Friday, October 27, 2006

Collective Goods and Collective Action

This week was Tragedy of the Commons week in World politics. We read Garrett Hardin's classic essay on the Tragedy of the Commons and discussed the relevance of the concept in contemporary world politics.

As I read my Washington Post today over breakfast, lo and behold, what did I see? David Ignatius, editorializing about how global security is a collective good and suffers from the same tragedy of the commons problems that Hardin raised. Ignatius uses Mancur Olsen, the famous theorist of collective action, as his entry into the discussion, but the tragedy of the commons and the collective action problem are in fact two sides of the same coin. The tragedy of the commons laments the destruction of common space because actors, acting rationally to maximize thier near-term self-interest, overuse the common area creating long-term destruction that makes everyone worse off. The collective action problem laments how hard it is to get people to band together to engage in a long-term cooperative action to preserve a common area because everyone rationally can reap more reward by going off to do their own thing--let someone else maintain the common area.

You can talk about the global environment or the global economy in this way (that's what we did in class), but it also works for international security.

The column is interesting enough that I'll just post the whole thing here:

A theory that explains the chaotic world of 2006 -- one where people from Baghdad to Beijing seem unable to cooperate on projects that would make them better off -- was written more than 40 years ago by an obscure American economist named Mancur Olson Jr. His short 1965 book, "The Logic of Collective Action," explained why big groups, including nation-states, cannot agree on actions that are in their common interest.

You can see this perverse "logic" at work in nearly all the conflicts that vex the planet today. The divisive political dynamic that blocks collective solutions -- what Olson described as the "surprising tendency for the exploitation of the great by the small" -- is apparent even in the United States. But I'm going to stick to foreign examples.

Start with Iraq, the conflict that is grinding up U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians in horrifying numbers. Iraqis know they would all be better off if they could agree on a national compact that would subordinate sectarian differences to the larger national interests of stability and prosperity. Their leaders keep pledging support for this goal, but it doesn't happen.

Why? Olson, who taught at the University of Maryland until he died in 1998, explained the underlying problem this way: "Unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests."

The problem, he said, is that although everyone would benefit from the collective good of, say, greater security, it's irrational for any individual to make voluntary sacrifices to achieve it.

I put a version of this dilemma to L. Paul Bremer in Baghdad in January 2004, when he was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. In an interview in the Green Zone, I said that although people were describing him as an imperial proconsul, his situation seemed closer to that of a bankruptcy trustee: If one of his three big creditors -- the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds -- decided to push for unilateral advantage and "call their loans," they would drive the enterprise into ruin. But if Bremer could coax the parties toward an agreement, everyone would emerge better off.

Bremer's initial response to the bankruptcy analogy was unforgettable: "Is that Chapter 7, or Chapter 11?" he asked. He went on to say that, like a bankruptcy trustee, he had to believe that the parties around the table were rational.

But individual rationality often pushes us toward solutions that are collectively ruinous. That was Olson's point. He was writing at a time when most social scientists embraced upbeat theories about the inherent cohesiveness of politics. He showed why this optimism was misplaced. It was, in fact, irrational for any individual to pay taxes voluntarily to support an army; better to let your neighbor pay, and get the benefit for free. Groups that acted voluntarily for the common interest were "composed of either altruistic individuals or irrational individuals," he wrote.

Iran illustrates the Olson problem. Every Iranian I encountered on a recent trip there expressed a belief that this is Iran's moment to emerge as a leading political and economic force in the Middle East. But to get this collective benefit every Iranian wants, the country's leaders will have to limit a nuclear program that some Iranians want. Olson would tell us that, absent compulsion, it isn't going to happen: Powerful pressure groups will prevent the collective good.

An Olson problem also afflicts North Korea's neighbors as they deal with its nuclear weapons program. China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States would all be better off if they had stopped Kim Jong Il before he detonated a bomb. But it's like fixing potholes. It was easier to wait for someone else to do it -- for Washington to wait for Beijing and vice versa. And, of course, the job never got done.

Olson's escape from this conundrum was his recognition that it's necessary to compel the collective behavior that is in everyone's interest. Workers must be compelled to join a union; otherwise, they'll freeload. Citizens must be required by law to pay taxes; otherwise, they won't do it. Sectarian groups must be forced to obey the national government; otherwise they will create anarchy. And individual nations must be compelled to obey rules limiting the spread of nuclear technology and other threats to common security. Otherwise, we will have unending wars.

In the international arena, the appropriate instrument of compulsion is not, as the Bush administration has believed, the United States. It is the United Nations. Making the United Nations effective enough that it can compel the common good is the right answer to Olson's paradox.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Iraq Report: not good

Last week, we were treated to a stunning admission from the head General in Iraq. What he said was not all that stunning--anyone who has been paying attention could see that things in Iraq were getting bad-- but stunning in that he actually said it. As reported in the WaPo:
A two-month U.S.-Iraqi military operation to stem sectarian bloodshed and insurgent attacks in Baghdad has failed to reduce the violence, which has surged 22 percent in the capital in the last three weeks, much of it in areas where the military has focused its efforts, a senior U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.

