Promoting Democracy

In his Wall Street Journal column William Galston remarks on the “Global Trends” report I’ve posted on twice:

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden proposed convening a “Summit for Democracy” to reinvigorate the global democracy movement. Some have criticized this step as premature at best, saying America should get its own democratic house in order before trying to rally others to the cause. The new report takes the opposite tack: By focusing on democracy in the world, the U.S. will have fresh incentives to improve democracy at home.

The summit must be designed for long-term results, the report says. Among other things, that means it must include a price of admission for attending countries, plans of action with timetables, and mutual commitment to put supporting democracy and countering authoritarianism at the center of diplomacy. Countries would coordinate efforts to resist backsliding within existing democracies, as well as denouncing authoritarian violations of human rights and democratic norms.

More controversially, the report calls on America and its allies to make democracy a prerequisite of security assistance such as advanced weaponry and defense technology. U.S. law prohibits assistance to countries committing “gross violations of human rights,” but such help should come with more explicit rules around human rights and democratic governance. Doing this wouldn’t be easy. Elevating democracy and human rights may create friction with longstanding partners such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Other sections of the report call for boosting investment in the pillars of democracy—free and fair elections, the rule of law, a diverse and independent media and a vibrant civil society, among others. It proposes making the fight against corruption and kleptocracy a national-security priority—a stance Mr. Biden has endorsed. And it lays out a plan to harness American economic power in support of a more democratic world. This would require the strategic use of treaties and development finance, as well as corporate respect for democracy and human rights throughout global supply chains.

While some of the report’s specific recommendations are open to challenge, it is certainly comprehensive. By laying out the full range of actions that a serious effort to advance democracy would require, the report gives policy makers a template for progress.

But all this will take leadership from the top. Mr. Biden’s national security adviser should appoint a team to review this report and make recommendations about how it can be adapted to promote the president’s vision of revitalized U.S. democracy, leading a coalition of like-minded countries to promote democracy around the world.

I disagree rather fundamentally with this. I think that while the U. S. should be the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” it should be the champion and vindicator only of our own. The two ways we can promote liberal democracy most effectively are by

  • Ensuring that our elections are free, fair, and honest. Everyone who is legally entitled to vote should be able to vote and
  • Bolstering our own prosperity and egalitarianism

We need to show that liberal democracy can be successful and effective. In doing those things we will have done what we can and doing anything else is waste motion, wishful thinking.


This Time for Sure

Media outlets and pundits are reacting to President Joe Biden’s announcement of a September 11, 2021 date for the complete withdrawal of U. S. forces from Afghanistan.

Washington Post

U.S. officials offer various rationalizations for abandoning the elected government of Ashraf Ghani to what will be, at best, a bloody fight for survival. Mr. Ghani also has resisted U.S. peace proposals, and his rule has been feckless. A strategy of leaving troops in the country in an effort to force the Taliban to compromise could extend the U.S. commitment for years without achieving a durable peace. Perhaps, too, some officials say hopefully, the Taliban will moderate its denial of women’s rights and other repressive policies to preserve international aid, without which Afghanistan’s economy would implode.

If that assessment proves wrong, Mr. Biden’s decision to remove U.S. forces by the symbolic date of Sept. 11, 2021, may simply result in the restoration of the 2001 status quo, including terrorist bases that could force a renewed U.S. intervention. At a minimum, it will mean an abandonment of those Afghans who believed in building a democracy that guaranteed basic human rights — and the nullification of the sacrifices of the American servicemen who were killed or wounded in that mission. Mr. Biden has chosen the easy way out of Afghanistan, but the consequences are likely to be ugly.

Wall Street Journal

The tragedy is that there is a reasonable alternative to withdrawal. The bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group said this year that 4,500 American troops would be enough “for training, advising, and assisting Afghan defense forces; supporting allied forces; conducting counterterrorism operations; and securing our embassy.” That’s not a commitment that prevents the U.S. from dealing with other adversaries.

In the short term, many Americans will welcome Mr. Biden’s retreat as the end of a “forever war.” But the President’s exit means he will have to take responsibility for what happens next. We hope it doesn’t betray the great sacrifices so many have made.

