31 July, 2015

Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power

I was inspired to write this post by a recent episode of Sea Control (the Center For International and Maritime Security's podcast) that focused on the future of Chinese journalism and the role Xinhua News Agency plays in promoting Chinese soft power. Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Asia policy at the Heritage Foundation, was the central guest of the show. Mr. Cheng is a fairly astute observer of Asian affairs; his thoughts here are worth listening to.  There are a few points I would like to add to his discussion.

Unlike many aspects of Chinese politics, there is a substantial body of reliable research on the way  Chinese information media works. This is particularly true for newspapers and news television programs, both of which have far larger number of consumers (proportionally speaking) than in America. We probably have a better understanding of how newspapers like People's Daily and Global Times work than we do any other national institution created or sponsored by the Chinese state. We can thank the good work of social scientists like Daniela Stockmann and Maria Repnikova for this. A lot of what follows is the distillation or application of ideas and conclusions they expressed in earlier presentations, articles, and books.

A screen shot of the Global Time's Chinese web page

1. The most important thing to understand about the Chinese press is that the majority of Chinese newspapers are commercialized entities. Commercialization is not privatization. "Official" Party papers are of course owned by the Party, but even nonofficial papers are not allowed to let more than 49% of their ownership pass into private hands. Likewise, every paper, official or otherwise, cannot publish without an official sponsor. The position of sponsor determines the possible distribution of the paper.  For example, the People's Daily and the Global Times, which are sold across China, are sponsored by the Central Propaganda Department under the CPC Central Committee. Local papers with more limited distribution--say, the Hainan Daily or the Yangtze Evening Post--would be sponsored by the Propaganda Department under supervision of the CPC committee at the provincial or municipal level. 

When I describe the Chinese press as "commercialized," therefore, I do not mean that it is completely privatized, or that it is free from government regulation and interference.  Rather, I mean that Chinese newspapers must respond to market incentives to stay solvent. The majority of Chinese newspapers were stripped of state economic support two decades ago. Most of these make their money today through selling advertisement space. If they fail to turn a profit they will be closed down. Official papers (sometimes described as "Party mouthpieces") like the People's Daily are a bit sheltered from these pressures--while they are still expected to be profitable, everyone in the business knows that the Party unit responsible for them would not allow them to pass out of circulation unless it was facing bankruptcy itself. Because the non-official (sometimes described by China-hands as 'tabloid') newspaper business is quite lucrative, many media outlets that produce party papers will also publish non-official, purely-for-profit papers on the side. This is the story behind The Global Times,  which is published by the People's Daily Newspaper Group as a non-official money making machine.

This has had a predictable effect on media content. Chinese newspapers are now in strict competition with each other to grab most readers. This means writing the kinds of articles that grab the attention of the masses: the more lurid, titillating, sensational, or nationalistic, the better. Even the distinguished Xinhua News Service is not immune from this sort of thing. I couldn't help but chuckle when the podcast host Scott Peters worried whether or not the American press corps' obsession with non-stories like Kim Kardashian and Bruce/Catelynn Jenner would give it a strategic advantage in the contest to control global media narratives. My guess is Mr. Peters doesn't read Xinhua too often. If I had few dollars every time Xinhua placed a photo collage like "Beautiful Female Soldiers From All Over the World," "Singer Valen Hsu Poses For Fashion Shots," "Sleeping Babies With Their Cutest Pets," on their front page, I would be able to buy my own copy of Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States instead of searching fruitlessly for a library that can lend it to me.

2. The Chinese state and the Chinese press should be understood as two parts of single system.  Most Westerners are familiar with the way authoritarian states use media outlets to spread propaganda or telegraph its position on controversial issues to citizens and interest groups. Just as important, however, is the way the media is used by citizens and interest groups to communicate to state leaders. This is particularly important for avoiding the bane of all authoritarian systems--a danger Ronald Wintrobe called the "Dictator's Dilemma." The dilemma works as follows: Dictators want to know the effectiveness of their policies and the popularity of their decisions. If they cannot get this information, they will be unprepared for the consequences of discontent: unrest, rebellion, coups, and the like. The problem is that those who might inform the dictator (or his agents) of the truth face powerful incentives to hide it. The more control a dictator has over the country, the more vulnerable he is to disinformation. Surmounting this challenge can be very difficult. The horrors of the Great Leap Forward (and Mao's subsequent fall from grace) are a testament to what happens when a dictator fails to do so.

China's press corp provides one path out of the dilemma. They do this in two ways. The first is investigative reporting, something the Chinese state encourages as long as it is kept within certain bounds. In this China's media system is quite different from that of Russia and many other authoritarian states. The Russian state tries to isolate and bully those reporters which oppose it, doing all in its power to convince dissidents that their cause is hopeless. The Chinese, in contrast, strive to co-opt those critical of the state. The CPC gives reporters a large space in which they are free to report, and allows them to work in that space with little interference as long as they do not question the legitimacy of the CPC itself. In some cases--say, local corruption--reporters are encouraged to uncover and denounce with abandon. This allows Chinese reporters to feel like they are playing a positive role in improving Chinese society and China's government. They feel this way because they are playing a positive role--their reporting opens a window Party leaders can look through to glimpse the concerns and troubles of the Chinese people and craft policies that respond to what they see.

