First, Chalmers Johnson has died. This happened in late November, but the Yeonpyeong shelling captured the attention of my blogging. But given how important he was to the study of East Asia in political science, this should be mentioned here. This is very sad for our field. Two years ago, when Samuel Huntington died, I felt the same way. These guys are what we all aspire to in political science. I can’t think of one thing I have written in my career that I would recommend over an article by someone like Johnson or Huntington. Every time I whine about Asian mercantilism, Johnson’s work is in the back of mind (as is Robert Wade’s). I read Johnson’s Asian political economy stuff in grad school, and I see it living in Asia all the time. That is what our field is supposed to produce – these sorts of durable, well-researched insights that make our world a little more understandable. Very nice, and a genuine loss. (This is why we have political science, by the way.)
To be sure, Johnson jumped the rails in the 2000s with Bush and the Iraq War. I read the Blowback trilogy after the Iraq invasion. The first one is the best, but by the time he gets to the last book and starts musing about a military takeover of the US, you’re wondering if this is the same guy who wrote path-breaking research on Asia. Johnson was in good company though. Lots of other good left-wing foreign policy writers were pushed over the edge by W also; Chomsky and Bacevich spring to mind. Read Michael Lind’s useful deconstruction of how the foreign policy left kinda lost its head over W. But still, I think this stuff is quite valuable. It is a useful check on US neo-con fantasies that unipolarity and American exceptionalism mean rules don’t apply as much to the US as to others. It is hard in retrospect to think the Bush presidency wasn’t a disaster for the US, and Johnson, corrected for overstatement, will tell you why on foreign policy. (For an example, of lefty criticism that maintained better perspective on the Bush years, try here.)
2. Living in Asia means I missed the full coverage of the Wikileaks flap. My sense generally is that they don’t tell us too much we didn’t already know. I think Carpenter gets it about right here, and Yadav gives an excellent IR take here. I would only add 2 things:
A. Occasional random revelations like this might actually serve a foreign policy purpose. They remind others in world politics that for all our diplomatic niceties, we can see right through them and know they are flim-flaming us. This brings a certain (inappropriate to be sure) pressure on these guys to get their act together. It is kinda nice to see the Russians reminded that we are under no illusions about Putin’s closet semi-dictatorship, or for the N Koreans to know that we are thinking about a world beyond their nasty, civilian-murdering slave state, or for Robert Mugabe to know that we basically think he’s bonkers. Secretary of State Clinton is absolutely correct that this stuff should not have been leaked, but didn’t anyone else find it refreshing to hear US diplomats speaking honestly and insightfully? Wasn’t it pleasing to hear US officials trenchantly blow off the world’s buffoons? I was pretty impressed actually at the quality of their off-the-cuff analyses, and pleased to see my tax payers dollars contributing to this work.
B. I worry about the long-term build-up of secrecy in the US government under the cloak of national security. Lefty writers like Johnson or Bacevich will even tell you we live in a National Security State now. A healthy democracy requires openness and transparency. Over time, stuff really should get declassified. It is the property, in the end, of the taxpayers and the voters, because it is our government. Assange himself seems to be drifting toward toward some bizarre hexagonal conspiracy theory stuff, but I am sympathetic to the general notion that the US is too secretive and that the presumptive prejudice in the US bureaucracy should be for declassification unless otherwise demonstrable and clear national security grounds can be established. An Economist blogger captures my concerns pretty well, and of course, the Bush administration, once again *sigh*, is responsible for much of the recent fear of secret government in the US. Greenwald, as usual, nails the hypocrisy of those defending spiralling classification.
3. This is unrelated, but if you haven’t read this description of the 30 worst pundits-turned-hacks in the US, you should. It is a great dissection of everything wrong with journalism masquerading as social science, too frequently in the service of ideology. It is left-biased, but so what. It is punchy, trenchant, humorous, and good warning to everyone with a blog (me too) to do you homework and not just recycle your prejudices. It illustrates one of the great benefits of the Internet – independent bloggers and others can fact check and hit back in real-time. It makes me worry that maybe I recycle stuff here…