World Affairs

Did the Saudi Government Secretly Support ISIS?

On August 17, 2014, Clinton wrote to John Podesta, then Counselor to the President and later her campaign chair, outlining the intelligence on ISIS and laying out her policy position on how to deal with the challenge. Most of the stuff—on FSA, peshmerga, Turkey and so on—is clear from open sources but there was one particular bombshell. She claimed that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia provided clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS. Here’s the full paragraph:

Armed with proper equipment, and working with U.S. advisors, the Peshmerga can attack the ISIL with a coordinated assault supported from the air. This effort will come as a surprise to the ISIL, whose leaders believe we will always stop with targeted bombing, and weaken them both in Iraq and inside of Syria. At the same time we should return to plans to provide the FSA, or some group of moderate forces, with equipment that will allow them to deal with a weakened ISIL, and stepped up operations against the Syrian regime. This entire effort should be done with a low profile, avoiding the massive traditional military operations that are at best temporary solutions. While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region. This effort will be enhanced by the stepped up commitment in the KRG. The Qataris and Saudis will be put in a position of balancing policy between their ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world and the consequences of serious U.S. pressure. By the same token, the threat of similar, realistic U.S. operations will serve to assist moderate forces in Libya, Lebanon, and even Jordan, where insurgents are increasingly fascinated by the ISIL success in Iraq.

Now it is well understood that private donors in the gulf, including and especially rich Saudis and Qataris, have provided significant funding for ISIS. But Clinton said quite explicitly that the Saudi and Qatari governments were providing clandestine support. If the claim is true then this would be the greatest national security scandal in US history. For the United States government has gone out of its way to portray the Saudis as a valuable partner in the fight against ISIS.

The US has also gone out of its way to support the Saudis’ aggressive foreign policy in the region. Despite knowing that the Saudi terror bombing of Yemen would strengthen AQAP, the administration has provided blanket operational support for the air war. In Bahrain, the administration quietly acquiesced to the Saudi intervention to quell the uprising of the island’s majority Shia against the Al Khalifa. In Syria, the administration has repeatedly signaled its support for Saudi-backed salafist insurgents—often described as Western-backed—despite considerable concerns about their sectarian and ideological agenda.


President Obama and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The systematic appeasement of the Saudis is presumably meant to mollify Saudi anger about US policy vis-à-vis Mubarak and the nuclear deal with Iran. But if it is publicly established that the Saudis directly supported ISIS, that would completely undermine domestic support for the US-Saudi alliance. Put simply, Saudi Arabia would become a pariah. Instead of talking about strengthening the alliance, we would be talking about containment. So this is an issue of considerable importance.

ISIS poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia since the self-styled caliphate rejects the Saudis as the legitimate protectors of the two holy mosques; a job which would naturally fall on the caliphate if one were in existence. The Kingdom has also been the target of ISIS and its predecessors. The Saudis could conceivably use ISIS as a bludgeon against Assad and the Iranian-dominated regime in Baghdad. But such a policy would come with grave risks.

Even supposing that the Saudis could stomach the risk and bankroll ISIS, the second part of the claim is even less credible. For if US intelligence was aware of Saudi clandestine support for ISIS, that information would be extremely difficult to suppress. It is hard to imagine that the administration would bank on keeping the lid on this explosive affair. Indeed, if it ever came out it would ruin the career of every single person involved in the conspiracy to cover up a matter of such grave national security interest.

A much more credible interpretation is that Clinton was being flippant. What she meant to say perhaps was that the indiscriminate support provided by the Saudis and the Qataris (as well as Turkey) for the insurgency against Assad was helping ISIS. Specifically, that the flow of weapons and funds from the gulf regimes to the insurgents was ending up with ISIS. There is considerable evidence to suggest that weapons and monies meant for other insurgent groups ended up in ISIS’ hands through raids and defections. The addition of a single word, inadvertently, would rehabilitate her claim:

While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are [inadvertently] providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.

I believe this is the correct interpretation of the email. If I am wrong and Clinton’s words can be taken literally, then we may be facing a true game-changer in the Middle East. But pending further revelations, it would be unwise to give it much credence.


Was the Release of the Lewd Trump Tape Timed to Coincide with the Wikileaks Clinton Dump?

Sexual predator. The phrase popped into my head while listening to Donald Trump and Billy Bush’s so-called locker room banter. Except this wasn’t harmless locker room banter. This was a textbook illustration of rape culture.

Trump: You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. 

Bush: Whatever you want.

Trump: Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Note that Trump is literally bragging about sexual assault: Non-consensual kissing and grabbing of women’s genitals.

The revelation has gravely injured the Trump campaign. Numerous Republicans have withdrawn their support. Trump’s numbers with women were already appalling. We can now expect them to collapse. This may well turn out to be the arrow that slayed the monster.

Was the Clinton campaign behind the story?

Whosoever had this tape must’ve been sharply aware of its explosive potential once Trump started dominating the Republican contest. But they sat on it even as Trump secured the GOP nomination. This means that the original source’s sympathies did not rest with Trump’s Republican adversaries. That they released it at all means that their sympathies did not rest with Trump either.

Even after the general election campaign started in earnest, the source sat on the tape. What were they waiting for? Why release it on Friday, October 7?

Modern presidential campaigns have extensive operations to dig up dirt on their adversaries. Since they have the greatest stake in the matter they hire armies of sleuths and devote considerable resources to the effort. If there are skeletons to be found in the closet of their adversary, there is a good chance a priori that their black ops team would find them.

