Friday, June 24, 2016

Instant Hottakes on Brexit

We will have much, much time to ponder and study what happened yesterday... whether it was the weather that made the difference in London, why Cameron was such an idiot, and on and on.  I have a few quick reactions guided by and due to my faith in confirmation bias!
  1. While I am kind of surprised by the results, I should not be as I co-authored a book that argued that individuals and leaders will often embrace xenophobia for its short term allure despite the  great costs to the country. That is why we named the book: For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism, and War (now available in an updated 2015 paperback version!).  That Brexit did well in England but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland (Wales confuses me as it always does--not enough vowels) is not surprising, AND neither does the fact that most of the polls indicated that the relationship between fear of immigrants and support of Brexit.  The strange thing, of course, is that the UK was not part of the Schengen system so it still had much more control of its borders and of immigration than the rest of the EU.  So, leaving the EU does not really "fix" the "problem" of too much immigration.
  2. Events like these have huge ramifications for those inside that country, including potentially more separatism, but not so much elsewhere.  In short, direct effects matter a lot [update: see statement by Scottish National Party leader], but indirect lesson learning does not.  Why?  For the former, the exit will directly affect the interests (incomes!) and power of those inside the UK, leading to stronger interests on the part of the Scots to leave (although it may not be as instant as some might have thought).  For the latter, the problem is that there are multiple lessons to learn.  For those who want to leave the EU or separate from their current country, they can look at Brexit and say: they did it, we can do it too, taking away the positive lessons.  For those who don't want to leave the EU or secede from wherever, they can observe the economic shocks and other painful consequences and learn that this would be awful for them.  Let confirmation bias be your guide, I always say.  Again, multiple lessons to learn, so which lessons will people take away?  The only common lesson will be that David Cameron will go down in history as one of the worst Prime Ministers of all time.
  3. Already folks are worrying what this says about Trump--that if the wave of populist nationalism can break the UK, then shouldn't we worry about Trump getting more votes than we expect?  Um, no.  Why not?  First, the electoral college means that the US election is not a pure referendum where mobilizing the cranky can lead to a win.  Trump would have to do very well across a number of states, including some very diverse ones.  Second, while whites are a majority in the US, white men are not. I don't know what the gender breakdown of Brexit was, but in the US, Trump has been quite successful at alienating not just non-whites but women.  Third, there is a huge imbalance in the American election in terms of organization, skill, discipline, resources and resources and resources--Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have a huge lead here that Trump will not be able to surmount, especially as potential donors ponder whether Trump is using the campaign contributions to win the election or to save his failing businesses.  I have no idea what the balance was in the UK.  Fourth, the GOP is divided, with vulnerable Senators running away from Trump as fast as they can.  Yes, the Dems are currently divided with Sanders still not dropping out (oy!), but eventually he will.  That HRC is ahead despite Sanders sticking around is a testament either to her strength, revulsion for Trump or both.
  4. Most importantly, Lindsay Lohan is relevant again!

Alas, she seems to have deleted all of her anti-Brexit tweets.

Anyhow, for those outside of the UK, we don't need to panic much.  For those inside, I am so sorry for your loss.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Knee-Jerkiest Comments

Yesterday, I had an op-ed advocating that Canada participate meaningfully in the new NATO persistent presence mission in Eastern Europe published in the Globe and Mail.  Because I was stuck on hold for more than 75 minutes, I did what folks tell you not to do: I read the comments on the piece. Oh my.

There were some intelligent comments that led me to post some elaboration--that the op-ed was about Canadian participation and not about explaining why the NATO effort was a good idea. 

Much of it was back and forth between fans of Russian irredentism (hey, what belonged to us in some point in history belongs to us now and Putin has not threatened the Baltics, yada, yada, yada) and more reasonable folks.  But I was amused by the competition to be provide the laziest, least thoughtful comments. 

One of the very first comments accused me of being a war monger.  Which means they didn't read the piece or could not understand it since I am advocating for a deployment of military units to deter and prevent a war, not to cause one.  The whole idea is to stop a war from happening.  How does that make me a war monger?

Vying for lazy/knee-jerkiness were arguments related to the military-industrial complex--that this deployment is about maxing out the Canadian defence budget.  Um, have you seen Canada's defence budget politics?  More importantly, deploying two hundred or so troops to reside in Latvia is not going to help boost the size of the military or its budget nor benefit many defence contractors.  It might help a few property owners and businesses in Latvia, but the scale of this thing is so small as to be irrelevant for those of us who are card carrying members of the military-industrial-academic complex.  Arguing that this is being done for profit is just silly.

