Monthly Archives: April 2016

Current Echoes of Jimmy Carter’s Diplomatic Legacy

(appeared in US News and World Report, October 5, 2015:

Barack Obama’s critics have often invoked unflattering comparisons between his foreign policy record and former President Jimmy Carter’s perceived failures. In reality, however, Carter’s diplomatic achievements while in office stand among the most impressive of any American president. As the sad news of Carter’s cancer diagnosis prompts reflection upon his life’s work, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran should remind us of the most important legacy of Carter’s presidency: the lesson that diplomacy works. After all, Obama’s foreign policies have met with the greatest success precisely where he has most closely emulated Carter.

Both presidents rode the White House on a wave of popular revulsion at the costs and failures associated with recent or ongoing wars—Vietnam in Carter’s case; Iraq and Afghanistan in Obama’s case. Both understood that any exit from America’s debilitating and seemingly unending record of military quagmires required a foreign policy that dispensed with threat-mongering and placed diplomacy—even with adversaries—at its center.

Carter and Obama each faced the challenge of developing proportional responses to what had previously been treated as Manichean struggles; against communism in Carter’s era and against terrorism during Obama’s era. Each president sought to make room on the foreign policy agenda for a broader range of issues that engaged American values and interests, including, in both cases, human rights, arms proliferation, energy and relations with emerging powers.

Both stressed diplomacy as an alternative to military intervention and unending conflict. Neither relied upon negotiation alone and both encountered problems that could not ultimately be resolved at the bargaining table. Yet each found success in tackling conflicts long considered irresolvable.

Carter’s record is the more impressive. The SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union capped a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race (while never ratified by the United States Senate, both countries independently abided by the terms of the accord). The Panama Canal Treaty removed potential threats to the Canal’s security, while eliminating a constant irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America. The full normalization of relations with China set the stage for China’s growing integration with the existing global political and economic order over the past 35 years. The Camp David Accords removed Egypt and Jordan as military threats to Israel’s security and the transition to majority black-rule in Zimbabwe, brokered by the United States and Great Britain, brought to an end to a bloody civil war there. The successful conclusion of the Tokyo Round trade negotiations sustained progress toward a more open global economy. It is difficult to think of another president who used diplomacy to better effect in serving major American interests.

In Obama’s case, diplomacy has enabled destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons while blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. The opening to Cuba creates new opportunities for the Cuban people while enhancing America’s image across Latin America. A successful conclusion of the upcoming global climate change negotiations appears more likely in the wake of the recent joint U.S.-China declaration setting national goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement caps an already solid record of diplomatic accomplishments during the Obama years.

For both Carter and Obama, the bigger obstacles to diplomacy often arose at home rather than abroad. Carter faced massive, well organized and heavily funded campaigns against both the Panama Canal and SALT II treaties, as well as a drum-beat of right-wing accusations that his policies left America unprepared to meet a (mostly mythical) Soviet military buildup. The Iranian revolution and the ensuring hostage crisis sullied Carter’s reputation and may have cost him his presidency, despite the fact that the hostages were safely returned.

Obama has likewise faced heavy domestic constraints, including the Senate’s rejection of his proposed cap-and-trade energy legislation and opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord.

Diplomacy, of course, cannot solve all problems. But it served American interests remarkably well during Jimmy Carter’s brief presidency. All the more puzzling then that our memories of the Carter years are so distorted and his diplomatic achievements have gone so undervalued.

It is to Obama’s credit that he has in important ways drawn upon the positive lessons of Carter’s foreign policy legacy. And as the clock ticks down on Carter’s own remarkable life, it is well that we set aside the unkind myths that have obscured his accomplishments in office and give credit to a diplomatic groundbreaker.

David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and author of Reversing Course: Carter’s Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics and the Failure of Reform, Vanderbilt University Press, 1996.


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Too Many Pigs at the Trough

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a cornerstone of his reign. The Chinese Communist Party disciplined 300,000 officials for corruption in 2015. Hundreds of high-level leaders have been caught up by the campaign.

