Europe is dead. Long live Europe!

Driven by civil war, insurgency, poverty, and instability in their home countries, increasing numbers of migrants from all across the developing world are converging on Europe, often with heart-rending consequences.

European reactions to the accelerating mass migration have varied considerably. In Germany and Austria, both the government and the people are welcoming the newcomers with open arms, at least for the time being. Elsewhere, the reaction has ranged from distaste to outright xenophobia, especially in geographically vulnerable and economically depressed Eastern Europe.

“I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remarked recently. Orban and his center-right Fidesz Party are under pressure from the ultranationalists on his right flank, who have been, shall we say, somewhat more emphatic in their rejection of the refugees.

Europe has never been an island.

This is a historically myopic attitude. Hungary–much like France and England–is itself named after a conquering band of migrants that overwhelmed the borders of a no-longer-relevant state and decided to stick around for a thousand years. As is so often the case, the people that are claiming to be “native Hungarians” have more in common with the people they deem outsiders than they probably realize.

Looking to the future rather than the past, it’s clear enough that ethnic nationalism in Europe, while politically resurgent, is built upon an interesting paradox: the two pillars of the faith, ethnic solidarity and national power, now militate against one another.

Ultranationalists like Anders Breivik argue that a purely white, Christian Europe would be a resurgent Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth. The demographic data indicate that such a Europe would wither into total economic and political irrelevance within a few generations.

The EU-wide fertility rate now stands at 1.55, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Population loss creates a vicious economic feedback cycle: the rapidly aging population requires an increasing share of resources that younger people struggle to replace, leading to stagnation.

At this point, those same young people, sick of sky-high unemployment and governments that favor the interests of pensioners over their own, emigrate to greener pastures in the developing world, reinforcing the death spiral. The worst-afflicted countries could quite literally disappear from the map over the course of the 21st century if things don’t change.

As of 2015, the Germans have snatched the low birthrate crown from ultra-geriatric Japan, where engineers are starting to replace all those missing babies with androids. But Germany also enjoys the luxury of having Europe’s largest and most productive workforce, meaning it has more time on the clock than most other countries in a similar demographic position.

More importantly, ordinary Germans seem to be much more receptive to welcoming immigrants and refugees than other European voters, perhaps due to the country’s unique historical circumstances.

As I see it, European states have three basic choices at this point: maintaining the status quo, going ultranationalist, or accepting the reality of mass emigration and facilitating it. The first choice is really no choice at all; it will only delay the incidence of one of the other two paths until those states no longer have the resources to exert any control over the process.

The second option, which Putin has experimented with and could spread in Eastern Europe, involves invoking an existential national threat–namely the specter of being overrun by barbarian hordes–to make closing the borders and raising the birthrate a patriotic duty. This was a linchpin of Hitler’s domestic policy, and fits into a larger program of militarization and authoritarian governance. I can’t imagine that any country adopting this direction could stay in the European Union for long.

The third option is risky and politically gut-wrenching. It’s also Europe’s best chance for long-run prosperity. The European states that are most open to immigration will reap major economic benefits as time goes on, and not just from an improvement in demographic fundamentals. Many of the refugees fleeing instability along the European perimeter were middle-class, skilled professionals in their own countries who can add value in their new homes. The data support the notion that immigration tends to boost economic growth.

That being said, Europeans have every right to be concerned about the short-run economic costs of absorbing and supporting huge numbers of refugees from crisis-hit areas. This is surely not going to be a one-time deal, especially given the probable future impact of climate change on many developing countries.

On top of that, Europeans are worried about the cultural impact of the newcomers. Fears of sharia law being implemented across a newly transformed “Eurabia” are risible–Muslims are currently slated to make up less than 8% of the continent’s population by 2030. But the migration crisis does put considerable pressure on the hyphen between “nation” and “state.” Europe and its migrants will exert reciprocal change on one another. The core issue is where the balance is ultimately going to fall three or four generations down the line.

The “native Europeans” suspect that this bargain is a Faustian one that will sacrifice the nation in order to save the state. To some extent, they are correct. Germany, France, the UK, and many other European countries will be significantly less Caucasian in 2050 than they are today. Germany might have a Turkish- or Syrian-German Prime Minister. Perhaps one of the House of Windsor will marry a person of British Asian extraction.