What can we learn from this exercise? That folks seem to have enough time on their hands to comment but not enough time to read?  No idea, but I need to find something else to do when on hold for such long periods of time because reading the comments was not very educational.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Provoking vs. Tempting: Preferring the Former

I wrote a piece in today's Globe and Mail where I advocate Canada take a significant role in NATO's new "persistent presence" mission on the Eastern Front (the Baltics plus Poland).  I didn't spend much time arguing for the NATO mission itself, as it is a done deal to be announced at the Warsaw Summit in July.  Instead, I argued for Canada's participation, which is really the decision up for grabs this week.

Still, folks in the first few comments were upset that I am a war mongerer.  Ooops.  More importantly, some took issue with my quick mention of how this effort will affect Russia--that Putin might be provoked.  So, here's a bit more of an explanation/argument.

Yes, Russia has made a series of statements about how offputting it would be for NATO to put troops in the Baltics, that this violates the old NATO Russia Founding Acto, and that it is a waste of resources that should be dedicated towards the common enemy of ISIS.  All this is hogwash, of course.  The NATO Russia Founding Act is dead, dead, dead.  If Russia is sincere in its assertion about the primacy of the ISIS threat, then it would drop its support for Assad or at least stop spending most of its military effort against Assad's non-ISIS adversaries.

It comes down to this: what is more likely to lead to an unfortunate Russian move that might spiral out of control?  The presence of NATO troops in the Baltics or their absence?  Given that Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he is an opportunist, I think the first move is to deny him opportunities.  A Baltic country with no NATO troops is a temptation--a quick Russian move would then force NATO countries into a difficult position: act second by reinforcing that country through Russia's anti-access/area denial defences (anti-air and anti-ship missiles already set up in Kaliningrad) or fail to act, and thus greatly undermining the essence of NATO--that an attack upon one is equal to attack upon all.  Given Putin's statements about NATO, this is an objective that he does seek, and it would give some solace to those in Russia who are upset that they lost the Cold War.

Thus, I find the absence of NATO troops to be more provocative, more tempting than their presence.  As Russia has escalated its threatening behavior over the past couple of years, including a simulation of attacking the Swedish parliament while it was in session, many more overflights over NATO countries, near misses with ships and planes, we have to return to the old playbook: creating tripwires in the East to provide credible guarantees to the allies and deterring Russia.

With NATO troops in the East, the onus shifts from NATO having to respond to a Russian attack to the Russians having to consider what their move would mean--a process that could get out of control.  As I argue in my piece, prevention is cheaper than war, so let's deploy some military units to make sure that war does not happen, eh?


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Canada and Warsaw Summit: I am Entirely Predictable

I have a piece at the Globe and Mail, arguing that Canada should be the fourth major force contributing country to the NATO effort to deter Russia in the Baltics/Poland.  Comment here or there.  I am already being accused of being a warmonger, although I am actually advocating for an effort to prevent war, but reading comprehension kind of sucks among commenters.


Brexit Contagion? NO!

I got into a twitter conversation with a Canadian columnist about the implications of Brexit for Quebec/Canada.  My short answer: t'ain't none.  Or, damned little.  Why? Mostly because much of my early work (and more recent stuff)  points against political movements changing significantly due to observing events elsewhere.

Brexit is akin to secession, but secessionism is not contagious.  Politicians and publics respond most strongly to the domestic political conditions that they live with and provide incentives.  If a piece of a federation leaves, then sure, that affects the various actors within that federation.  So, secessionism was contagious within Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.  BUT outsiders who are not impacted directly can learn both positive and negative lessons, and they will tend to learn those that reinforce their existing preferences--confirmation base and cognitive closure have a huge impact here. 

For example, the Quebec separatists were following the Scottish referendum very closely until the Scots said nay.  Then the Quebec separatists basically forgot that the whole thing happened.  The lessons Quebec and Canada learned from Montenegro's secession proves the power of confirmation bias.
Quebec separatists: wow, Montenegro had a vote and voila, independent!
Canada: Hey, 55% as a threshold for legitimate referendum. 
Quebec: huh? I can't hear you.