Normal, non-investigative reporting also helps the government keep a finger on the pulse of popular opinion. Remember that Chinese newspapers must make money to survive. This means they face immense pressure to pander to their audience and present the news of the day in the fashion their readers will find most palatable. On issues of international controversy, this means a more strident, nationalistic line than appears in government outlets. This is one of the more consistent findings of Daniela Stockmann's research over  the last decade: official papers, like the People's Daily,  present disputes with Japan, the United States, etc. in softer terms than more commercialized papers like the Global Times. This holds true both at the national level (People's Daily vs. Global Times), but also with smaller local papers like the Chongqing News and the Chongqing Evening News.

This should inform our approach to the Global Times and its fiery reporting. Chinese censors rarely tell reporters or columnists what to write. Instead, they tell them what they can't write. This usually means a blanket ban on a particularly sensitive topic, or instructions not to write too sharply about a given issue. Non-official papers play a game of fine distinctions, trying to write as sensationally as possible without stepping over the boundaries the state has set to keep things under control. So when the Global Times erupts into another one of its characteristic anti-Tokyo tirades, their stance should be understood as the upper limit of indignation the Party can prudently allow national outlets to print.

Xinhua plays a unique role in this system. Because Xinhua is supported by state funds it can afford to be a bit more measured than commercial papers like the Global Times. But Xinhua  is more conservative than most state outlets. This is because so many of its wires are used by other Chinese papers for their foreign reporting. Indeed, whenever a sensitive international issue arises that Chinese leaders fear might spark domestic instability, newspapers across China are ordered to stop independent reporting on the issue and reprint Xinhua dispatches verbatim. A good measure of how sensitive the Party considers a given international issue at a given time is the percentage of articles published by non-official outlets that were really just Xinhua reprints!

Thus while Cheng is right to note in his discussion on the podcast that Xinhua has three potential audiences (the people of China, countries with which China competes, and third parties who are not on either side), at the moment Xinhua's most important audience is certainly the domestic one.

3. But will this always be so?

Let me share a story. During the first week of 2014 Cambodia was rocked by a series of protests against the ruling Cambodia People's Party and its strong-man, Hun Sen. I speak Khmer and have several close friends in Phnom Penh so I followed the story quite closely. The easiest and most reliable source of information were the Twitter and Facebook feeds of those participating. Both those were often in Khmer, which (especially when politics is being discussed) requires great effort on my part to translate. There was no reliable and steady stream of updates in English... except from Xinhua.* That whole week Xinhua's English website was the first page I visited everyday. I used it to help prioritize the flood of materials coming in Khmer and decide which ones were worth translating. I doubt the Chinese reporters on the ground knew it, but they were shaping my perception of events far more than any Western outlet had been able to do.

Cheng describes a fairly similar process happening in Africa. He notes that Xinhua now has more reporters and bureaus on the African continent than AP, Reuters, and AFP combined. For many countries Xinhua will not just have the first shoes on the ground: they will have the only shoes on the ground. But does this really help Chinese soft power?

I am skeptical. The best case scenario is that Xinhua gains the respect held by the big three, and newspapers outside of China begin reprinting its wires as they do dispatches from Reuters or AFP. This sounds entirely plausible to me. Xinhua's reporting is usually top notch. As long as the topic isn't about China, I often prefer it to the wire reports of more famous services. But it is not difficult to see the limitations of using a news agency as an instrument of international soft power. Like Cambodia's 2014 protests, most of the issues these reporters will cover will have nothing to do with China and its rivalry with the United States, Japan, or smaller regional powers in Southeast Asia. The places and events where "shaping the narrative" matter most will be the places and events that draw droves of reporters from other countries. Expanding Xinhua's global presence will have little effect on how China's rivals or important third party observers will think about China's actions on the world stage.

Xinhua's global expansion will help China in a different way. Turn to America to understand why. Every few months some professor or think tank fellow writes up another article despairing the shrinking number of Americans with expertise in foreign cultures, or the small number of Americans studying obscure languages. They rightly point out that the small number of Americans with this sort of knowledge puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage. (Right now I am sure the United States wishes it had more people available who speak Kurdish or could navigate the details of Syrian tribal politics). What these articles never discuss are the economic incentives that keep Americans away from studying foreign languages and cultures. In economic terms it simply isn't worth it: companies that need bilingual individuals or specialists with knowledge in local cultures can always find a local who speaks the language in question as their native tongue. This person is  quite likely to speak English as well as any American; they will also work for much less than most Americans. Government work is little better. Demand for regional specialists varies too sharply from one crisis to another to commit one's career to expertise in an obscure region or culture. 

Mandarin is not the global lingua franca, so the economics of area expertise are not quite as severe for the Chinese. But Beijing faces a similar problem. Like the United States, China will be at a disadvantage if it does not have a pool of citizens familiar with the languages and cultures of the countries they deal with. By subsiding a vast assembly of reporters stationed all over the world in an era when other news agencies are shrinking, the CPC is making an investment in its human capital. Whether this investment will help China better achieve its national interests is yet to be seen. 