But do we really think that Europe will be any less “European” then than it is now? I don’t. Like most migrants, today’s refugees primarily seek a higher standard of living and more opportunities for their children–and such opportunities are most quickly located by assimilating. Most are completely disinterested in turning Berlin into Damascus or Paris into Tangier.

Thus, the best way to forge a “European” future for Europe is simply to turn these people into Europeans as quickly as possible. Get them housing and jobs and put their children in school. Invest in the necessary facilities. It will be worth it.

The fact is that the Europe of the “native Europeans” had effectively signed its own death warrant well before the advent of the crisis. And it is also a fact that every crisis conceals an opportunity. Let’s hope that Europe’s leadership and people end up seeing it that way too.

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On Borders and the Islamic State

Ever since I picked my dissertation back up in January after a year and a half of near-total inattention, I’ve tried to get back into the academic mindset by thinking about the security situation a bit. While I would have preferred that world peace had broken out in the interim and left me with nothing to write about, warfare is a depressingly consistent feature of international politics. That goes double for certain unlucky parts of the world, like any country sharing a border with Russia that isn’t China, or the whole of Western Asia, where borders in general now seem less meaningful than ever (despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts).

I’ve always been interested in international borders. Two of my favorite books growing up were the New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and the New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, both compiled by Dr. Colin Mcevedy, who his 2005 obituary described as a “psychiatrist, historian, demographer and polymath” (in other words, the real-world version of Hari Seldon). You could pick one of these atlases up, thumb it like a novelty flipbook, and watch an animation of hundreds to thousands of years of human history, seen from near-Earth orbit, play out in a few seconds. Here’s a version on YouTube if you need help visualizing this.

Watching these things, one realizes that borders are what states make of them. That is to say, a stable border exists where two neighboring countries agree to put it. When one or both parties disagree, war tends to follow–or at least it did up until the latter part of the 20th century, when the United States and the Soviet Union, and then the United States alone, decided to spend its blood, treasure, and international credibility freezing most borders between countries in place.

In 2015, that rule is looking less like a permanent change and more like a blip on human history’s radar. Last year, the borders of Ukrainian Crimea vanished into Russia with a whiff of artillery fire, followed by a quick referendum. Meanwhile, certain disputed islands in the South China Sea currently enjoy six sets of borders at once, which might be some kind of modern record and frankly seems unsustainable.

But the real action is taking place in the countries formerly known as Iraq and Syria. These states are being steadily consumed from the inside out by the Islamic State, a virulent political cancer that is abhorrent and fascinating in equal measure.

Dreamers gonna dream.

The Islamic State doesn’t fit neatly into any of the analytical categories we use to describe political entities and substate actors in the 21st century. For instance, it is a successor organization to the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it uses the media to broadcast its atrocities like a terrorist group would. But it does other stuff that terrorist groups don’t typically do, in that it controls and governs large amounts of territory and is not primarily interested in extorting political concessions from a government.

It looks like a classic insurgency from some angles, particularly in its use of infiltration tactics and its steady efforts to take territory away from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, but it is also spending its resources cleansing the areas under its control of ethnic and religious undesirables, and it is replacing those it has killed or expelled with homesteading families from all over the world. It acts like a nation-state by fielding a regular army and governing the areas under its control–collecting taxes and providing services–but has also declared itself the center of a supranational caliphate which will eventually dissolve all international borders in the areas under its control:

“Nothing remains after the elimination of these borders, the borders of humiliation, and the breaking of the idol, the idol of nationalism, except the caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.”

– Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Islamic State spokesman

This is a fascinating quote on several levels. First, we have the reestablishment of the caliphate–and not just any old caliphate, like the Ummayad, the Abbasid, or the Ottoman varieties, all of which came to resemble secular imperial administrations to some degree–but the original article, the Rashidun, which was led by the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood recently analyzed the religious scholarship of the Islamic State’s leadership, concluding that the June 2014 declaration of a new caliphate was meant to initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. The Islamic version of the apocalypse involves the armies of the righteous getting the tar kicked out of them by the Antichrist right up to the very last minute, when Jesus returns to Earth and leads them to final victory.