To be sure, if the UK leaves the EU, then, yes, Scotland will leave the UK.  Things were close enough last time, and the Scots are mostly fans of the EU.  What will this mean for Quebec?  Not much.  Quebec separatism is moribund for a reason.  Ok, many reasons: the Quebeckers have gotten most of what they wanted, the Rest of Canada has learned not to poke at the beast by avoiding constitutional discussions, and the Prime Minister happens to be a Quebecker.  While that last bit is no guarantee, Quebeckers are less upset with the federation now than they were under Harper, and they were not that mobilized then either.  Oh, and it is both a cause and consequence of the weak state of Quebec separatism that the Parti Quebecois is so incredibly lame right now.

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose Brexit,* but spawning separatism in Canada is not one of them.
* My favorites are: massive economic changes that are poorly understood, the magical thinking of the Brexit folks, and, oh yes, that much of the Brexit movement is driven by the same blend of ignorance and xenophobia as the Trump campaign.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Engaging the Object of My Research: Parliament and Civ-Mil

Parliament owns the small building that appears to be
part of the big hotel to the right but is not.
Today, I had the chance to participate in the Opposition's Defence Review.  The Conservatives are running a parallel process to that of the Minister of Defence.  I will be participating in the latter Def Review next week in Montreal.  I am not sure what the rules are for today's, in terms of Chatham House or whatever, so I will only discuss my views and my experience with some broad descriptions of the event itself.

It was a smallish group of around 12 participants plus two members of Parliament (James Bezan, the Defence Critic, and Cheryl Gallant, one of the two Vice-Chairs of the Standing Committee on National Defence), and their staff.  Besides Hon. Gallant and a staffer, the participants were male, and I was at or below the median age.  The group included retired military officers, retired public servants, defence contractors, and two academics (my colleague Jeremy Littlewood and myself). 

What did I have to say?  Well, I was reacting in part to the Conservative defence review document, which was fairly (extremely) partisan.  My basic point was that the problems Canada faces in dealing with its various defence challenges are not due to any party, but due to structural dynamics (including the partisanship that focuses on point scoring rather than improving governance).

Which structural dynamics?
Spiffy room with heaps of technology
for translation, video, etc.
  1. Every democracy screws up defence procurement in its own special way.  For Canada, everything is more expensive, takes longer, etc.  If we can figure out how to just fix it a little bit so that things cost 5% less, things are just a little bit less late, etc, that would be a major contribution.
    1. I did raise the problem of "industrial benefits" as being a major factor in choosing contractors.  How so?  That any protectionist measure ultimately costs more per job than whatever that job pays.  It is unlikely that Canada will develop a comparative advantage in naval ship-building, for instance.  And in those areas where Canada can compete, it ends up selling stuff to yucky places like Saudi Arabia.
  2. The forces of the status quo will always raise the argument that Canada needs to be flexible and have stuff across the full spectrum of military capability so that it can do combat. Yes, conflating niche/specialization with not being able to do combat. This rhetorical device is ever present in Ottawa and is aimed at avoiding decisions.  I hammered away at this:
    1. Canada is already a specialized force as it has no aircraft carriers, attack helicopters, etc, etc.  Choices have already been made about what Canada can bring to the fight, and "not everything" is that choice.
    2. The example I raised is the troubled shipbuilding program--that we can either have ones that are good at fighting subs or good at knocking down missiles but probably not both.  What do our allies need/want us to do?
    3. A key military mantra--don't reinforce failure, only reinforce success.  Do not invest additional resources into something that is not working (I hinted at subs).
  3. When we speak of the budget, there are three categories: personnel, procurement, and operations/training/maintenance.  The first two have fan clubs/advocates.  At any of these meetings, there are folks who say not to cut personnel and to spend more on personnel.  Personnel is nearly 50% of the military budget, and this is a big problem. All of Canada's allies face a similar problem but not to this degree.  The procurement issues always have fans/advocates as well: the defence contractors who are involved, the politicians representing the ridings (districts) where the stuff is built, etc.  But outside of the military, there is no one lobbying for money to be spent on maintenance, training, and operations.  Sure, the government can promise to give the military more money for a new operation, but in reality that usually means that some other defence program is cut to pay for that operation.
Anyhow, that was my two bits, plus a short rant in the Q&A about how Russia is not a threat to the Canadian arctic.

