reading braille using your fingers, but instead of it being read in the motor part of your cortex where you would expect it’s being done in the visual cortex. But if we take the blindfold off the activity shifts back to the motor cortex. That’s fascinating, that the brain can switch that quickly to move a cognitive process from the visual area to a motor area and back, all in the span of a week. That’s absolutely incredible. If I teach you to juggle I can brain image you now and watch as your brain changes over the next six months, and if I tell you to stop juggling the areas that grew while you were practicing everyday will atrophy over the next six months. Similarly, the wiring in the brain will change — we can observe the white matter changing as well — showing that there is a tremendous level of neural plasticity that allows the brain to reconfigure itself constantly. It’s not that you have a brain that you were given at age twenty and it just deteriorates until you die, which the older, pre-neural plasticity of the mind said, but that your brain is constantly adapting. And the reason we have that neural plasticity is that we’re political animals that evolved in these constantly shifting coalitions. I think that the advantage of being a political scientist is to be able to study the brain in that context.

Prospect: Do you think that there’s any useful comparisons between human politics and the political analogs of our closets relatives, namely chimpanzees?

Dr. Schreiber: Yeah. When we look at chimpanzees there’s tremendous parallels to our own politics. What’s interesting is to not just look at chimpanzees, but to look at bonobos, orangutans and gorillas as well. Orangutans will often live as solitary animals, and for a while they seemed as sort of an exception to this kind of social intelligence hypothesis. But it turns out they live as solitary animals in resource-poor environments for survival reasons, and they actually thrive quite well in groups. Bonobos and chimpanzees are differentiated by the ways that they resolve conflicts. Chimpanzees tend to be much more aggressive and violent, and bonobos tends to be much more sexual in terms of their conflict patterns, though both happen to some degree in the two species. Humans tend to be a mix of both. We’re not nearly as promiscuous as bonobos, and we’re not nearly as aggressive as chimpanzees. I think that understanding our role as primates gives us some deep insights. It’s also interesting to observe that while young chimpanzees can solve technical problems with similar ability to young children, when it comes to social problems chimpanzees fail, drastically. The difference between a two year old human and a young chimpanzee is that a human child will be willing to cooperate with you, and social learning seems to be where we differ massively from our other primate relatives. As much as we’re political animals and their political animals, we’re just all that much more so.

But we also do see these coalition shiftings in other primates. There’s a famous story of a rhesus monkey colony that had existed for forty years in a very large research facility, and a group of these monkeys that had dominated the rest in a hierarchical social structure for decades. But one weekend the dominant female from that group had been taken to the veterinarian, and other members of this alpha group happened to escape the enclosure. By the time that they got back the dominant group had been overthrown, and thirty years of political stability in these rhesus monkeys was upset in a coup in the span of a weekend. All of a sudden, this very stable political order had been radically re-shifted by the leader leaving her territory for a couple of days. I see parallels to this in human society, where we see political structures that can last for thousands of years but vanish very quickly. Humans shift in our alliances very quickly, and we can see those patterns mirrored in our primate cousins.

Prospect: What advice do you have for students considering careers in academia?

Dr. Schreiber: Like I said, unless you go to bed at two in the morning wishing you could do more political science or sociology or physics you shouldn’t do it. Fundamentally, this goes to what I like to talk about in my final lecture to undergrad classes, the idea of finding your mission. There’s a tremendous body of research that shows that with 10,000 hours of practice you can become an expert at really anything. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and you can develop world-class expertise at anything you’d like, because there’s no real evidence for the existence of innate talent. It’s all about practice, and about doing the work to build skills over time. Part of this is an idea termed flow, which is a very positive emotion state that people achieve when they’re really really engrossed in something. People are most likely to be in that state of flow — to be most completely swept up into what they are doing — when they’re doing something very hard that they’re very good at. So what that entails is living life at the edge of your competence. While that’s a hard life, 10,000 hours of that and you’re a world class expert. But 10,000 hours is five years of your life, so you need to find something you enjoy. So essentially the world is your oyster, and I think that for undergraduates to lock themselves into a particular career early is problematic. I think that people should try to first find who they are. The average person will have fourteen jobs by the time they’re forty, and you have to figure that most of those jobs will never make it one to your resume. So that means that two thirds of your jobs in your future won’t necessarily lead to what you will ultimately do, but what they are valuable for is to help you figure out who you are. We now live in a world where people have the luxury to figure out who they are and what their passions are, and what’s worth 10,000 hours of their time. I think that finding your passion and living a life of flow is very much a life worth living

Note: A good introduction to neuropolitics can be found in James Fowler and Darren Schreiber’s “Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature.”