With this in mind, the Islamic State’s many gross provocations come into sharper focus. They’re following a script that requires them to turn literally the entire non-Salafi non-Sunni Muslim world into deadly enemies.

Needless to say, that is highly atypical (although not unprecedented) behavior for a state. So is the obsession with erasing the borders of the Middle East. Most irredentist regimes (such as Revolutionary Iran) are focused on redrawing borders and then fortifying them. Not the Islamic State. Al-Adnani’s references to “the borders of humiliation” and “the idol of nationalism” refer not only to the former colonial powers of the West, but the Westphalian system of nation-states itself. The degree to which the Islamic State’s ideology is actually Medieval in origin is debatable, but at least in this respect, the appellation fits.

It’s important to remember that the establishment and spread of the nation-state, along with the parceling out of the Earth’s territory into 200-odd sets of borders delineating who controls what, is a relatively recent phenomenon. A thousand or more years in the past, temporal and spiritual powers were conflated in both the Muslim world and in Christendom, and borders meant significantly less than they do now. Politics was characterized by multiple overlapping spheres of authority: the emperor or the king, the pope, and various flavors of liege lord in Europe, and the caliph, the emir, the city, and the tribe across the Middle East and North Africa. The people living on a single piece of territory might owe allegiance to several parallel organizations or hierarchies at the same time. Needless to say, it was a confusing and dangerous time to be alive.

The Islamic State is not at interested in restoring this kind of political system. It hopes to establish a highly centralized, totalitarian theocracy. But when you look at places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, or Afghanistan–places where the state and its borders mean little, and the new caliphate and its allies have established a foothold–the facts on the ground spell out a similar kind of liminal space. It’s not quite anarchy, but it certainly isn’t hierarchy, either.

I very much doubt that the Islamic State will be able to erase the borders of the Middle East and reestablish the classical caliphate. However, I don’t think that the international community is going to be able to get rid of it very easily, either. The ideal behind it is powerful, it has romantic appeal, and it is loose in the wilds of the Internet. Although the meme resonates with only a very small fraction of Muslims globally, that will be enough to keep it alive longer than we might think.

The real risk is not that the Islamic State will explode. It is that it will persist indefinitely, allowing that small fraction a chance to tick upwards year by year. If it lasts another five years, or ten, how many people will be joining its ranks at that point? These guys aren’t in a rush. They’re making themselves comfortable and settling in for the long haul.

I am generally in favor of selective engagement when it comes to grand strategy, but when it comes to the Islamic State, I don’t think the United States can afford to wait. We, our allies, and as many of the nation-states of the Middle East as possible should act now, with overwhelming force, to strangle this particularly ugly baby in its crib.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: North Korea Edition

KJU

Kim Jong Un’s taking East Asia on a roller coaster ride.

Just how crazy is this Kim Jong Un guy, anyway? In the week or so since KJU had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, branded a traitor, executed, and expunged from official existence, I’ve read several articles describing him as a dangerous enfant terrible, and perhaps even a “modern Caligula.”

That notoriously depraved Caesar was eventually assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, and some voices in our foreign policy establishment would like to see the U.S. expedite this process. This argument comes in two basic flavors. The first is that we should try to get rid of KJU because he’s a really bad guy who commits crimes against humanity and flouts international laws, especially the nonproliferation regime, with impunity. The second is that KJU’s behavior has been so erratic that he cannot be trusted to make decisions that are consistent with the survival of his regime. In other words, he may not deterrable, which could be a big problem given the DPRK’s rudimentary-but-still-plenty-fissile nuclear stockpile.

Neither flavor tastes good, in my opinion. KJU is indeed a monstrous individual who deserves to be locked up in The Hague for 999 consecutive life terms, and so were the two previous Dear Leaders. Luckily, the state of North Korea isn’t a useful vehicle for causing serious international security trouble, because those three guys have driven it like a budget rental for 60-odd years.

Consequently, most of the nasty stuff the DPRK does on the international scene amounts to small-time mafioso crap: drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and illegal weapons sales, all done to keep the lights on in Pyongyang (12 hours a day). Peddling nuclear and missile technologies to the highest bidder is somewhat more serious… but what do the North Koreans actually have to sell, anyway? DPRK is very unlikely to sell a completed weapon or fissile material–the risks associated with that transfer are practically insurmountable, given how often DPRK’s weapons shipments are intercepted–and the other states in the market for nuclear weapons can likely do better with indigenous programs.

