The Russian Threat and the Poverty of “Post-Truth”

The following is a guest post by Sidra Hamidi, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, specializing in global nuclear politics and state identity. She has published previously in the Washington Post  and E-International Relations

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to the highest office in the United States, many observers have heralded the beginning of an era of “post-truth” in which “facts” are under attack from “opinions” at best and “lies” at worst. Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year, and Ruth Marcus even referred to “post-truth” as a “practice,” citing Hannah Arendt’s 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics” to demonstrate the immediacy of the threat to facts.

The recent controversy over intelligence that Russia hacked the US election brings this notion of “post-truth” into further relief: the CIA, FBI, and NSA agree on the fact that Russia attempted to influence the US election while Trump continues to attack their authority and intelligence. Liberal commentators in particular imply that some facts are self-evident and that Trump and his supporters are simply wrong about how facts should inform the “truth,” often citing the Politifact statistic that more than 70 percent of Trump’s statements were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.” Trump’s approach towards the Russia controversy is yet another instance that confirms liberal predictions of a post-truth era.

The battle lines seem to be drawn into “truth” and “post-truth” camps. But the very term “post-truth” should lead us to question what the pre-“post-truth” era looked like: was it one in which objective facts ruled the day and politics consisted of a reasoned consensus towards the truth? It is unrealistic to refer to a post-truth era precisely because it assumes that we can point to another era where objective facts won out in our politics. This assumption itself undermines the many truths of the disempowered and underprivileged factions of American society for whom truth has always been manipulable by economic and political elites. Continue reading

Amazing Grace-An Unprecedented President

One of the most poignant moments of Barack Obama’s presidency was his eulogy for those murdered in the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the pulpit of that historic black church that served as a civil rights era sanctuary, and where a white racist extremist murdered nine African American parishioners who had just welcomed him, President Obama, America’s first black president, began to slowly sing Amazing Grace–a song often sung as an anthem of spiritual perseverance in the black church.  A church filled with mostly black mourners followed. No one else in American political life could have filled that moment with a more moving expression of what was being felt.  As I reflect on the Obama presidency, I am struck by how often, as I watched him, I had that thought—this man is special, and there is no one in our history who could have done what I was watching him do.

President Obama is gifted at discourse at many levels—speeches, press conferences, media cameos. He excels at what some call the poetry of politics. Despite this, in assessing the substance of his presidency, I’m struck that his significant achievements are very much grounded in the prose of policy. He warded off what was a near depression and steered the economy into a historically significant and long lasting recovery. His health care program extended health insurance to 30 million Americans without disrupting a health care system based largely on private insurance, and which constituted roughly 15 % of the economy. His security policies prevented 9/11 style terror attacks from foreign members of terrorist groups. Killing Bin Laden not only eliminated America’s most lethal enemy, but showed other foes that no one is beyond the reach of the U.S. military.  The existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change were blunted by painstaking diplomacy that led to the Iran nuclear arms deal and the Paris climate agreement. Continue reading

Bang for the Buck? Larry Summers and Global Health Funding

Larry Summers, I’m going to have to disagree with you.

It may seem a bit of a mismatch. Summers is a provocative and influential guy: Chief Economist at the World Bank, Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, Director of the National Economic Council under Obama, former president of Harvard University. He helped craft US policy in response to the Global Financial Crisis and international responses to financial problems in Mexico, Asia, and Russia in the 1990s. I, on the other hand, am a random academic whose best-selling book has finally cracked the top 500,000 on Amazon and whose office is adorned with a plush Ebola virus. Since we’re both interested in the politics of global health, though, I think we’ve got something to discuss. I bet we both liked Rogue One, too, so now we’ve got two things to discuss (but we’ll leave the latter for another time). Continue reading

Trump’s Russian Cyber-Hack Controversy: New era of post-Civil-Military Relations?

The following is a guest post by Jahara W. Matisek.  Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is a Major in the U.S. Air Force, with plenty of combat experience flying the C-17 and an instructor pilot tour in the T-6. He is an AFIT Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Northwestern University, a recent Summer Seminar participant in the Clements Center for National Security, and Coordinator for the War & Society Working Group at the Buffett Institute. Upon completion of his doctoral studies, Major Matisek will be Assistant Professor in the Military & Strategic Studies department at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The opinions espoused in the essay do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.

How bad would the Russian cyber-hack have to be in your mind to make you reconsider Trump being allowed to become President on the 20th of January?