As someone doing research in the role of parliament in overseeing the military, this was very much a participant-observer kind of thing. Good times.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lame Counterfactuals for $600, Alex

This has been going around:

Why is this such a dumb counterfactual?  Let me count the ways:
  1. Unlike parliamentary elections, individual voters could not vote for the full range of candidates--they voted in either the Democratic process or the Republican process
  2. Unlike parliamentary elections, the primary/caucus processes in the US were not simultaneous but sequential.  Which meant that folks voting later had few choices and were reacting to the outcomes of the previous primaries/caucuses
  3. Turnout? Primaries have lower turnout than general elections.  In primaries, the most passionate tend to turn out, so you tend to get more extreme wings of the parties show up.  Indeed, this is one reason why Trump is so confused and ill-prepared--he thinks the electorate is the same for the general as for the primaries, so he just has to do more of the same.
  4. Um, this conflates type of political system with electoral laws.  There are parliamentary systems with majoritarian electoral laws (that would be most of the Westminster places--NZ is wacky).  And presidential systems can have a variety of rules for picking the president and then different rules for the legislature.  
Ok, that's just a few (Economist also assumes most proportional of electoral systems), but I just did a bunch of tax forms (F-Bars!), so I could be forgetting some other reasons.  What have I missed?

It would probably be far more accurate to take a look at surveys of the entire electorate on a variety of issues and then figure out how they would shake out if we had a proportional representation electoral system combined with a parliamentary system.

Sorry, to be a killjoy, Economist, but this is the kind of infographic that creates ignorance, not enlightenment.


Friday, June 17, 2016

Do MOAR in Syria

There are plenty of smart, very frustrated folks in the US State Department who apparently want President Obama to do more in Syria: to engage in airstrikes against Assad's forces and not just ISIS's.  I get that, and I get that Assad is the key problem in all of this--that he has killed far more people than ISIS AND his brutality is ISIS"s best recruiting tool.

BUT

Since Russia is providing air support for Assad, attacking Assad might just lead to more confrontations in the skies between US and Russian aircraft. Indeed, these folks are aware of this:
The memo acknowledged that military action would have risks, not the least further tensions with Russia, which has intervened in the war on Mr. Assad’s behalf and helped negotiate a cease-fire. Those tensions increased on Thursday when, according to a senior Pentagon official, Russia conducted airstrikes in southern Syria against American-backed forces fighting the Islamic State.
The State Department officials insisted in their memo that they were not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” but rather a credible threat of military action to keep Mr. Assad in line.
Um, some magical thinking here--we don't want more tensions with Russia, we just want to be striking those that Russia is supporting.  Is Syria worth the risks of US-Russian conflict?  Sorry, but no. 

What we have learned from the past 15 years of intervention is that coherent local allies with compatible interests are key ingredient in reaching some level of success.  Any of those here?  No.  Maybe earlier?  Not so sure.

All I know is that making threats without really being able to back them up is a mistake Obama has already made in Syria (chemical weapons anyone?), so he is not going to repeat that.  If Hillary Clinton wants to do this next year, then she can do so.  But this current President has been burned by those who have advocated for the use of coercive diplomacy--threats via air strikes--in Syria and also has found past interventions to be far more problematic than advocates of said interventions have recommended.

Oh, a side note: I have seen safe havens bandied about again.  Unless one wants to create killing fields a la Srebrenica, safe havens require someone, which would end up being the US, to go to war--to push back forces and keep them back to create a relatively safe space in Syria.  So, if you want a safe haven, just go ahead and advocate war.  Otherwise, you safe haven fans are trying to fool everyone else in addition to yourselves.

And, yes, I used to be an advocate of intervention (in some cases, not all), but I have a learning curve.


Defence Review Help

In the next two weeks, I am participating in two Defence Review roundtables--the widely publicized series that I have, um, discussed AND the Parliamentary version.  I am going to the Montreal roundtable on the 27th, but the more immediate one is the Parliamentary one.  I have been invited by the Opposition (the Conservatives), and they gave me a link to their conversation starter here.

I have written a short paper for each one, which I will post on my blog after each meeting with some discussion, of course, of how it went, what I said, and what I learned within whatever confines of the the meetings (the Montreal roundtable will be either Chatham House rule or in camera...).

Anyhow, before I go to these meetings, I thought I would ask my readers: what should I talk about?  What would you want to say either to the Review panel or the Defence Committee?