In short, DPRK is effectively contained, leaving the irrationality argument. The thing is that KJU’s purge doesn’t seem irrational to me. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was able to eliminate his uncle, an experienced and very well-connected politician who was close to the levers of power, suggesting both animal cunning and a knack for self-preservation, not madness. For all we know, KJU may not have lasted another year if he hadn’t acted when and how he did. Whatever the case, this kind of action isn’t unprecedented in new totalitarian governments.

I’ll end with this final thought: we don’t actually want KJU’s regime to collapse, and neither does South Korea, believe it or not. Nothing KJU has done to this point is as unpredictable as what could occur in the wake of a North Korean civil war or coup. And if you think reintegrating Germany was difficult for the Germans, just imagine what the South Koreans will have to do to bring 25 million of their starving Northern cousins up to speed.

I think the best way to get rid of KJU and his regime, ultimately, is to sign a peace treaty and formally end the Korean War, depriving the DPRK of its main excuse for oppressing its people so horribly under “wartime conditions.” From there, let the Sunshine Policy do the work, and maybe we get reunification several decades down the road.

Uh Oh, Ohio

A quick update on the subject of my last post. Salon reports that Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has authorized and installed last-minute “experimental” patches onto electronic voting machines in 39 Ohio counties.

The post’s author, Brad Friedman, stresses that he has no evidence that the patch is anything but the minor software adjustment Husted’s office says it is, and he is not accusing Husted or anyone else of fraud. Nevertheless, he raises many questions about the last-minute timing of the patch, its apparent circumvention of a state board that is ordinarily required to certify voting software before its use, and Husted’s lack of transparency and somewhat evasive answers to his and other reporters’ questions.

The possibilities here run the gamut from “totally innocent, but looks really bad” to “brazen attempt to steal a national election.” Although a lawsuit has already been filed for an injunction against using the machines tomorrow, I would be interested to learn what the Obama team is doing about this, if anything.

If, hypothetically, Husted is trying to influence the outcome in Ohio, and if he proves successful, I also wonder if it’ll matter at this point. The way the polls have been looking recently, Obama can lose Ohio and still win the election handily.

 

 

 

Words

Reading back over my last post a few weeks ago, I realized that I sounded like a data-mining zealot or a pure empiricist. The post reads like it was written by someone that has no use at all for Aristotle or Huntington, or any of the other great political theorists… someone who believes that he can somehow pull pure truth out of a collection of social measurements.

No. That’s dumb. In fact, I think that data is worse than useless without theory. The fanciest statistical package in the world cannot make sense of a dataset by itself. Obviously, somebody needs to be gathering data, selecting an appropriate model, and choosing which independent variables to focus on, but that is still an overly facile representation of the problem.

Most packages at this point have automated procedures for selecting the “best” model according to some informational criterion. These come in various flavors and levels of complexity, but almost always boil down to a measurement of model fit–or how closely the mathematical function you’ve cooked up approximates the observed phenomena.

A perfect fit is laughably easy to achieve. All you need to do is throw every explanatory variable you’ve got (at the theoretical limit, this means every measurable quantity in the universe) into the bin marked “factors that somehow cause phenomena xyz” and you’re done. Your graph will connect every single data point you’ve got in a stunning display of super-squiggliness, you’ll have an R-squared of 1, and you’ll be published in every top journal in the land.

Not hardly (and that’s not just because more sophisticated goodness-of-fit measurements penalize you for such “chance capitalization”). You need to be able to explain the process by which you arrived at your magic recipe. In other words, why should we believe that factors a, b and c (and perhaps a*c) cause xyz, and what does that sequence of events look like?

This presents a chicken-and-egg quandary if we are really trying to discover “the truth” about xyz’s causes: if we don’t know what we’re looking for in the first place, we’ll have no idea what data to gather. And when we’re dealing with social outcomes, simply “measuring everything” doesn’t work. These are complex phenomena that demonstrate exceptionally high-dimensional causality. By discipline, and in causal order, political science is built out of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and economics. We are still working on finding the elementary building blocks of matter; how are we supposed to know what to watch for five or six orders of magnitude later?