I posed this provocative question to 28 individuals[1] that are currently serving in the U.S. military,[2] or had served at some point.[3]

Depending on where you fall along the political spectrum and level of engagement, this question came off as a genuine question to some, and to others, it was perceived as a loaded/slanted question. Thing is, I intentionally asked this, not because I wanted a direct answer to the question, but because I wanted to understand the current sociological state of civil-military relations (CMR) relative to this incredibly divisive political election season.  Understanding these answers can provide greater clarity to Peter Feaver’s civil-military problematique, where “the very institution created to protect the polity is given sufficient power to become a threat to the polity.”  Indeed, it is right to openly wonder military attitudes concerning civilian control of the military under the pretext of political leadership that might be perceived as illegitimate.

Nonetheless, I was greatly surprised with the incredibly high percentage of responses from such an opening question directed at military personnel – given the contentious election and continued controversy. Even as a mid-level military officer, I was able to start with this type of question, and many opened up immediately – regardless of rank and position – telling me much more than I anticipated, to include about half of the respondents – on their own accord – admitting who they voted for. Continue reading

The Many Faces of Trump Foreign Policy

From NBC. Admit it, you'd rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

From NBC. Admit it, you’d rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

It won’t be too long before we start to get a better understanding of what foreign policy in a Trump Administration will actually look like. It’s useful to keep in mind that current rhetoric is no guarantee of future grand strategy. Remember when we all worried that the Bush Administration was going to be too isolationist? Good times.

But let’s assume, for a moment, that the past is prologue. Or the prologue is the main part of the book. Or whatever.

This raises an interesting puzzle: what the $@!#* • #!*$$%*(!! is he doing? Seriously. What the !#(&–^&!# stupid #$#(*$!! is going on?

As I noted in another post, on what godforsaken inhospitable bright orange gas giant is it a good idea to attack your most successful alliance at the same exact time that you’re picking fights with your nearest peer-competitor—that is, China? And it isn’t like the incoming administration has been sending unambiguous signals to key Asian allies while it’s been prodding China. Oh yeah, and also North Korea’s in the mix.

As I was thinking about this—duly motivated by a discussion among fellow international-relations specialists on Facebook—I took to the Twitters to work out some alternative theories. Here they are:

The Chess Master.” Trump is a strategic genius. He recognizes that the US cannot afford to defend Europe while threatening war with China. He needs to take Russia out of the picture. So that means a “grand bargain” that will concede to Russia its privileged sphere of influence, as well as forward some of its other strategic priorities in western Eurasia. Not only does this free up the United States to take on Beijing, but it might even entice Russia to remain neutral—or support the US. It’s like the Austrian Diplomatic Revolution. Which turned out terrific for Vienna.

“The Transactionalist.” This is the conventional wisdom on Trump. He thinks in terms of short-term zero-sum bargains, mercantilist economics, and is deeply insecure about being taken advantage of. In his mind, NATO helps trade competitors. It’s basically a trade subsidy for Germany. But he can make big, splashy deals with countries like Russia. Maybe he can squeeze better deals from the NATO allies as well. There is a “T” in NATO, after all. It doesn’t have to stand for “Treaty.”

“Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt.” Trump speaks loudly and carries… a small stick… in his freakishly small hands. He’s all bluster. US foreign policy will largely carry on as normal, under the watchful eye of Defense, State, and second-tier national-security staff. In fact, Trump’s barking might just get a few NATO countries to make token increases in their defense spending, or offer more subsidies for American troops.

“The Buffoon.” This is kind of like Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt, but he actually means it; cooler heads aren’t going to prevail. It really is that bad. In other words, Trump is an impulsive narcissist and a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t worry too much about strategic logic. There really isn’t any. But some nice commentators—at Fox News, NewsMax, whatever new #MAGA journals appear, or the National Enquirer—will be happy to tell us that it’s genius. In a hundred years, Chinese revisionist historians will argue that there actually was a calculated grand strategy. They will be wrong.

“The Leninist.” The Trump ‘brain trust’—some combination of Bannon and Flynn—just want to burn it all down. This is something Cheryl Rofer (blog, Twitter) emphasizes. As reported at The Daily Beast:

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

In this scenario, it’s all about shredding globalism and liberal order. And that means watching NATO and the EU burn. Or, at least, gumming them up. Here, the eerie overlap with Russian interests is all a matter of convenience. They hate the liberal order, because it benefits the US and its allies. The Trumpistas hate the liberal order too, because reasons.

“The Transnational Rightist.” The Leninist is to revolutionary Marxism as The Transnational Rightist is to parliamentary socialism. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NATO and the EU that a Europe dominated by a mix of right-wing populist and post-fascist parties won’t cure. The enemy is the broad European center—the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and so on. What Trump wants is the rise of political co-confessionals, such as the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, and the Freedom Party in Austria. Hurting the establishment is good, but burning everything down would be a bit too much. Maybe just the EU. NATO can stay. Is Russia an ally of convenience or a fellow traveller? For now, it doesn’t really matter.