Daniela Stockmann, Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China (Communication, Society and Politics) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

       ———, “Race to the Bottom: Media Marketization and Increasing Negativity Toward the United States in China,” Political Communication 28, iss 3 (August 2011), 268-290.

      ———, “Who Believes Propaganda? Media Effects during the Anti-Japanese Protests in Beijing,” The China Quarterly 202 (June 2010), 269-289. 

See also: Ms. Stockmann's excellent interview for the Sinica podcast.

Maria Repnikova, "Media Oversight in Non-Democratic Regimes: The Perspectives of Officials and Journalists in China," Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication Paper 3 (April 2015).

       ———, “Limited Political Liberalisation in Authoritarian Regimes: Critical Journalists and the State in China.” PhD Dissertation, University of Oxford (2013).

      ———, "Chinese Journalists Are No Revolutionaries," Wall Street Journal (15 January 2013).

Jonathan Hassid, “Four Models of the Fourth Estate: A Typology of Contemporary Chinese Journalists," The China Quarterly 208 (2011), 813–32.

*This isn't quite true--the Cambodia Daily is a fine English newspaper based out of Phnom Penh that published even more material than Xinhua did. However, Cambodia Daily has a limit on the number of articles you can read without paying, and given the week's events I hit that limit quickly.

26 July, 2015

The OODA Loop, Ancient China Style

The theories of John Boyd are an interesting example of a general historical principle: medium changes message. The physical medium used to communicate information changes the way information is organized and understood. For example, historians often credit the short, clipped and rhyming phrases of texts like Sunzi's Art of War, The Analects or the Dao De Jing to the fact that the texts were originally collections of oral proverbs compiled together on bamboo strips. Hans Moeller argues--convincingly, in my view--that these texts should not be understood as "books" at all. Noting that they did not have beginnings, ends, or proper organization at all until late in their creation, he advises that we think of these ancient Chinese texts as we would the hypertext of a webpage. In place of links--which lead readers from one page to another, though usually not in any pre-determined sequence--these texts would use a set of common phrases and allusions meant to guide the listener from one passage or set of meanings to another. Its an interesting thesis; once you have been exposed to the full evidence of Moeller's argument it is hard to look at the ancient Chinese classics the same way as before. [1]

John Boyd did not etch his words into bamboo. To my knowledge nothing he said ever rhymed. This should not be a surprise: Boyd did not live in ancient China. Boyd was an American. In the decades since his death he has been hailed as the most important strategic theorist his country has yet produced. Few discussions of modern strategy feel complete without mention of the strategic principles he outlined, especially his famous "OODA Loop." But Boyd's theories take special effort to understand. The problem is that he never wrote them down in an organized manner. Boyd was a military man. In classic Potomac fashion, he shared his insights through long verbal briefs complete with dozens of slides and diagrams. Boyd's thought must be carefully reconstructed through the remaining slides, the few audio recordings of his briefs and lectures, and his personal collection of notes.
John Boyd's OODA Loop, diagram originally drawn by John Boyd, recreated by Patrick Moran (2008).
Image Source: Wikimedia

Students of strategic theory often wonder what kind of book Boyd might have produced has he sat down to write his thoughts into one coherent treatise. He never did so. But the dream remains: had Boyd been forced to share his ideas with pen and paper like Clausewitz and Jomini had, what would they have looked like?

To be honest, I rarely ask that question. What I wonder is what Boyd's ideas would look like if he had to etch them into bamboo.

Understanding the history of the Chinese strategic tradition is the research program that drives my writing, including a lot of what appears on this blog. Attempting to discern how Chinese strategic theory differs from Western strategic theory (if it does at all) is an important part of this effort. This challenge can be difficult: the mediums ancient Chinese and modern Westerners used to communicate were very different, as are the styles thinkers in each culture used to present analysis and insight. To do proper comparisions I often find it useful to try and imagine how a Western strategist or political theorists would describe his ideas if he were writing in the 2nd century BC.

Occasionally, however, I come across a passage that does this for me. The ancients had never heard of Boyd's OODA Loop. But if they had, I imagine they probably would have explained it something like this:

Thus the one skilled in arms, on seeing the deficiency of the enemy,
   takes advantage of it and does not rest,
   pursues it and does not let it go
   presses it and does not let it get away.

   strikes while the enemy is in doubt
   overturns him while he hesitates.

He is like
   swift thunder that does not give the enemy time to cover his ears
   fast lightning that leaves the enemy no leisure to cover his eyes

The one skilled in arms
   is like the sound to the echo
   is like the gong to the drum
   If a mote gets into the enemy's eye, he does not allow him to wipe it away
   if the enemy exhales he does not allow him to inhale
At this time
   he does not look up to see Heaven
   he does not look down to view Earth
   his hand does not lift his spear
   his weapon is not fully drawn 
   He strikes the enemy like thunder
   he hits him like the wind
   he scorches him like fire;
   he overcomes him like a wave

The enemy
   does not know where to stay while at rest
   does not know what to do while in motion

Thus when the drums sound and the flags wave, none facing him do not give up or collapse. Who in the worlds dares to display might or maintain discipline when facing him? Therefore, one who anticipates others is victorious; one who awaits others is defeated; one who is led by others dies.
---Huainanzi 15.11 [2]


[1] Hans-Georg Moeller, The Philosophy of the Daodejing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 1-20.