Note that I am not making an argument for extreme reductionism here. We’re not supposed to know, we’re supposed to make educated guesses. That’s what a theory is: a carefully considered, logically consistent guess, which in turn ultimately boils down to…. intuition. Yes: when trying to explain what individual people, or crowds of people, or millions people living in a state have done (or are going to do), and why they’ve done it (or are going to do it), I think our best bet is to have a flash of insight.

Where does that kind of insight come from? I have no idea, but reading lots and lots of work by the smartest, wisest, and most insightful people in history is a fantastic place to start.

Numbers

Political science grad students tend to spend their summers sharpening methods skills at workshops (like SWAMOS, which I attended last summer, or ICPSR), writing or tuning up papers for publication, or simply taking a short break from the vicissitudes of graduate school. It’s unusual to see one stuck in a teenager-packed lecture hall four days a week desperately scribbling down notes on intro calculus and computer programming material. Stranger still for that poor bastard to be there voluntarily. Yes, friends, I am said bastard!

Why would I be subjecting myself to this misery? I have my reasons, above and beyond a well-documented masochistic streak. I’ll start with the general observation that political science and economics, which have always been related, are well into the process of merging. The cutting edge of each discipline is slicing deep into the other.

In 2012, a lot of the top job candidates in political science have an MA in statistics and are  more comfortable building formal models than they are discussing Aristotle–or Huntington, for that matter. This is a natural consequence of the triumph of rational choice theory: departments that routinely hire economists alongside (and often before) political scientists. The writing is on the wall, all over the floor, and spelled out in the sky via smoke-emitting biplane: we need to be data and math people now, or else.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of economists are interested in topics that would have been considered pure political science a few decades ago: political institutions, civil wars, ethnic group salience, legislative politics, and on and on. Although I’m not an economist, my sense is that the old core of the discipline, finance and labor studies and the like, is no longer considered very interesting or sexy from a jobs standpoint.

Economists in general have a better command of advanced quant methods than any other kind of social scientist, and as such, they are well equipped to address and conquer any topic they choose. Political scientists and anthropologists and sociologists of the old guard like to say that economists have no knowledge of theory, or of conditions on the ground in rural Bolivia, or what have you. Maybe not.

But which is easier to acquire–advanced quant or subject/area knowledge? How about advanced quant or political theory? All three are difficult, to be fair, but advanced quant is in relatively short supply. Furthermore, the state of the art in quant is accelerating away from standard-issue quant. So, if you want to be a top-shelf quant guy now, you don’t just need to be able to use statistical packages with competence; you need to be able to program new ones yourself.

Finally, if one looks outside the academia to see what kinds of skills are valued–and many of us graduate students are, given the putrid state of the academic job market–it’s pretty clear what employers are looking for. Big Data is the big dawg. My guess is that Big Modeling will recover from the financial crash sooner or later to form a two-dawg axis.

That there is a high-level explanation of why I’m currently doing what I’m doing to myself. In slightly more detail, I’ve decided that I need another 24 months of math and programming (at a minimum) to pull off my new dissertation idea. I honestly don’t know if I can combine video games and political science in a way that will a) answer interesting political science questions b) in a way that other political scientists will buy while c) being fun to play, but I’m sure as heck going to try!

And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay too. I’ll go start something up in silicon valley.

The Sims: Political Science Edition

Recently, I’ve been considering whether it might not be possible to combine the two areas I am intensely interested in, video games and political science, in a way that won’t get me kicked out of graduate school and might even result in an academic position at some point (or at least won’t totally foreclose the possibility)!

To be sure, political science has become a lot more receptive to advanced computational modeling in recent years, following developments in the natural sciences and more recently in economics. Yes indeed! Some of the more freewheeling practitioners of the dismal science are now writing papers about currency farming and auction house behavior in World of Warcraft.

And, on the flip side of the virtual coin, there are a goodly number of academic refugees now employed in Silicon Valley as big data miners, virtual behaviorists, and the like. The demand has become particularly fierce on the new frontier of video gaming, which lives on the Internet and is fueled largely by “social graphing” and “in-app purchasing.” Zynga, an online games company that makes millions of dollars operating virtual fiefdoms, is hiring data analysts like crazy.