The assessment by Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV followed a 43 percent spike in attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in the capital since midsummer that has pushed U.S. military fatalities to their highest rates in more than a year.

The operation "has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence," Caldwell said Thursday at a weekly news briefing. Violence has risen in the areas where the U.S.-Iraqi operation has focused, because of counterattacks, he said.

"We're finding insurgent elements, the extremists, are pushing back hard. They're trying to get back into those areas" where Iraqi and U.S. forces have targeted them, he said. "We're constantly going back in and doing clearing operations."
Its a pretty dire picture. Several months ago, aware that a) they did not have enough forces in country to conduct necessary operations everywhere and b) Baghdad was the lynchpin to the whole country, US forces in Iraq set out to concentrate in and around Baghdad in a effort to Clear, Hold and Build. Clear an area from insurgents, hold the territory, and build it up as a functioning entity, allowing Iraqi forces to take over and run a "clean" bit of space. Repeating the process, the idea was to slowly spread US influence in Baghdad's most troubled neighborhood.

As it turns out, the strategy isn't working. As Caldwell and Casey have admitted, violence and killings in Baghdad are up, not down, and the US can't seem to hold any of the territory it clears. The increase in troop strength is having the opposite of its intended effect--instead of helping clear out insurgents, the additional forces are targets for increased attacks, leading to the significantly higher death rate this past month.

Its become a rather dire situation. As Michael Gordon notes in today's NYT:
But military commanders here see no plausible alternative to their bedrock strategy to clear violence-ridden neighborhoods of militias, insurgents and arms caches, hold them with Iraqi and American security forces, and then try to win over the population with reconstruction projects, underwritten mainly by the Iraqi government. There is no fall-back plan that the generals are holding in their hip pocket. This is it.

Dire indeed. We're on our last major initiative, and its not working. Meanwhile, the Administration refuses to contemplate any strategy changes other than "victory." Over the weekend, the two top Generals in Iraq, Abizaid and Casey, met with Bush and his national security team at the White House, and they didn't discuss any major changes to what is now admittedly failing.

Now part of this might be partisan posturing until the election. If (when?) Democrats take over part of Congress, they could very well force a new Iraq policy on the Administratoin, which, coupled with Baker's Iraq Study Group, could provide Bush the political cover to begin some sort of pull-out from Iraq.

What are our options? Stay the course? Well, the course is not going well. Add more troops? One of the instructive things that the Baghdad approach shows is that at this point in the nascent civil war, more American troops don't help unless or until we're willing to take sides against one of the militias. But, that only works if our Iraqi partners can and are able to consolidate the tactical combat victories we hand them. Pull out? A time-table and phased withdrawal might be the only way to get Maliki to take ownership of the major mess we've made for him.

As Gordon ends his analysis, so will I:
“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman said, alluding to the effort to get the Iraqis to put aside sectarian differences and build a unified Iraq. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq. And that is going to take national unity.”

“Until we get that settled I think we are going to struggle,” he added.

And we're a long, long way from that point.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korea tests a Nuke

North Korea announced that it had tested a nuclear device last night. Though initial reports are still a bit cautious, it seems pretty clear from the global reaction that this was in fact some sort of nuclear test. You can see the seismic event catalogued here, click on the red dot in North Korea to see the event of magnitude 4.2 in the northwest of North Korea (and thanks to the current student who pointed out this cool website).

This is, needless to say, a significant event, one that substantially and forever changes Northeast Asia. The initial reactions to the test all condemn it. The Post also has good coverage of this.

Interesting things about the test: It happens on the 9th anneversary of Kim Jong Il taking power (assuming the formal role of leader after mourning his father for a few years) in North Korea. It happens as new Japanese PM Abe is visiting China and South Korea. It also happens as the US is very bogged down in nuclear diplomacy with Iran and in Iraq.

The immediate analysis all points out that this is a bad thing, that the relevant parties will go to the security council in an attempt to somehow sanction North Korea, and that it will increase pressure on Japan to further militarize, as well as increase pressure on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to all develop their own nuclear weapons. The conventional wisdom is that this also puts China in a tough spot. China has been North Koreas supposed ally, and the DPRK told China about the test ahead of time (and China condemned it). China's border with North Korea is the source of nearly all of its international trade, its energy, and its economic links to the outside world.

Two notes: First, this puts the US in quite a bind. While this test is not all "Bush's fault,"--all of the 6-parties share some degree of "blame," the Bush Administration has a special responsibility for the test. North Korea still regards the US as its principle enemy, and its developing its nuclear program with the US in its sights. All DPRK willingness to talk about its nuclear program has focused on diplomacy with the US. When Bush entered office, there was still the Agreed Framework that had frozen the DPRK nuclear program for 6+ years. Highly imperfect, it nevertheless kept the North Korean nuclear program on hold. In many ways, this is the ultimate negative feedback of the Bush Doctrine. By declaring North Korea part of the Axis of Evil, continuing hostile rhetoric toward North Korea, and then invading Iraq, North Korea most likely figures that the only way to survive the pending confrontation with the US is to have its own nuke. Now, we may not have any intention of invading North Korea, but we haven't done a good job of signaling that to the North Koreans. Now the Administration has said it "won't tolerate" a nuclear North Korea. Well, what exactly does that mean? We're not in a good position to do anything militarly (and, now that they are a nuclear power, we must assume they have another nuke that could be used in the event of military action). So, what do we do?