David Ignatius

The military, for all its worries about withdrawal, has hated the meat grinder of Afghanistan. Most of today’s Army and Marine commanders have fought there, and many of their sons and daughters have, too. They share Biden’s desire to get the hell out. But that’s checked by a feeling that the only thing that’s worse than remaining in what seems an unwinnable stalemate is pulling out troops — and then having to go back in.

That’s what happened in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. They were back five years later, dealing with the slaughterhouse that was the Islamic State. And if Biden was right about Afghanistan 10 years ago, he was dead wrong about getting out of Iraq, which he also strongly advocated.

That’s the awful danger of this decision. Sometimes cutting the knot and removing U.S. troops opens the way for peace; more often, in recent years, it has been a prelude to greater bloodshed.

The downside is easy to imagine: a spiral of violence in which provincial capitals fall, one by one, leading to a deadly battle for Kabul — a fight in which the people who believed most in the United States’ intervention will be at greatest risk, and pleading for help. Closing our eyes and ears to that catastrophic situation — turning away from the desperate appeals, especially from the women of Afghanistan, who fear new oppression — will require cold hearts and strong stomachs.

Charles P. Pierce

So, essentially, we made the rubble bounce for two decades and ended up right where the Russians, the British, the Persians, the Mongols, and Alexander the Great ended up. Brave men and women were tossed into a country that has resisted the brave men and women who came to fight there for millennia, and we’re leaving having killed the mastermind of the attacks that sent us there. The truth of the matter is that nobody really wants Afghanistan except the people who live there, and they want to run the place their own way. They keep trying to demonstrate this to the wider world, and the wider world never gets the message.

In addition to major domestic challenges, “the reality is that the United States has big strategic interests in the world,” the person familiar with the deliberations said, “like nonproliferation, like an increasingly aggressive and assertive Russia, like North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear programs pose a threat to the United States,” as well as China. “The main threats to the American homeland are actually from other places: from Africa, from parts of the Middle East — Syria and Yemen.”

“Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point,” the person said. “That does not mean we’re turning away from Afghanistan. We are going to remain committed to the government, remain committed diplomatically. But in terms of where we will be investing force posture, our blood and treasure, we believe that other priorities merit that investment.”

And that, I guess, will be that.

James Joyner

There’s little doubt in my mind that those who worked for the Americans, especially our military, will be targeted once we’re gone. The moral equation is rather a difficult one. We owe it to these people to allow them to start over in the States if they choose, bringing their immediate family with them. But pulling out schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and those we’ve given technical training makes it even less likely that Afghanistan transitions to anything like a modern society.

When I first began this round-up I saw a NYT editorial reacting favorably to the announcement but it seems to have vanished. I will add additional reactions as I encounter them. Note that the WaPo view and, particularly that of David Ignatius, undoubtedly represents the prevailing wisdom in Washington, DC.

I guess there’s more than one way to view this announcement. Once is that, since President Trump announced a May 2020 withdrawal date, Mr. Biden is kicking the can down the road once again. I’ll take him at his word.

My view of our involvement in Afghanistan remains what it was 20 years ago. I opposed our invasion. Although from a political and maybe even from a strategic standpoint some forceful response in Afghanistan was required, there were many alternatives other than invading and occupying the country. Once we had “boots on the ground” and ousting Afghanistan’s previous Taliban government, we became the “occupying power” with certain obligations under treaties to which we are party. There were many unworkable strategies but just two workable ones:

  • We could colonize Afghanistan and settle a population there as Alexander did which was politically impossible.
  • We could maintain a small, lethal force in Afghanistan with a mission of counter-terrorism, expressly committed to maintaining it in the country until there was no longer a terrorist threat which was politically unpleasant.

We, of course, chose one of the unworkable strategies which brought us to where we are today. We might have withdrawn in 2005, 2009, 2013, 2017 or any date in between those and saved the lives of a couple of thousand Americans. Now maybe we’ll actually leave.


The Prosecution Rests

The prosecution has rested in the trial of Derek Chauvin for causing the death of George Floyd. The defense will begin its case tomorrow and it is expected to conclude by the end of the week.