Video games are now computational models that are designed to produce fun and mineable data.

But I digress. A professor of international relations I very much respect, Art Stein, likes to say that the cutting edge in political science methodology runs about a decade behind economics, which in turn runs a decade behind physics and biology. That means that if I finish my PhD around 2016, I might be in very good shape!

The potential applications of game-based simulation methods in political science are endless. This is particularly true in international relations, where direct experimentation is effectively impossible; for instance, we’re not likely to randomly distribute nuclear weapons to countries throughout the world anytime soon. But we can certainly build a model of nuclear crisis and run it tens of thousands of times on the internet, twiddling the knobs to see what comes out.

Is external validity a problem for this kind of experiment? Most definitely. But there are many well-documented issues with scientific inference from observational data (selection bias, anyone? how about endogeneity?), and formal modeling, while appealingly parsimonious, is even more abstract and much less able to deal with the complexity that characterizes the real world. The analytical solution space to N-person cooperation games melts down pretty fast above a handful of players.

The Most Interesting Man In The World

Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will be returning to the Russian presidency in 2012 is about as surprising as a Yaakov Smirnoff punchline. In America, citizens choose president by voting… in Putin’s Russia, president chooses votes by citizens! Or something along those lines. Putin first won election in 2000 with 53% of the vote; in 2004, he smashed the opposition by winning 71%, a feat that his deputy Dmitry Medvedev duplicated in 2008. I would say that the over-under on Putin’s number next year is a healthy 75%.

Cool shades.

Why not something a little higher, like 80%, 90%, or even a Saddam Hussein-style flawless victory? It could be arranged. The Putin circle’s mastery of Russian politics is complete. The media has been brought to heel by years of mergers and acquisitions activity and well-placed bribes, not to mention a steady drip of journalist assassinations. The opposition has been cowed into silence–even the Communists, who were once quite adept at seizing and holding political power, but seem to have lost their street-fighting chops on their way to the Duma, where they are content to play the loyal “opposition” to Putin’s United Russia party with a token number of seats. The regional governments have been packed with cronies. The military just had its budget increased.

Medvedev, the most serious (and only realistic) threat to Putin’s control of the Russian state, is heading back to the prime minister’s office, where he will no doubt spend the next eight years (two Russian presidential terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution) waiting to spell Putin in 2020. Western hopes that Medvedev would play the Gorbachev to Putin’s Brezhnev were completely unfounded.

Yes, Putin would appear to have Russia on a string… and yet heavy lies the crown. Personalistic authoritarian regimes like Putin’s often lack the institutions necessary to “reproduce itself in a legitimate way,” as Vladislav Imozemtsev recently noted in a shrewd piece in Foreign Affairs.

The temporary switch to Medvedev only worked because Putin was still in the public eye, constantly reminding Russians that he was as vigorous as ever. Rather than a democratically appropriate alternation in power, the whole exercise was couched as a sort of four-year adventure vacation for the president.

Indeed, Putin’s roster of activities during his time away from the presidency reads more like a page out of The Most Interesting Man In The World‘s battered travel journal than a typical stint in a prime ministership. A partial list includes plumbing the world’s deepest lake in a sub, riding with notorious Russian biker gangs, shooting Siberian tigers with a tranq gun, and piloting various military aircraft (fixed- and rotor-wing!). The guy wasn’t just trying really hard–he was trying too hard.

So what? Maybe the guy’s having a delayed midlife crisis or something; maybe he’s just checking items off his bucket list. Could be, except that everything we know about Putin personally suggests that the man has few romantic or adventurous inclinations. He is most often described as a cautious–even colorless–pragmatist who is methodical to a fault. In fact, his efficient, calculating, essentially passionless nature was a major selling point for Boris Yeltsin, who needed to pick someone who could squelch Russia’s burgeoning economic and social anarchy as his successor. Putin got the job because he was the Least Interesting Man In The World.

The transformation from KGB suit to invincible muscleman strikes many observers in the West as overly facile and tone-deaf from a marketing point of view. But the fact is that Russians eat this stuff up. Putin’s personal popularity stands at 68%, a number that most US politicians would kill for.