Second, there is great irony in how all of this is playing out. This will come before the security council at some point today, and there is sure to be a push for sanctions, and this will land squarely on China's doorstep. In the past, they have held a firm line discouraging North Korea's adventurous behavior, but also discouraging the rest of the world (led by the US) from placing really harsh sanctions on North Korea, for fear it might collapse. In many ways, the problem is that the world has long been more afraid of North Korea's weakness much more than its strength. Even now, it remains to be seen how tough China and, to a lesser extent Russia, will be willing to be at the UNSC. The DPRK has achieved the most powerful weapon in the world, it has joined the elite club of nuclear powers, it has a million man army, and yet the world still fears its weakness more than its strength. Its amazing how this has played out. The US, for all of its bold talk and actions, has relatively little punative leverage on North Korea. The US already has full sanctions on North Korea and has cracked down on North Korea's illicit activity (particularly counterfiet US currency). There's not much more the US can do. Some have mentioned a Naval Blockade, but that's a bold step that can easily lead to escalation and war-- you don't go down that road lightly unless you're prepared to back it up with force in case things go bad. South Korea has more leverage-- it can and probably will cut its economic assistance and shutter the mutual development projects in the Kaesong district. But, the real leverage lies in China, which can close the border and cut of North Korea's energy, food, and other imports. The fear is that such actions would prompt refugees and collapse.

So, what to do? A nuclear North Korea may not be "tolerable" but the US doesn't have a whole lot of leverage to make it otherwise unless we're willing to go all the way on this one (as in be ready to credibly threaten war with the DPRK-all options, such as blockade, need to have this behind them to work)-- and I just don't think that we are at this point.

Its quite possible that we're all going to have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, and that's not a happy thought.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

State of Denial

Lots of interesting reading about the Bush Administration and Iraq over the weekend.
Bob Woodward has a new book out, and the Post ran exclusive exerpts in the Sunday and Monday paper. The argument, in a nutshell: The war in Iraq is going much, much worse than the Administration has admitted to in public, and the President himself is in a state of denial about how bad things actually are.
There was a vast difference between what the White House and Pentagon knew about the situation in Iraq and what they were saying publicly. But the discrepancy was not surprising. In memos, reports and internal debates, high-level officials of the Bush administration have voiced their concern about the United States' ability to bring peace and stability to Iraq since early in the occupation.

On 60 Minutes on Sunday, Woodward said that Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all US Forces in Iraq has serious doubts about Rumsfeld and the war:
And, according to Woodward, another key general, John Abizaid, who’s in charge of the whole Gulf region, told friends that on Iraq, Rumsfeld has lost all credibility.

"What does that mean, he doesn’t have any credibility anymore?" Wallace asks.

"That means that he cannot go public and articulate what the strategy is. Now, this is so important they decide," Woodward explains. "The Secretary of State Rice will announce what the strategy is. This is October of last year." She told Congress the U.S. strategy in Iraq is "clear, hold and build."

"Rumsfeld sees this and goes ballistic and says, 'Now wait a minute. That’s not our strategy. We want to get the Iraqis to do these things.' Well it turns out George Bush and the White House liked this definition of the strategy so it’s in a presidential speech he’s gonna give the next month," Woodward tells Wallace. "Rumsfeld sees it. He calls Andy Card, the White House chief of staff and says 'Take it out. Take it out. That’s not our strategy. We can’t do that.' Card says it’s the core of what we’re doing. That’s two and a half years after the invasion of Iraq. They cannot agree on the definition of the strategy. They cannot agree on the bumper sticker."

"General John Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, you quote him as saying privately a year ago that the U.S. should start cutting its troops in Iraq. You report that he told some close Army friends, quote, 'We’ve gotta get the f out.' And then this past March, General Abizaid visited Congressman John Murtha on Capitol Hill," Wallace says.

"John Murtha is in many ways the soul and the conscience of the military," Woodward replies. "And he came out and said, 'We need to get out of Iraq as soon as it’s practical' and that sent a 10,000 volt jolt through the White House."

"Here’s Mr. Military saying, 'We need to get out,'" Woodward continues. "And John Abizaid went to see him privately. This is Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s commander in Iraq," Woodward says.

"And John Abizaid held up his fingers, according to Murtha, and said, 'We’re about a quarter of an inch apart, said, 'We’re that far apart,'" Woodward says.

Even Colin Powell has his doubts, as another book excerpt in the Post Magazine details.

Now, there's a ton more juicy tidbits of dirt that Woodward digs up-- Laura Bush even dislikes Rumsfled-- but the core issues is this: the war is going badly, getting worse, government officials know about it, but the President won't hear any of it and is determined to stay the course, even if his wife and dog are the only two people left in the world who support him (paraphrasing Woodward).

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