Here are the standard jury instructions for murder in the third degree in the State of Minnesota (hat tip: Legal Insurrection).

With juries anything can happen and I think it’s quite likely that Officer Chauvin will be cleared of the more serious charges (I don’t think they fit) but be convicted of murder in the third degree. I also don’t believe that will satisfy a lot of people.

He could also be cleared of all charges or convicted on all charges. As I say pretty much anything can happen.


The Natanz Hack

You have presumably heard about the recent cyber-exploit which shut down Irani’s Natanz refinement facility and caused damage to some of its centrifuges. It is widely believed that the Israelis were the source of the attack.

The situation is extremely volatile. Among the factors are that the Israelis are well aware that detonating a single nuclear device within its borders could well destroy the entire country. That provides the Israelis the motivation to engage, not just in cyberattacks, but even in pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Iran and it is believed they have that ability.

I don’t think the Iranian leadership has a similar consciousness. I think they see antipathy towards Israel as their ticket towards increased influence in the Muslim world and, potentially, as a religious obligation. I also think that they believe that God will protect them. Some might deem that irrational but I believe that from the point-of-view of the Iranian leadership it’s completely rational.

The JCPOA did not defuse this situation and if anything the Biden Administration’s determination to restart the JCPOA has aggravated it. In other words all parties are acting completely rationally within their own cloistered points-of-view.

Then there are the Russians. On the one hand the Russians presently have a pretty fair relationship with the Iranians but on the other they’ve actually occupied parts of Iran within living (or nearly within living) memory and I doubt the Iranians have forgotten that. And there are the Chinese who also have a pretty fair relationship with the Iranians. I don’t quite understand how the Chinese can persecute Muslims and retain the support of the mullahs but the mullahs’ lack of alternatives provides them with a certain amount of cover.

Those are among the reasons I consider the situation extremely volatile.


Divide ut curo

In a remarkably warlike Wall Street Journal column, Walter Russell Mead outlines what he sees as the threats posed by China and Russia:

The global storm clouds are darkening. Last week a Chinese aircraft carrier strike group patrolled the waters east of Taiwan as U.S., Taiwanese and Chinese warplanes flew sorties. En route to Israel, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conferred with his Filipino counterpart over the refusal of Chinese vessels to leave waters claimed by Manila. In a televised interview Secretary of State Antony Blinken again characterized China’s policy toward the Uighurs as genocide, blamed Chinese errors for making the pandemic worse, and warned Beijing against attempts to invade Taiwan.

Meanwhile, as Alexei Navalny’s health continued its mysterious and dramatic decline, Russian forces ostentatiously maneuvered near the contested Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and in the Russian-garrisoned Transnistrian enclave on Ukraine’s western frontier. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned of the possibility of “full-scale hostilities” as Vladimir Putin informed an alarmed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about what the Russian president called Ukraine’s “dangerous provocative actions” in the Donbass. Two American destroyers have been dispatched to the Black Sea; retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former U.S. Army Europe commander, warned that Mr. Putin’s goal may be control of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

His list of “provocations” is substantial:


  • Tightening its hold on Tibet
  • Genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang
  • Crushing Hong Kong’s autonomy
  • Attacks on Indian troops
  • Massive naval buildup presumably aimed at Taiwan
  • Intimidation of Philippines


  • Annexation of Crimea
  • Increasing Russian influence in Syria
  • Cyber hacks
  • Crushing “democracy movement in Belarus”

Let me bundle these together. Like it or not Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong are Chinese internal matters. However heinous the Chinese authorities are and I do believe they are heinous, in a Westphalian world our interests in them are quite limited. I do find the skirmishes between China and India in the Himalayas troubling. Unless we’re very, very stupid I think the most likely source of great power war is between India and China.

I know what Russia’s interests are in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus. What are our interests in those countries? I mean other than poking Russia in the eye? For it to be fostering liberal democracy in those places there would need to be some prospect for liberal democracy in those places and there is not. To some degree we were complicit in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. If we hadn’t supported the putsch that overthrew the elected (and pro-Russian) government of Ukraine and if the government that replaced it hadn’t threatened to reneg on its agreement with Russia to maintain its port in Crimea, Russia wouldn’t have acted. Our actions WRT Ukraine have been short-sighted and, frankly, stupid. IMO the Chinese have more interest than we do in preventing such an eventuality.