“The Useful Idiot.” Is Trump compromised by Kompromat? Is his overleveraged financial spider web dependent upon, intertwined with, or simply looking for the best deals in Russia? Does Trump just having a thing for strong, buff autocrats? Who knows? It’s all bad.

“Tales of the Incompetent Transition.” Transitions often make for policy instability and amateur-hour mistakes. I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009. The Obama Administration had just rolled out its new plans for European ballistic missile defenses. They were much better than the old plans. They also involved ending the “Third Site” in Poland. That the Bush Administration had so carefully negotiated. Apparently, no one gave  Warsaw a ‘heads up’. Things were bumpy for a bit.

Point is, even well-run transitions full of experienced people can go bad. And this is not one of those transitions. Eventually, there will be national-security principals, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and the rest of the crew. People will be briefed. Many will have a clue. Things will settle down.

…. Of course, it could be any combination of these. And perhaps I’ve missed some possibilities. Thoughts?

[cross-posted at the Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Understanding Trump’s Worldview

Over the weekend, Donald Trump gave an interview with Michael Gove of The Times of London and Kai Diekmann, a former editor of the German newspaper Bild. (The interview is behind a paywall, but you can register for free for access to two articles a week from The Times.)

There has been ample coverage in the press (see here, here), focusing on Trump’s ambivalence to NATO (“obsolete” “very important”), hostility to the European Union (“Personally, I don’t think it matters much for the United States”), and equal regard for Angela Merkel and Putin (“Well, I start off trusting both — but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all.”)

A friend on Facebook said she was struggling with explaining Trump’s foreign policy strategy. A number of people weighed in with suppositions about his business relationships in Russia, whether or not he is subject to blackmail from compromising information.

Leaving that aside, even in the absence of some specific connection between Trump and Russia, what might explain his coziness to Russia, his disdain for NATO, the EU, traditional allies? Or, put a little differently, since first-level analysis of individuals and agency is in vogue again, how can we understand Donald Trump’s worldview?

Tom Wright’s Politico piece from a year ago January 2016 is seen as one of the most accurate and helpful depictions of Trump’s worldview, and his forthcoming book will anchor Trump’s rise in the wider geo-strategic context. Wright focuses on Trump’s mercantilism and perception that the U.S. has gotten a raw deal from the liberal order and that alliances are sapping the country of resources. On Russia, Wright attributes Trump’s views to his general appreciation for authoritarians.

I think that’s generally right, but another idea woke me up at 2am last night and led me to some bleary-eyed tweets. Here is what I said.

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WPTPN: From the Stove to the Frontlines? Gender and Populism in Latin American and Western Europe

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Malliga  Och and Jennifer M. Piscopo. Dr. Och (on Twitter @malligao) is an Assistant Professor in the Global Studies and Languages Department at Idaho State University. Her research focus on women’s political representation in conservative parties and she is the co-editor with Shauna Shames of The Right Women. Republican Activists, Candidates, and Legislators (forthcoming Praeger Press, 2017).  Dr. Piscopo (on Twitter@Jennpiscopo) is Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College and a 2016-2017 Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. Her research on women, representation, and gender quotas has appeared in numerous academic journals. 

Donald Trump swaggered along the U.S. campaign trail, a hyper-masculine figure whose braggadocio extended to celebrating sexual assault. In France, Marine le Pen clothes anti-Muslim rhetoric in language about protecting women’s equality, rights, and bodily freedom. The majority of white women and men voted for Trump, but with a notable gender gap of 53 and 63 percent respectively. By contrast, the gender gap for populist support is narrowing in France, with Le Pen gaining support among female voters (Mayer 2013, 172). Populist movements have differentially affected men and women in their roles as party leaders, parliamentary candidates, and voters, but these outcomes are not consistent across regions or cases (de Lange and Mügge 2015; Kampwirth 2010). Yet understanding the gendered dimensions of the populist resurgence is critical for explaining why and how these parties cement their appeal.

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El Salvador’s Restless Peace at 25

Banners

FMLN banners at the 24th Anniversary celebration, 2016

Amidst all the political drama this week, one could be forgiven for not noting the 25th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Agreement. Chapultepec was the agreement that brought a negotiated end to El Salvador’s civil war, a 12-year conflict between a repressive military government and leftist rebels united under the banner of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The Salvadoran conflict was notable for its tremendous human cost. By the conflict’s end, over a million people had been internally displaced or fled abroad and an estimated 75,000 Salvadorans were killed, many of them civilians. All this, in a country whose territory is slightly smaller than New Hampshire. Continue reading

We Shall Overcome

Happy Birthday to Dr. Martin Luther King!

