How does a democratic (U.S.) government wield secrecy? This is the core question of Andris Banka and Adam Quinn’s “Killing Norms Softly: US Targeted Killing, Quasi-Secrecy and the Assassination Ban,” which advances a theory of how norms of secrecy can be changed to serve executive needs. Focusing on the case of targeted killing under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the article provides context for the case by explaining how norms develop. The authors challenge the assumption that a change of norms requires public advocacy by arguing that official secrecy can play “an instrumental role in the process of normalizing potentially controversial shifts” (666).

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The Bridging the Gap book series at Oxford University Press publishes works that are theoretically grounded and policy relevant. The co-editors—Bruce Jentleson, Steve Weber, and I—marked the formal launch of the series in 2018 with the publication of Georgetown University Professor Matthew Kroenig’s The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy.

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The idea of a liberal rules-based international order has taken a beating lately, not just from the Trump presidency but also in the pages of academic and policy publications. The administration in Washington argues that the liberal order in the post-Cold War world no longer serves U.S. interests.[1] While this argument deserves scrutiny in light of China’s spectacular rise within the order, academic writing has instead focused more on the fact that  notions of the liberal order are simply “myth” and “nostalgia.”[2] Critics allege that the liberal international rules-based order was never truly liberal, international, rules-based, or orderly.[3] In this vein, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections is not a cause but rather a symptom of the longer-term decline in the various pillars of the order: capitalism, multilateralism, and democracy.[4]

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Few issues arouse as much debate as the Iraq War. The decision to invade in 2003 was a milestone for U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics. Advocates of the war believed that the prior status quo was unsustainable, and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime was a ruthless anachronism. The fact that Saddam had not abandoned his interest in so-called weapons of mass destruction made his removal all the more necessary. Critics warned, however, that regime change was not in the U.S. national interest, and that by invading the country that U.S. would set in motion events it could not control. Years of grisly civil violence seemed to vindicate their warnings. The critics took their arguments further in the aftermath, casting the war as symptomatic of a deep and enduring interventionist bias in American grand strategy.

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One of Donald Trump’s superpowers is to dominate all spheres of American life, and the book industry is no exception. The nonfiction market is littered with best-sellers about life in the Age of Trump. The past two years have generated numerous genres of political tomes: the tell-alls by those who have served in his administration,[1] the hosannas to his political greatness,[2] and the journalistic accounts of his norm-defying 2016 campaign and chaotic first two years as president.[3]

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An MQ-9 Reaper taxis after a mission in Afghanistan.

Beware the grim reaper?

Analyses of drones often generate more heat than light, but Aqil Shah’s article is a welcome change. Shah argues U.S. drone strikes do not cause “blowback” in Pakistan or anywhere else, basing his claims primarily upon field interviews conducted in Pakistan. As he summarizes, “I find no evidence of a significant impact of drone strikes on the recruitment of militants either locally or nationally” (49).

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Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Steven Teles, and Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., have written an important, nicely crafted, and provocative policy paper, representing the views of a new American political “Center,” which they have summarized for a broader audience and which has received significant praise and commentary.[1] In short, from a libertarian-oriented perspective, the paper offers a public-spirited, moderate, and appealing alternative to the partisan extremes that have been offered and debated by small government/pro-market oriented conservatives, on the right, versus supporters of big, welfare-state oriented government on the left. This alternative is presented as new centrist ideas that have the potential to move toward solving problems and mitigating the ideological conflict over pressing economic and social welfare issues, as well as related issues, on which President Donald Trump and his administration have caused unprecedented turmoil. That the report takes on the political right as well as the left suggests that it may well be on to something that the authors hope can restore lost trust in government and its leaders, who have been consumed by partisan polarization, wave elections, nationalized politics, and political incivility, with no way out in sight.[2]

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This roundtable debates ideas and evidence in Diane Pfundstein Chamberlain’s recent book, Cheap Threats; Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States. Pfundstein Chamberlain’s book considers the important puzzle described in the title, and in doing so puts forth a surprising new theory of coercive diplomacy. The reviewers praise some aspects of the book, but they raise concerns about both theory and evidence. Pfundstein Chamberlain responds comprehensively to the critiques. The debate is particularly interesting because the reviewers, though all experts in coercion and/or deterrence, approach the book from quite different angles.

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Official portrait of US Ambassador Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson [close up]In a favorable review of The Kremlinologist, the fine recent biography of the great American diplomat and Soviet expert Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson that was written by his daughters, David Foglesong added this curious cavil. “The Thompsons argue that the Cuban missile crisis stemmed from [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev’s seeing ‘an irresistible opportunity to use missiles to solve all his problems’—including Chinese criticism, Soviet military complaints, and East German instability, as well as Cuban vulnerability—even though they acknowledge that there is very little documentary evidence to support that thesis.”[1]

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In Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, David Hendrickson, a prolific and provocative scholar, offers an eloquent root-and-branch critique of American foreign policy, focusing chiefly on the post-Cold War decades.[1] In essence, Hendrickson contends that the precepts and practices of U.S. statecraft have corroded Americans’ liberty at home and increased the threats they face from abroad. Be it the current configuration of U.S. alliances, the worldwide military presence of the United States, American leaders’ attempts to reshape—especially by military means—the internal order of states, or the magnitude of expenditure on the national security apparatus, Hendrickson calls for a break with a status quo to which, he believes, Republicans and Democrats are both committed, though not always to the same degree.

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