If we’re going to complain about Russia (or China) meddling in our elections, we would have better standing if we hadn’t meddled in Russian elections which raises an additional point. We’ve been throwing away both our moral standing and our soft power over the period of the last 20 years. It would be nice if we hadn’t but we have.

While I fully agree that Assad is a shmuck, he’s no bigger shmuck that anyone else in the Alawite regime who might replace him and the Alawite regime is the best alternative among bad alternatives. The Russians are pragmatists and realize all of that.

We do have interests in Taiwan, Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. How we manage and secure those interests over the coming years will determine the course of the 21st century.

I have studied the language, literature, history, culture, and politics of both Russia and China. I’m not particularly concerned about an entente between the two countries. It’s our fecklessness that is pushing them together. Worry about the U. S. first.

1 comment

Domestic Policy vs. Foreign Policy

In her most recent Washington Post column Katrina vanden Heuvel asks a question: will Biden’s foreign policy sap his domestic policy? I will answer that question with an unequivocal “Yes!”. Not only that but achieving his domestic policy goals will actually undermine achieving his foreign policy goals. She opens with this passage:

In his first 100 days, President Biden has rolled out elements of his “build back better” domestic reform agenda, including the American Rescue Plan, his $2 trillion infrastructure bill and a family plan soon to come. Simultaneously, he has turbocharged his “America is back” foreign policy, exchanging insults with Russia and China, striking at Iranian militia camps in Syria, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and more. Both at home and abroad, his initiatives must overcome strong opposition. The larger question is whether the foreign policy will sap the energy, attention and resources needed to rebuild the United States at home.

The scope of Biden’s domestic ambitions has been a pleasant surprise. The president has called for new industrial policy to address the climate calamity, long overdue investments in infrastructure and housing, fair trade and “buy American” policies, tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations, bolstering economic rights, and beginning to redress racial inequities.

Everything is going swimmingly from her perspective. But with respect to foreign policy? Not so much:

At the same time, Biden has long held that the United States remains the “indispensable nation” across the world. Although his national security aides acknowledge the priority of rebuilding the United States’ strength at home, they also say that the nation must lead. Climate, pandemics and global economic structuring are new priorities. These are in addition to an emerging great power faceoff with China and Russia, an effort to rally democracies against authoritarianism, a continuing war on terrorism, and a renewed commitment to enforce the “rules-based international order,” which translates into the United States continuing to police the world.

She seems to fail to apprehend, as I believe so does the Biden Administration, that our notional allies do not simply follow our lead. America’s role in the world is based on its military might and that in turn is based on its economic might. The diminution of “brown industries” in favor of “green industries” which so many progressives seem to favor will have the opposite effect.

The reality is that, if we are either to “build back better” or maintain anything resembling our position in the world or even maintain our own sovereignty, we need to produce more of what we consume. EVs with most of the components produced in Asia are no solution. Solar power with the solar cells manufactured in Asia aren’t, either. Contrary to what the Department of Energy would lead you to believe, most windmills and the components used to build them are made in China or Germany. The towers and, increasingly, the blades for windmills may be made here but the supply chains run through China and may be disrupted at will by the Chinese authorities who also control their cost of product through their control over the production of rare earths.

I am not one of those who is particularly fearful of Chinese (or Russian) military might. But Chinese economic power is another matter.

Here’s Ms. Vanden Heuvel’s prescription:

Surely, Biden’s team would be well advised to lower its sights. Reduce our commitments abroad, end the forever wars, shutter much of the empire of bases. Make it clear to allies that America’s priority is rebuilding its strength at home. Engage China and Russia in efforts to address climate change and contagion and to curb the accelerating nuclear and cyber arms races. Focus the competition on which country best provides for its people.