In his honor here is his favorite singer, the majestic Mahalia Jackson, singing the theme song for the civil rights movement–“We Shall Overcome.” After that I’ve posted Dr. King’s soul shaking spoken word reflection on that song. All together they’re five minutes long and well worth a listen.

Mahalia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTyKJjj2oC0
Martin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=130J-FdZDtY

UNITED STATES - APRIL 15:  Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Vietnam protest parade.  (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

UNITED STATES – APRIL 15: Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Vietnam protest parade. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Trump and IR Theory: Did We Forget Great Men?

I was reminded on twitter that international relations professors have trained students for generations to focus on the third and second levels of analysis and dismiss the first–that individuals and their characteristics matter much less than the constraining impact of institutions and the incentives provided by the international system.

So, should we just apologize as Trump sells out the postWWII order and ends American hegemony by whim or fiat?  No, we need to drink heavily.  Seriously, there are a few real responses to this question of agency and structure.

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Thoughts (for “both sides”) on the academic boycott

In the wake of the failed attempt at passing a boycott resolution (of Israeli academic institutions) at the recent MLA conference, here are some thoughts. (Readers of the Duck might be aware that last year’s ISA conference saw a modest attempt at bringing a discussion on BDS forward. That proposal was also voted down.)

Let’s talk (past each other)!

The debate over the academic boycott is often frustratingly unproductive.

On one hand, some anti-boycotters accuse boycott proponents of being antisemitic. While some boycotters may be antisemitic (just as some anti-boycotters may be antisemitic!), the accusation is ill-conceived and distracting. One claim I often hear — that since roughly half the world’s Jews live in Israel, then BDS must be antisemitic — simply doesn’t hold up. BDS is a tool to coerce Israel to comply with international law and adhere to human rights imperatives, not a boycott of Judaism or Jews.

On the other side, some boycott proponents accuse boycott opponents of being chained to other allegiances. “The bad conscience of liberal Zionism,” David Lloyd, English professor at UC-Riverside, wrote in Mondoweiss in describing the deliberations at the MLA, “forced to defend the indefensible, was on full display.” This too, is a bad-faith response. While some boycott opponents may be motivated by fealty to the State of Israel or to Zionism, there are enough good arguments against academic boycotts as a tactic to demand a fair consideration of the ethics writ large. More on this, below.

About the MLA deliberations, Lital Levy, a comparative literature professor at Princeton who followed the proceedings and later the responses from colleagues on both sides, says she “felt caught in the middle.” Rather than “digging in our heels,” Levy says, we should “actually talk to each other (and not just at these emotionally laden public hearings at MLA), but throughout the year, directly.” (Levy has more to say about the fraught nature of dialogue, though, below.) Continue reading

The Value Alignment Problem’s Problem

Having recently attended a workshop and conference on beneficial artificial intelligence (AI), one of the overriding concerns is how to design beneficial AI.  To do this, the AI needs to be aligned with human values, and as such is known, pace Stuart Russell, as the “Value Alignment Problem.”  It is a “problem” in the sense that however one creates an AI, the AI may try to maximize a value to the detriment of other socially useful or even noninstrumental values given the way one has to specify a value function to a machine.

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Twenty-Five (or so) Questions for Senate Hearings on Trump National Security Appointees

I used to be a Senate staffer, and one of the most interesting parts of my job was helping Senators prepare for hearings.  If I were a Senate staffer now, here’s hearing questions I’d recommend for President-Elect Trump’s national security nominees, Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), General James Mattis (Secretary of Defense), and General John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security). These questions would serve as starting points for dialogue during the hearings and I’m sure would lead to other questions.

On Whether War Works:

  1. Over the past 15 years, we have used military force (or, as we used to call it, gone to war) in at least six nations in the Middle East and South Asia—Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. As to the uses of force in each of those nations:
  • In what ways was it a success?
  • In what ways was it a failure?
  • What conclusions do you draw from your assessments of successes and failures?
  • What recommendations will you make to the President and Congress about U.S. strategy, including but not limited to use of force, in each of these nations?
  • What should our goals be in each nation?