For what it this small book ( less than 180 pages) is probably the best study of an ancient Chinese text I have ever read. Its greatness is found in its simplicity: it talks about ancient Chinese philosophy in refined, but normal language and never descends into long words that end with “itics” or “ological.” Moeller makes the fair point that the verbiage of modern philosophy was quite unknown to the ancient Chinese, and thus really isn’t necessary to discuss it. Clarity also comes from Moeller’s approach: he takes the text to mean exactly what it says it means. The Dao De Jing's precepts are actually very simple if taken literally, and what metaphors are used do not need labored interpretation so much as they need clear and logical organization. This is what Moeller provides. 

[2]  Trans. John Major, Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer, and Harold Roth, The Huainanzi: A Guide To the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010),  595.

This section will also appear somewhere in the much more compact Andrew Seth Mayer, trans. The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

24 July, 2015

Iran: The Debate We Should Be Having

Major religions in the Middle East
Image Source: Columbia University's Gulf 2000 Project
I am not a specialist in arms control or nuclear technology. I must rely on the judgement of others with relevant expertise to assess the viability of the new agreement with Iran. This makes things difficult, for the opinions of experts I trust are divided. Lawrence FreedmanCheryl Rofer, Aaron Stein, and the other folks at Arms Control Wonk all support the deal. Most do so with great enthusiasm.  Thomas Moore and Matthew Kroenig, on the other hand, oppose it with uncharacteristic harshness. Over at the excellent blog Zionists and Ottomans, Michael Koplow sticks to the middle ground. He accepts that the provisions of the JCPOA will successfully deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but worries that this focus on Iran's nuclear program misses the forest for the trees. As he writes:
It is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory. [1]
Koplow is not the only person to express such concerns. In a thoughtful write up for the Brookings Institute, Tamara Coffman Wittes warns that this deal "will not stabilize a messy Middle East." Kenneth Pollack's recent testimony to the House of Representatives explores these themes in even greater detail, and should be required reading for anyone who wants to contribute  to these discussions. (And of course, throw-away lines about Iranian plans to destabilize the region have found their way into almost every speech given by those who oppose the deal). [2]

This is an important turn in the debate. For many the finer points of technical issue like uranium enrichment centrifuges or IAEA enforcement policies have been eclipsed by broad questions about Iran's role in the regional order. These questions will only became more prevalent  as the newness of this deal wears away with time.

This is not a conversation Americans are prepared to have. The mental model most American observers--and if their statements are to be taken at face value, American officials--use to make sense of Iran, America's allies in the region, and America's role in upholding the regional order are faulty and simplistic. You can see this quite clearly in comments like this:
Iran’s nuclear program—for obvious reasons—has been the most important issue in that country’s relations with the West, but it is very far from the only issue. Iran remains one of the most prolific state-sponsors of terrorism in the world. It has and will certainly continue to seek hegemony in the Middle East, to deliberately destabilize its neighbors and other states in the region, and to promote ballistic missile proliferation and human-rights abuses throughout the Near and Middle East and beyond.

Only a comprehensive strategy, led by the United States and supported by our major allies, can neutralize Iran’s malign activities, and this will take time. In particular, that program must take into account the views and interests of U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and those Arab States that understand and fear Iran’s ambitions and capabilities.[3]
The role played both by Iran and "U.S. allies in the region" is far more complicated than this. Each plays a part in the instability now wrecking the Near East. Like America, Iran's relationship with other actors in the region is convoluted and sometimes contradictory. By simplifying the region’s geopolitics into a narrow contest of good and evil we do ourselves a great disservice. A more accurate narrative would recognize that there are two separate conflicts  threaten the stability of the Near East. These conflicts are related but distinct. The failure to distinguish between them is the root problem behind much of America's flawed commentary and confused policy.

The first of the two contests is the strategic rivalry between Iran and her regional enemies, Israel and the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As with the great geopolitical contests of the last century, this rivalry has a hard ideological edge that makes compromise difficult. However, the ambitions of its central players fall squarely within the realm of traditional power politics. The roles each claim are as old as Thucydides, with today's Persians playing the part of rising challenger to the existing order, and their opponents acting as its main defenders. This is a war of the shadows, waged through sabotage, assassination, espionage, terrorism, and the occasional full blown insurgency. The instability caused by American intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring has raised the stakes of this competition. Now Tehran and Riyadh both desperately scour the region, ever seeking some new opportunity to tilt the balance of power in their favor.  It is the civilians of the smaller powers caught in the middle that suffer most. That is where the proxy campaigns are fought. For the most part it is also where they end.  But just below the surface remains the constant fear that these endless maneuvers in the shadows might lead to open war in the light.

It is to prevent such a war that analysts like Mr. Pollack—whose testimony to congress I urged you to read above—favor a strong U.S. presence in the region. This has been the traditional role of the United States since the ‘80s, with America acting as a guarantor of sorts of the existing order. Under such conditions Iran and the United States are natural enemies. When upstart dictators like Saddam Hussein don’t call attention to themselves, “maintain the regional order” is short hand for holding back the tide of Persian hegemony. It is important to realize, however, that no matter how hostile Iran and its proxies may be towards America, their power to harm American citizens and servicemen will always be proportional to how invested America is in the region. This was Ronald Reagan’s central insight when he ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon in 1984. Americans are only a target in the shadow war if they decide to participate in it.