Most pleas to cut U. S. military spending are not accompanied by commitments to reduce U. S. military commitments. I’ve suggested reducing U. S. military spending myself but always with a matching commitment to reduce our military deployments. It’s hard for me to imagine the Biden Administration doing that while assuring our European and Asian allies that we’ll bear the burden of their defense for them or while trying to stamp out global terrorism from forward bases.

I’m afraid her formula is one for continued waning not just of American military might but of its economic strength as well.


The New Normal Won’t Include Pacific and Arclight Cinemas

Pacific has announced that Pacific and Arclight Cinemas will close permanently. Variety reports:

Arclight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres will close down, a victim of a global pandemic that brought moviegoing to a standstill. The news comes as things were beginning to look up for the hard-hit exhibition industry and serves as a reminder of the economic devastation wrought by a public health crisis that upended cultural life.

“After shutting our doors more than a year ago, today we must share the difficult and sad news that Pacific will not be reopening its ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres locations,” the company said in a statement. “This was not the outcome anyone wanted, but despite a huge effort that exhausted all potential options, the company does not have a viable way forward.”

The chain has more than 300 theaters, mostly in California but also in Chicago, Boston, and Maryland.

The critical success factors for cinemas are location and rent (most locations are not owned but rented). Lockdowns followed by capacity restrictions have cut into the business of the cinema operating companies.

I suspect we’ll see a sort of cascade effect. Some of the cinemas vacated by Pacific will be taken over by other operators but I suspect most spaces will be used for other purposes. There isn’t a throng of retailers eager to take over the spaces they vacate. It may be some time before those spaces are repurposed. Around here the nearest shopping malls already have a lot of empty space. We’ll probably also see mall failures and a commensurate reduction in property tax revenues and possibly even sales tax revenues on which state and local governments depend.

We don’t know what the “new normal” is going to look like yet but there are likely to be some major differences from the pre-2020 normal. Just as another indicator big city public school kindergarten enrollments for September 2021 are substantially lower.


Social Democracy, Adieu

At Quillette Joel Kotkin pens a lament for the sort of social democracy championed by among others the late Michael Harrington (disclosue: Michael Harrington was a graduate of my high school, in the same class as Dr. Thomas Dooley):

In a world that seems to be divided between neoliberal orthodoxy and identitarian dogmas, it is possible to miss the waning presence of traditional social democracy. Born of the radical Left in Marx’s own time, social democrats worked, sometimes with remarkable success, to improve the living standards of working people by accommodating the virtues of capitalism. Today, that kind of social democracy—learned at home from my immigrant grandparents and from the late Michael Harrington, one time head of the American Socialist Party—is all but dead. This tradition was, in retrospect, perhaps too optimistic about the efficacy of government. Nevertheless, it sincerely sought to improve popular conditions and respected the wisdom of ordinary people.

In its place, we now find a kind of progressivism that focuses on gender, sexual preference, race, and climate change. Abandoned by traditional Left parties, some voters have drifted into nativist—and sometimes openly racist—opposition while more have simply become alienated from major institutions and pessimistic about the future.


Arguably the single greatest distinction between social democracy and the new progressivism lies in the word agency. The original social democrats sought “to enhance their economic power” by mobilizing grassroots support. In contrast, today’s “Left” tends to favor rule by experts—a reprise of Wilsonian progressivism. Like its contemporary analogue, this was more a product of the university and the boardroom than the union hall. And like the original model, today’s progressives increasingly embrace Wilson’s preference for censorship and the political repression of uncooperative political tendencies.

There’s really no way to reconcile this progressivism with social progress. Climate change policies, in particular, wipe out any gradual way to increase wealth for the middle or working classes, although enforced strictures like “de-carbonization” create bounteous opportunities for highly profitable renewable energy speculation among financial and tech giants. The obsessive emphasis on race and culture reflects the concerns of the faculty lounge and the media newsroom.

In a slow-growth world, with few opportunities for upward mobility, perhaps the solution lies in a Universal Basic Income, a modern variant of what Marx described as a “proletarian alms bag.” Universal income is widely favored, particularly in Silicon Valley, where many dismiss the idea of upward mobility. The consensus there increasingly embraces a 21st century equivalent of the “bread and circuses” given to the masses in Imperial Rome. But Labour activist Embery notes such efforts “disempower workers,” discourage organizing, and turn them into essentially wards of the state, rather than independent agents.