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Luis Videgaray, Mexican foreign policy and the open contempt for expertise

For the past few months, I’ve been observing with horror all the cabinet appointments in the incoming Trump administration and the Theresa May government .  As someone who originally did a PhD with the intent to become a career diplomat (and yes, I realize there’s a foreign civil service pathway to achieve precisely that goal), to me expertise in top-level agencies was more than a mere technicality: it was a requirement. I wanted a PhD in international relations or political science because I wanted to be knowledgeable about the dynamics of global affairs, diplomacy and state-to-state relationships. Thus, watching Prime Minister May appoint Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and PEOTUS Trump appoint Exxon Mobil chairman Rex Tillerson to the State Department was shocking. To me, these kinds of appointments signal a complete disdain for expertise, career service and the foreign civil service structures and legacies.

Then came embattled Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto with the cherry on top. Peña Nieto has rescued his long-time aide from the depths of scorn and made him Foreign Affairs minister, substituting Claudia Ruiz Massieu (the niece of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari). Videgaray was the political operator of Trump’s visit to Mexico, the former finance minister, and was ousted after Peña Nieto was heavily criticized because of his willingness to host Trump and the fact that he extended an invitation to the then Republican candidate. Trump has been openly adversarial toward Mexico and Mexicans from the beginning of his campaign, and has repeatedly said that the US under his leadership would be building a wall and that he’d make Mexico pay for it.

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Never Too Early for a Crisis in Civil-Military Relations

To be clear, the latest news is “intra-civilian” but is likely to cross over given the stakes.

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ISA Conferences in Trump’s America

In conversations with friends, I quickly realized that the International Studies Association faces some significant problems ahead.  The advent of the Trump administration is likely to lead to two kinds of complications:

  • it may be hard for foreign scholars to get visas to attend the conference
  • that scholars may want to boycott conferences that take place in the US if Trump follows through on a variety of things he promised/threatened/tweeted during the campaign.

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A Plea for Cease Fire in the New American Civil War, Part II—The Case for Civility and a Changed Tone of Debate

Consider these two presidential statements:

“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”—President-Elect Donald Trump’s New Year’s Twitter greeting

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of our affection.”—President Abraham Lincoln, from his first inaugural address

Both Lincoln and Trump wrote their words after heated and divisive elections. Both won their elections though they lost the popular vote.  Lincoln spoke to a nation that had been violently divided over slavery and was on the brink of civil war following the secession of several states. And as that war came and took the lives of half a million Americans, Lincoln stayed true to the virtue of civility. His language reflected his goal of uniting the nation after the fighting ended, culminating with his elegiac second inaugural speech where he urged the nation to heal “with malice towards none and charity for all.”

In this second of three essays on our contemporary American divisions, I’ll explain why Trump (and all of us) would do well to emulate Lincoln’s graceful example of public discourse. It’s important to be realistic—Trump has succeeded by being brash and confrontational his entire life, and Lincoln sets a standard for honorable public discourse that few can reach.  That said, the nation will be far better off if Trump, and all of us, address each other with respect and civility. Continue reading

#RussiansDidit

Putin’s annual press conference is a chance for regular citizens to spend 3 hours in a great and rich Russia, where everything is in order and Putin is capable of installing presidents in foreign countries (according to one journalist). In general, the press conference strived to paint a picture of a great power facing some economic problems and who is constantly challenged by other countries (they are probably jealous and/Russophobic). For me it was also a chance to wonder at Putin’s stamina. He might not be Superman, as one of the posters brought by the journalists stipulated, but his bladder is definitely made of steel.

As always, Putin demonstrated his ability to juggle all kinds of statistics in response to questions about economics, including Russia’s successful export of IT. One may wonder if he included hacking, because that was definitely a very successful export. As a female journalist called for abolishing juvenile justice in Russia, because ‘slapping children is a traditional Russian [sic] pedagogical method’, Putin emphasized that there was a slim line between slapping and beating up, but still warned against interfering into family matters. In comparison to the rhetoric of some of the questions, Putin did make an impression of a more liberal and reasonable politician, very much fitting into the narrative of ‘without Putin it could be much worse’ .

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The Rashomon-ization of the World Health Organization

An event happens. Four different people tell four different versions of what happened. How do we figure out how to move forward?

This is a very rough plot summary of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, but it’s also a pretty accurate description of what is happening to the World Health Organization these days. There’s probably a generation of folks who know Kurosawa because he was name-checked in Rent, but the Japanese director also gives us a window for thinking about international politics.

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Explaining the Obvious in the Age of Trump

The President-Elect has called for expanding the US nuclear arsenal, not just modernizing it (old warheads may not be good warheads).  And when asked about whether this might lead to an arms race, he said woot!

Who wins arms races?

  1. Arms manufacturers and their stockholders
  2. Maybe Ken Waltz (who is already dead)

Yeah, that’s about it.  How about who loses?

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