This does not hold true for the second conflict that roils the Near East. This conflict is of much broader scope. Its scale is global; at stake is an entire civilization. In a previous essay I described it as “a global contest for the soul of Islam.” It is in essence a battle over belief. The beliefs that sustain its most violent fighters are inevitably of some Salafist or Deobandi strain. The former has its geographic center in Saudi Arabia, the latter in Pakistan. Due to oil money and internet propaganda, Salafi-Jihadist ideology has spread far beyond its homeland, tainting madrassas and chat forums across the globe. Its most fearful expression is seen in the caliphate established by the Islamic State. But this is not its only expression. Stabbing sprees in Yunnan, kidnappings in Nigeria, bombings in Indonesia, shoot outs in Paris, and dead marines in Tennessee are all products of this toxic ideology.

Here the threat to American interests is clearer, but—barring a sudden influx of Muslim immigrants comparable to the numbers living now in France—it is limited. The attacks of 9/11 were the United States' most harrowing experience with Salafi-Jihadist terrorism to date. This brush with extremism changed our politics, but it did not alter the fabric of American society in any fundamental way. Such distance is not possible in the Near East. The blood of Syria and Iraq’s 2,000 year old Christian communities testify to the scale of the changes this conflict promises to bring to the region. I tried to capture this scale in my last essay on this topic:

Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS's success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.

I will not mince words:  humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every 'great game' of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. [4]

No Caliphate worth its name can tolerate claims of state authority beyond its own, so it is little surprise that every power in the region has turned against it. As I type Turkish F-16s are conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets. The Turks were the last to join the anti-ISIS coalition. Their reticence to combat the horrors on their doorstep show the great difficulties that face all who hope to defeat Salafi-Jihadist extremism. The truth is that many powers in the region do not much mind it. Others positively encourage it. For some of these the matter is as simple as ideological affinity for the Salafi-Jihadist cause; this is certainly the case for Qatar, whose sheiks’ money has been traced to extremist madrassas and terrorist groups across the globe. For others it is about larger geopolitical goals. The decades Pakistan has spent nurturing and sheltering barbarous Deobandi and Salafi terrorist groups that could be used as proxies against India (and later, American troops in Afghanistan) is the textbook example. It is a risky strategy. Not because of the powers targeted, of course—in face of Pakistani sponsored terrorism India has shown one of the greatest displays of restraint in modern history, while America rewarded Pakistan for killing thousands of its soldiers and citizens with hundreds of billions dollars in aid.

The larger threat is posed by the terrorist groups themselves, whose presence—indeed, very ideology—are a source of instability. Rawalpindi exports as much of this instability as it can to Afghanistan and India (and perhaps now to Xinjiang), but it still witnesses a horrendous amount of carnage within the borders it is charged with defending. Rawalpindi rides the tiger. But they are not the only power to do so. The GCC plays a similar game, though they have yet to suffer the kind of instability seen in Waziristan. The enemy that attracts them to dangerous extremist groups is Iran. A terrorist outfit or militia inspired by Salafi-Jihadist ideology is an ideal vehicle for opposing Iranian ambitions, for the Iranians and their clients are Sh’ia, an anathema to Salafi extremists everywhere. ISIS’s explosive rampage across the region may have cooled the GCC’s ardor for Sunni militias somewhat; it has certainly given them the sort of convenient excuse that they have lacked for the past decade. This morning Saudi officials countered Nouri Maliki's claim that Saudi Arabia supports Sunni terrorists groups in Iraq by describing the GCC as the "forefront" of the anti-ISIS coalition. They fooled no one. It took months of cajoling and arm twisting before Riyadh agreed to bomb ISIS positions. It took them less than two weeks for  to decide to do the same thing to the Shi’ia Houthi fighters in Yemen. A clearer demonstration of their priorities could not be asked for.

Iran’s position in this conflict is unique: there is no state who fights against Salafi-Jihadist extremism with the consistency and force shown by the Islamic Republic. The revolutionary Shi’a ideology promoted by the Iranian state is less extreme and exclusionary than that promoted by Sunni extremists: Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah’s most important political partners are Christians and Druze, while Syria’s Christians flee to the areas controlled by Assad’s regime for safety and protection. In Afghanistan the Iranians worked for a stable regime that protected minority (and thus Shi’a) rights. In Iraq and Syria no other power—with the exception perhaps of the Kurds—fights ISIS with the consistency of Iran and its proxies.

The narrative presented here is more nuanced than the standard cable news presentation on Near East or on Iran. In many ways it is still a gross oversimplification—one could easily add a few more levels of complexity to the discussion by describing the role of the Kurds in regional politics, or tracing the relationships between different Libyan militias and their foreign sponsors, and so forth. But the marginal utility of these additional layers of complexity are small. The most important distinction has already been made: instability in the Middle East is largely rooted in two distinct but connected conflicts. The first is a regional geopolitical rivalry between Iran and its adversaries, Israel and the GCC. The second is an attempt by extremists to hijack Islamic civilization with a violent and utterly intolerant Salafist ideology. Recognizing this should change the terms upon which we debate American-Iranian relations.