None of this is far-fetched, as we can see by the growing acceptance of stimulus transfer payments in both the United States and Europe. Yet, over time, as families become more dependent on government transfers, they may choose to confiscate the wealth of the uber-rich. Great inequality, Adam Smith suggested, naturally leads the poor to “invade” the “possessions of the rich. Some on the Left already propose using the riches of the oligarchy to fund a “fully automated luxury communism,” a kind of technologically enabled collectivist paradise. Given the history of utopian musings like these over the past century, they should be feared. But compared to growing inequality and dismal prospects for most, such a radical approach could still become surprisingly attractive.

For every former Republican like, say, Peggy Noonan who mourns the disappearance of her Republican Party to be replaced by the Party of Trump, there are probably two Democrats who are just as saddened to find what they thought of as their Democratic Party of the Little Guy being replaced by today’s nearly thoroughly gentrified technocratic party of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. Like the Cheshire Cat it is vanishing little by little until all that is left is the smile.

It’s not hard to understand why. Their business models could be destroyed with the stroke of a pen—they’re completely dependent for their billions on control of political power and the Democratic Party was a distressed property both after the defeat of Al Gore by George W. Bush and then after Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump. Now it’s government of the people by the political donors for the political donors.


Take a Number

In a column at The Hill Niall Stanage lists what he characterizes as “Biden’s five biggest foreign policy challenges”. His list is and I’ve added my comments to each one:

  1. Countering the rise of China

    As my distant ancestor put it, don’t set the fence too far. We either cannot counter the rise of China or China’s rise may counter itself. What we need to do is figure out how we will adapt to China’s rise which is a somewhat different matter.

  2. Exploring a return to the Iran nuclear deal

    That was sort of a campaign promise. President Biden is pretty much obligated to pursue that. I don’t think it’s in his five biggest challenges though.

  3. Seeking progress between Israel and the Palestinians

    If the Biden Administration doesn’t screw up the groundwork for this one was laid pretty well by the Trump Administration. Waning support from other Arab countries will pretty well ensure progress. Or a desperate last ditch attempt by the Palestinians. Whichever of those takes place what more can we do?

  4. The Russia question

    List me among those who do not think that Russia is much of a threat to the U. S. or U. S. interests. If we stopped acting aggressively towards them, they’d probably do the same.

    Have no doubt the relationship between Russia and the U. S. is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today and will remain so. IMO those who worry about a Russia-China entente don’t know much about either country.

    Unreconstructed Cold Warriors have been screwing up our relationship with Russia for the last 25 years and that has probably resulted in our losing the opportunity to forge a really constructive relationship with Russia. It’s time for us to try a different tack. We have a number of areas of mutual interest. Like not destroying the world.

  5. Clarity on Cuba

    I have no idea how this item landed on this list. I can think of a dozen more pressing issues.


Unmentioned are forging betters relations with our neighbors in Central and South America, the prospect of a serious war in Africa, ongoing carnage in the Middle East, Europe’s continuing decline, forging an Anglospheric cooperative group, North Korea which will not allow itself to remain ignored for long, and making our Asian allies less nervous.


And what about places where we continue to have troops in the field like Syria and Afghanistan? You remember Afghanistan? It was in all the papers. And what about Yemen?

1 comment

Sic transit…

The editors of the Wall Street Journal note that inflation is rising:

The U.S. on Friday reported a rise of 1% in producer prices for March, double the consensus prediction of economists. Prices are up 4.2% in the last year, with goods prices up 7%.

The year-over-year increase is higher in part because of low, pandemic-induced numbers from 2020. The recent acceleration is also related to constraints on the supply of goods, while demand surges as the pandemic eases and consumers spend their pent-up savings and government checks.

For these reasons, Federal Reserve economists say inflation will be “transitory,” receding later this year as supply constraints ease. Let’s hope they’re right.

Everything is transitory. It all depends on the horizon. Maybe inflation will decline “later this year”. How long is “later”? One of the implications is that the passbook savings rate, already extremely low, is now effectively negative.