Another fact is that Putin needs his personal numbers to be legitimately sky-high–much more so than Barack Obama, say, who can perhaps survive a personal popularity score in the high 40s. Putin cannot, for the same reason he can’t win the presidential vote with 100% of the vote.

Russia’s economic future depends on two things: rising commodity prices (especially in oil and gas) and foreign direct investment. The latter is more important than the former in the long run, in part because Russia’s energy infrastructure desperately needs to be modernized, but mostly because Russia stands no chance of escaping its steady decline without economic diversification.

In short, the Russians need General Electric (and similar firms) to come invest in their country. Investors, in turn, are looking for credible signals that Russia will keep its end of the many deals it wishes to sign. Risk management experts tend to look at absolute dictatorships with a jaundiced eye, particularly when it comes to longterm infrastructure investments, because the investment climates in such countries are actually less predictable than they are in democracies. Absolute dictators may decide to do impulsive things like revoke foreign property rights; they might privilege crony-owned local concerns over more efficient foreign investors; and, most importantly, their countries might explode into civil war upon the dictator’s death.

An anocrat like Putin, on the other hand, floats along winning 70% of the vote, generally without widespread fraud. His popularity is genuine–albeit heavily stage-managed and augmented by media control–and foreign firms are confident in it. By the time he’s on his deathbed, the public should be familiar enough with Medvedev (who is a full 12 years younger) that the transition will go smoothly.

Of course, Putin doesn’t look like a guy who’s going to be on his deathbed anytime soon, does he?

Stephen Biddle and the Policy-Academic Hybrid

Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and world-renowned expert on conventional warfare, is a perennial guest lecturer at SWAMOS–although many attendees would say that he is actually the main event here. Both the academic and defense policy worlds listen to what he has to say, and both worlds respect his ideas. This is a rare thing, and many junior academics (particularly in fields like security studies) want to find their own route to policy relevance. We want to be hybrids too.

The Original Hybrid.

I think I’m coming to understand how Biddle’s arrived at this point after listening to him lecture for three days. He’s very clearly an academic first. He has a strong command of social science methods and international relations theories, as well as the pedagogical bent of an experienced professor. And yet Biddle is also comfortable among military personnel and civilian defense policy people because he is able to, a) explain many different processes that they need to understand, b) using their own specialized language.

The military folks here throw him jargon- and acronym-laden curveballs, as they are wont to do among civvies, often without even thinking about it, and he smashes them out of the park. Seemingly obscure weapons systems and operational concepts don’t slow him down at all. Not only is he not intimidated, he doesn’t even appear to notice. You get the impression that the guy could go out to the field and plan a full scale military campaign from the ground up, and that he’d probably win it.

That’s the level of general mastery you need to be able to really engage non-academic decision makers at anything other than a narrowly specified level, and most academic types can’t do it because they’re overspecialized (the newer ones, at least). We read a lot of books about things we tend to forget, and then write a few of them about other things we come to know very well. But if you ask us about stuff that’s not in our immediate wheelhouse, and you’re likely to get a long, technically-worded equivalent of “uhhhhhh…” for an answer.

It makes sense, because our chief customers are mostly other academics who have the same issue and know not to push us too far beyond our comfort zone. Biddle’s been jumping back and forth between policy and academia from the beginning. This experience is reflected in his breadth of knowledge, which is something you simply can’t fake when you’re in front of people who need to make rather urgent decisions–such as which of several possible air defense systems to procure, or whether to hit the Taliban in the cities or let them camp out in the mountains.

Normally such vacillation is not the route to a successful academic career. Our advisors help us carve out our own niches, and from there we spend our careers furthering one or several specific research programs. Experience in the policy world can be interpreted as a signal of unwillingness to stick to our specific area and make a contribution there.

On the other hand, there are a handful of people like Biddle who go to the policy world and are essentially able to soak up data to further their academic work. Then they come back to the academy and write books that both camps can read and appreciate, albeit in very different ways.

Note that this is not a treatise against specialization, per se. Academic specialization is a wonderful thing because it allows individual scholars to devote the time and energy they need to make progress towards understanding tremendously complex phenomena. The problem, I think, is that it is all too easy for that precious information to end up in a place where it is not socially useful.