The Iran debate we should be having centers around two questions:

  1. Why should the United States care about the Middle East at all? The United States is a power beset with region-bound rivals. It faces challenges to the regional orders it helped create in Europe, the East Pacific, and the Near East. Allies in each region are worried that the United States is not sufficiently committed to their security and the regional order by which they have prospered. They are right to worry. The United States has neither the political will nor the fiscal wherewithal to maintain an active, forward presence in all three regions. It is far past time for those who argue for a stronger presence in any of these places to justify why Americans should prioritize the region in question over the others. Hard questions like these simply cannot be put off any longer.

    This is particularly true for the Near East, for the threat countries like Iran can pose to American interests is correlated with the size of our presence is in the region. Previous interventions in the Near East have been justified in terms of energy security and spreading democratic governance. The shale revolution has rendered the first of these obsolete; the Iraq debacle and the Arab Spring have shown the folly of the second. What justifies American involvement in the present? 

  2. What war do we really want to win? Over the last fourteen years the United States has tried to combat Salafi-Jihadist extremism and quell Iran’s regional ambitions at the same time. One of these aims treats Iran as a tacit ally; the other treats Iran as a an avowed enemy. If this seems contradictory, it is because it is. The United States cannot continue the current course and expect success. A regional order where Salafi-Jihadist extremism is weak is a region where Iran and her proxies are stronger than they are today. A regional order where Iran and her proxies are weakened or defeated is an order where Salafi-Jihadist extremism thrives. Both the Iranians and the GCC realize this. It is time Americans follow suit.


[1] Michael Koplow, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Iran Nuclear Deal," Ottomans and Zionists (14 July 2015) 


17 July, 2015

Is a Science of Cultural Change Possible?

Peter Turchin is one of the leading minds behind cliodynamics, an effort to make the study of history a fully scientific discipline with the same sort of theoretical and mathematical rigor that under-girds modern scholarship in disciplines like ecology or evolutionary biology. In a 2008 essay written for Nature he justified this project in the following terms:
What caused the collapse of the Roman Empire? More than 200 explanations have been proposed, but there is no consensus about which explanations are plausible and which should be rejected. This situation is as risible as if, in physics, phlogiston theory and thermodynamics coexisted on equal terms. This state of affairs is holding us back. We invest in medical science to preserve the health of our bodies, and in environmental science to maintain the health of ecosystems. Yet our understanding of what makes societies healthy is in the pre-scientific stage.

Sociology that focuses on the past few years or decades is important. In addition, we need a historical social science, because processes that operate over long timescales can affect the health of societies. It is time for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science....  Rather than trying to reform the historical profession, perhaps we need an entirely new discipline: theoretical historical social science. We could call this ‘cliodynamics’, from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms Let history continue to focus on the particular. Cliodynamics, meanwhile, will develop unifying theories and test them with data generated by history, archaeology and specialized disciplines such as numismatics (the study of ancient coins). [1]

I commend the intentions of this project and have been impressed with the research it has produced thusfar.  However, I remain skeptical that it will ever be able to dethrone the messy, unscientific narratives most historians use to describe trends in macro-history. In particular, I doubt our ability to ever produce convincing, predicative models of cultural change.
Image Source: Fig 1 from Justin Mcarthy, 
"Record 60% of Americans Support Same-Sex Marriage,"
 Gallup (19 May 2015)

Americans have witnessed a rather dramatic example of cultural change quite recently. On June 26th, 2015 same-sex marriage became the official law of the land in the United States of America. Many have marveled at the rapid shifts in public opinion that made this possible. As late as 1995, less than 27% of Americans believed same-sex unions should be recognized legitimate unions; a bit more than 60% do today. Younger generations support for same-sex marriage is even more lopsided. This astonishing cultural transformation begs explanation.

An important part of the puzzle is found in popular attitudes about the purpose of marriage and its role in society generally. These attitudes have changed dramatically. A 2010 report from the National Marriage Council does an excellent job describing these changes and some of their social implications:
Over the last four decades, many Americans have moved away from identifying with an “institutional” model of marriage, which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union. This model has been overwritten by the “soul mate” model, which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses. Thus where marriage used to serve as the gateway to responsible adulthood, it has come to be increasingly seen as a capstone of sorts that signals couples have arrived, both financially and emotionally—or are on the cusp of arriving.
Although this newer model of marriage—and the new norms associated with it—has affected all Americans, it poses unique challenges to poor and Middle American adults. One problem with this newer model—which sets a high financial and emotional bar for marriage—is that many poor and Middle American couples now believe that they do not have the requisite emotional and economic resources to get or stay married. By contrast, poor and Middle Americans of a generation or two ago would have identified with the institutional model of marriage and been markedly more likely to get and stay married, even if they did not have much money or a consistently good relationship. They made do.
But their children and grandchildren are much less likely to accept less-than-ideal relationships. And because infidelity, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancies are more common in Middle America than they are in upscale America, Middle Americans are less likely than their better-educated peers to experience high-quality soul-mate relationships and are, hence, less likely to get and stay married. Their standards for marriage have increased, but their ability to achieve those standards has not. [2]
As Ross Douthat has pointed out, same-sex marriage fits into the old "institutional" conception marriage only with great difficulty, but it is a natural consequence—indeed, a paramount example—of the new "soul-mate" model. This new conception of marriage cannot offer any logical reproof to same sex unions (nor does it, for that matter, offer any reasonable objection to polyamorous relationships). Once the new model became orthodoxy it was simply a matter of time before previously heterodox relationships of these sorts were accepted. Same sex marriage was simply a very high profile and contentious marker of this much deeper change change.