Among the Chinese people, Xi is enormously popular and his anti-corruption efforts have won widespread applause. Yet Xi’s crackdown has little to do with good government. In The Dictator’s Handbook, Bueno de Mesquito and Alastair Smith point out that dictators survive by channeling private rewards to a coalition of supporters who are essential to maintaining power. Over time, the number of individuals attached to the ruling coalition tends to grow, as does the price coalition members demand for support. We might call this the “too many pigs at the trough” problem.

This may be sustainable if the economy is rapidly growing, but becomes more problematic once growth slows. Because the rents extracted by corrupt officials in fact serve as dead weight from an economic perspective, corruption itself can become a source of worsening economic performance. The costs of paying off a bloated coalition of greedy supporters are considerable: a reduced take for the dictator himself, lagging revenue growth and declining popular legitimacy, the latter necessitating increasingly costly repression.

All of this explains why newly installed leaders move quickly to cull the number of pigs at the trough. By retargeting private rewards only to those whose support is truly essential and reducing the size of payoffs to the minimum necessary to avert defection, the dictator thereby shores up his power position with a smaller and more manageable ruling coalition. Of course, culling the herd means more than simply cutting rewards to non-essential coalition members. They must be jailed or otherwise rendered incapable of retaliating. Ruthlessness toward those unlucky enough to be targeted also sends a salutary message to the remaining essentials should the latter have ideas about combining against the dictator.

Xi’s campaign is reshaping the size and composition of the ruling coalition and the size of the payoffs to remaining members. But as long as China’s political order remains a single party dictatorship, a system for funneling private rewards to member of the ruling coalition will remain essential to its functioning.

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Sex Ratio Imbalance and Chinese Economic Reform

China’s economy is choking on overinvestment in infrastructure, construction and heavy industry (such as steel and autos, both of which suffer from overcapacity). Both Chinese and Western economists argue that China needs to shift resources into the service sector, which remains underdeveloped. Indeed, this reallocation of resources is a central plank of China’s own economic reform plans.

Yet implementation has been slow. Why has Beijing been reluctant to close down surplus steel factories, cut off funding for the construction of “ghost cities,” or slow down the expansion of high-speed rail and other expensive infrastructure projects?

While there are no doubt many factors that play into such decisions, there is one that deserves more attention that it has received: China’s leaders fear the consequences of high unemployment among so-called “bare branches” or young, low-status men who lack good marriage prospects.

China has one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world. For the population under age 15, there are roughly 117 males for every 100 females (the natural rate should be no higher than 105-100). This is a result of extreme gender discrimination favoring males. Female fetuses (identified through ultrasound) are aborted. And young girls are more likely to die of illness or neglect.

With so many more men than women, a large number of men will never find marriage partners. Those least likely to marry are low-income, less educated, low status males. These same men are poorly integrated into communities and make up a large proportion of the internal migrant population that relocates from rural areas to cities in search of work. These males are called “bare branches” in China because they represent endpoints on the family tree.

Research by Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer establishes that societies with large and growing numbers of bare branches are at risk of rising crime and civil unrest. This is especially true if inadequate employment opportunities are available for unmarried young men.

How does this relate to China’s slowness to carry out economic reform? Males are overrepresented among Chinese factory and construction workers. Indeed, the proportion of female workers in these sectors is actually declining. On the other hand, females make up a disproportionate share of workers in the service sector.

Some economists believe that China’s official unemployment rate understates the true reality. The rate of unemployment is politically sensitive since unemployed workers are more likely to engage in civil unrest and other anti-regime activities. China’s growth model has actually exacerbated the unemployment problem because infrastructure, construction and heavy industry are relatively capital-intensive, meaning that a given level of investment produces fewer jobs than would be the case were the same investment devoted to service sectors (which are relatively labor intensive). In other words, a greater emphasis on services would soak up more labor overall and reduce dangerous levels of unemployment.

The problem, however, is that the gender distribution of unemployment would shift in ways that heighten the risk of unrest, especially during the transitional period. Most of the jobs added as a result of expansion of services would be taken up by women while most of the jobs lost by curtailing investment in construction, infrastructure and heavy industry would be those currently occupied by males – and especially bare branch males.

Rising employment could nevertheless be accompanied by growing civil and political unrest if the proportion of bare branch males among those who remain unemployed also rises. Alongside other factors, this may help explain why Chinese authorities have been slow to implement economic reforms that they themselves acknowledge are needed for the overall health of the Chinese economy.


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