But why did this change happen? How do we account for a large reversals in popular attitudes towards the purpose and social roles of families and marriage?

This is not the first time sweeping change of this sort has washed over American society. You would not know this from the way people talk about marriage and family today. Indeed, the most frustrating thing about the Culture War debates of our time is the lack of historical awareness on the part of debaters. Conservatives seldom know the historical origin of the institutions and practices they defend. Progressives, for their part, are even more historically stunted: their narratives of change and progress a rarely stretch back past their days of youthful activism in the 1960s. But we must look back much further into the past than this to see where the "institutional" ideal of marriage and family life comes from. It is approximately two centuries old. The ideal the National Marriage Council labels "institutional"—and which conservatives simply call "traditional"—was created between 1770 and 1830 among New England's bourgeoisie. By the end of the nineteenth century it provided the standard vision of family life for men and women across America.

In their excellent book Domestic Revolutions: a Social History of American Family Life Steven Mintz and Susan Kellog call this model of family and marriage relations “the Democratic Family.” Its basic features will sound familiar: as an institution marriage was designed to provide love and companionship for both spouses and a nurturing and safe environment for rearing children. Marriage partners were chosen carefully by the future spouses themselves, not by their parents or extended families. Husbands and wives were expected to act as an equal partnership, though each was responsible for sharply differentiated social spheres. Men worked outside of the home itself, acting as the family's primary breadwinners. Family and home life were conceptualized as a "haven" and resting place from the pressures of that outside world. In the domestic sphere the wife reigned supreme; she was expected to cultivate the sort of warm, loving home environment mentioned above, as well as be the primary care taker and nurturer of the children.

Children were to be nurtured. Through the good example and patient instruction of the parents—especially the mother—each child's individual talents and abilities could be found and developed. By the same careful and loving methods their character could be refined and improved. Children would be few. They would be treasured. Most importantly of all, they would be treated as children—not as miniature adults or unthinking beasts—until they reached adolescence. They were supposed to feel the same sense of warmth, love and respect for their parents that their parents were expected to feel for each other. They were considered autonomous individuals whose own personality traits and desires, not their family name or background, was at the core of their identity. At a comparatively early age they would separate from their parents completely to establish their own independent household. [3]

This vision of family life seems familiar to us because it persisted with few rivals right up to through the 1960s. It did evolve in that time (the most serious change occurring during the 30s and 40s, when the category of what we now call "teenager" first developed) but most changes were gradual, and the the basic tenets of family life in the century between the civil war and the civil rights movement were essentially the same. But if the sexual revolution was a sharp transition away from the Democratic Family of old, the Democratic Family itself was just as sharp a transition away from the pattern of familial relations that came before it. New England life was then dominated by the Puritan family. The type of family relations championed by the Puritans couldn't be more different from the "traditional family values" that dominated American society over the last two centuries.

In Puritan New England, the decision to marry was an economic one which husband, wife, and their families would haggle over. Marriage was understood as a “union where a man provided financial support in exchange for domestic service.” The hierarchy between husband and wife was thus not altogether different from that which separated a man from his servants. Affection between spouses would develop after marriage, if it developed at all. The purpose of a wife was domestic industry, and the family’s wealth was just as a much a product of her labors as that of her husband’s. Families would have far more children than in later times, but “child rearing was not the family’s main function; the care and nurture of children were subordinate to the family’s other interests.” We moderns would be not call Puritan parenting nurturing at all: “in their view the primary task of child rearing was to break down a child’s sinful will and internalize respect for divinity.” This task was given to fathers, not mothers. It ended by the age of seven, “when boys adopted adult clothing, were prevented from sleeping any longer with their sisters or female servants,” and were “fostered out as indentured servants, apprentices, or in rare cases, sent to boarding schools.” For all intents and purposes the Puritan was no longer treated as a child at this point, but simply as a “little adult.” However, the father still wielded immense authority over his children; “Puritan children were dependent on their father’s support in order to marry and set up independent households,” and their fathers possessed a legal right to deny their children’s choice of spouse and retained legal authority over their son’s farms and lands until their death. [4] 

I explain the old Puritan practices and ideals at such length so that readers may get a sense of just how alien their social world is to modern sensibilities. It would have been just as alien to most Americans from any period of this country's independent history. Modern children can open up domestic children’s novels written in nineteenth century like Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and instantly recognize families whose ideals and patterns of life are much like their own. There is no undue sense of culture shock, nor is there a need for long footnotes or introductions to make the social worlds of Josephine March or Laura Ingalls comprehensible. The same could not be said for a novel about family life written a century earlier—though par my point, such a novel would never have been written. Books written specifically for children would have made no sense to the Puritan mind, and as most women were illiterate, it would be hard to find a woman of Alcott's talents to write one. This past truly was a different country. It took a titanic change in popular attitudes before today's ‘traditional family values’ could come into being.

Those familiar with the broad span of global history will recognize that these rapid and dramatic changes in attitudes and practices within family life have happened many times before. Often—as was the case in Southern Song dynasty China or is the case in many parts of the contemporary Middle East—these changes would be considered regressive by the standards of 21st century liberals. Yet despite the great variety of family regimes history has given us to examine, we have not been able to create a compelling theory that explains why certain family practices and attitudes persist or change over time. Some parts of this puzzle are fairly well understood—demographers have posited and provided overwhelming evidence for what they term “Demographic Transition Theory,” which describes average fertility rates mostly as a function of GDP per capita and the level of education available to women. But while economic and demographic conditions can largely explain how many children couples across the world have,  it cannot explain what they expect from these children or what they think is the proper way to parent them. Today countries with fairly similar economic and demographic profiles—such as much of Western Europe and Japan—have very different attitudes and expectations for the roles men, women, and children are supposed to play in family life. Things like the age at which children leave the home or marry can be quantified and coded with ease. It is much harder to quantify or code how much affection husbands are expected to show their wives, or how harshly parents should discipline their children. [5]

So what does explain these things? And more importantly, how can we verify if any proposed explanation is true? Is it possible to establish a science of family life?

Families are an interesting object of study, because they are at once a demographic unit, an economic partnership, and set of human relationships that have great cultural meaning. Historians who study families of the past tend to focus one of these three parts, describing change in terms of demographic structure, economic survival strategy, or cultural values. This post concerns the last of these. So that we don’t get bogged down in debates over demographics and economics, it might be helpful to consider shifts in cultural values and attitudes that happened outside of the family entirely. Consider the changes in popular culture Brendan Bruce discusses in his 2013 book, The Origins of 'Spin':
The development of the sound bite is closely aligned to the process "dumbing down’ television, which started almost immediately.... In 1955 15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million. As the sociologist David White has noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Sir Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million mowers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White also went on to note that on March 16, I956, a Sunday chosen at random, the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times Toulouse-Lauflec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillieh, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew. It was not to last.

In 1968, when television still had Murrow-like pretensions to be in the news business, the average length given over to a politician's reply to a question, or an excerpt from a speech, was 42.3 seconds. Fully 21 percent of these sound bites ran for at least a minute. In 1972 it was 25.2 seconds. By 1976 it had reduced to 18.2 seconds and in 1980 was down again to 12.2 seconds. In 1984 it was down yet again - this time to 9.9 seconds. In 1988 it reduced to 9.8 seconds; in 1992 to 8.2; and in 1996 to 7 seconds. 18 seconds in twenty five years. The press equivalent - the 'ink bite’- has reduced over time from 14 column lines to six. [6]
Mr. Bruce presents compelling evidence that both American political culture and American popular culture has been “dumbed down” over the last sixty years. Anyone who has watched game shows or news programs from the era Bruce extols, or has read through the archives of magazines like Time, Life, Newsweek, or Foreign Affairs can attest that American information culture has become more vulgar, less erudite, and geared towards smaller and smaller attention spans during this time.

I discussed this passage in a private exchange with Adam Elkus, blogger at Rethinking Security and Zero Derp Thirty several weeks ago. Over the course of our exchange we came up with nine different plausible explanations for why this "dumbing down" of popular media might have happened. In the weeks since then I have developed another three potentials explanations for the trend. But this is precisely the problem. As it stands now, discussions of cultural change are no different than the discussions of Rome's decline that distress Peter Turchin. It is easy to create a story that explains why Americans have grown less articulate and formal over the last few decades, or why their expectations for marriage have changed. It is difficult to prove which of these stories is correct. We simply don’t have the methodological tools we need to scientifically test one hypothesis over the other.

I am unsure this will ever change. A central problem is that many cultural values and meanings at play here are too nuanced to be coded or quantified, and thus hypotheses built on them are quite difficult to falsify. To a great extent this explains why obscurist, ideology-heavy, “critical theory” interpretations of culture hold so much sway over much of the humanities. To outsiders looking in these interpretations are obvious foolishness, but until there is a science of cultural change capable of falsifying these interpretations, the study of culture will remain a morass where nothing but academic fashion and popular opinion can privilege one explanation over another.


[1] Peter Turchin, "Arise 'cliodynamics'," Nature 454, iss 3 (2008), 34-35.

[2]  Brad Wilcox, ed., When Marriage Disappears: Retreat From Marriage in Middle America (State of our Unions 2010) (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project), 38-39.

[3] Susan Kellogg and Steven Mintz, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life, (New York: The Free Press, 1988),43-67.

[4] ibid., 1-23. Quotations from 9, 14-17, 58.

[5] It is also worth noting that--contrary to the claim that changes in marriage and family ideals are purely a function of economic realities--the current shift from “institutional” to “soul-mate” models of marriage has carried heavy economic costs for most of American society. Economic survival models of family structure struggle to explain the rise of the "soul-mate" model of marriage. See note 2.

[6] Bruce Brendan, On the Origin of Spin: Or how Hollywood, the Ad Men and the World Wide Web became the Fifth Estate and created our images of power (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013); 249.