Assume that the Clinton campaign had discovered the tape. What would be the ideal time to surface it? If I were a strategic advisor to the Clinton campaign, I would advise them to hold it in reserve and use it as a defensive weapon when the campaign was at a serious risk of being harmed. In particular, I would hold it in reserve to use against any “October surprise.”

Now, Assange had been promising a game-changer for a while and more recently dropping hints of a major dump this week that would hurt the Clinton campaign. Here was the “October surprise” that Clinton strategists had been waiting for.

The unnamed source who had the tape called Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold around 11am on Friday, October 7. The Post published the story at 5pm on the same dayAt 6pm, Wikileaks dumped a treasure trove of Clinton campaign emails online.

It seems that the Clinton campaign timed the release of the Trump tape absolutely perfectly. The operation ensured that the sordid Trump story would drown out the Wikileaks dump. It was straight out of The Art of War. I can almost hear the champagne popping in Brooklyn.

This may sound like a criticism of the Clinton campaign’s machinations. Far from it: The affair demonstrates the strategic superiority of the Clinton campaign. Not only do they have a bigger war chest and a superior ground operation, even their strategists are more cunning. The Policy Tensor is impressed.


A Whopper From the President

Wages have risen faster in real terms during this business cycle than in any since the 1970s,” according to the president. That doesn’t sound credible to anyone aware of the tepid pace of wage growth. As I’ll show, he is not even close.

We date expansions as beginning in the first quarter after an NBER recession and ending in the last quarter before the next recession. We then calculate real wages as the ratio of total wages and salaries (BEA) to total hours worked (BLS), deflated by the headline inflation index (FRED). Figure 1 shows the overall gains in real wage per hour during the expansions under the four two-term presidents since the 1970s. We see that real wages grew 11% during the Clinton expansion, whereas they have only grown at 4.2% in the Obama expansion. Indeed, Obama’s performance is even slightly worse than Bush’s 4.5%.


Figure 1.

But the president did not say wages have grown the most in his expansion; he said they have grown the fastest. Since the expansions are of different lengths—ranging from 24 quarters under Bush to 40 quarters under Clinton—perhaps the president has a point about the pace of gains in real wages?

Not even close. Figure 2 shows the annualized growth rate of wages per hour in the four expansions. We see that although the gap is narrower by this metric, the Clinton expansion still yielded significantly larger real wage gains than the Obama expansion (1.05% vs. 0.59%). And instead of being statistically tied, Bush pulls away from Obama. His expansion saw an annual increase of 0.73% in real wages per hour. Meanwhile, Reagan lags behind at 0.41%.


Figure 2.

The White House itself publishes annual estimates of real wages that are included in the Economic Report of the President. Unlike the BEA’s numbers which are for all employees, these are for blue-collar workers only (“production and nonsupervisory workers”). And because the numbers are annual, we have to make a choice of which years to include. We date our expansions from the first year after the end of an NBER recession and the last year before the next NBER recession. For example, the Clinton expansion is taken to be 1991-2000 since the first recession ended in the last quarter of 1990 and the next one began in the first quarter of 2001. We then calculate the annualized gain in real wages per hour for blue collar workers from the data provided by the White House. Figure 3 displays the results.


Figure 3.

We see that according to the president’s own numbers, blue-collar workers did nearly twice as well under Clinton than under Obama, even as the working class did twice as well under Obama than under Bush. During the Clinton expansion, blue collar wages per hour grew at the pace of 0.73% per annum, versus 0.4% per annum during the Obama expansion. Meanwhile, blue-collar workers got shafted under Ronald Reagan. Their real wages per hour fell by 2.8% between ’83 and ’89.

The bad news is that this has been the worst expansion for the middle class since Reagan. The good news is that the Clintons will be back in the White House soon.


Correction: An earlier version of Figure 2 displayed quarterly growth rates instead of annualized growth rates for real wages per hour in the four expansions.

Appendix. Quarterly growth in real wages since the 1970s.



An Illustrated Guide to the US Financial Cycle

Claudio Borio of the Bank of International Settlements is one of the most interesting and original economists of the day. A key innovation of his is the concept of the financial cycle. The idea is that the excess elasticity of the financial sector has dramatic consequences for real activity. Specifically, the supply of credit to the real economy is much more elastic than macroeconomic models have hitherto assumed or would be justified by macroeconomic fundamentals. In good times credit is plentiful and even very dicey borrowers can obtain credit quite cheaply. In difficult times even worthy borrowers find it hard to secure credit.

In order to empirically capture this boom-and-bust cycle, Borio and others developed a measure that uses filtering techniques. The idea is to isolate medium frequency movements in key indicators: credit-to-GDP ratio, total credit to the private sector, and property prices. Borio showed that the comovement of these indicators captures national financial cycles for a number of countries.

Technically: Borio uses a bandpass filter to isolate cycles with length ranging from 8 to 30 years in these three variables and averages them to obtain the financial cycle. Figure 1 displays Borio’s financial cycle for the United States.


Figure 1. Source: Claudio Borio

I recomputed Borio’s financial cycle with more recent data. Figure 2 displays the US financial cycle from 1976-2015. We see that the financial cycle has turned since Borio calculated it.


Figure 2.

US housing has always been a leading indicator of economic activity. Housing-finance is the primary channel through which the excess elasticity of the financial sector propagates to real activity. In what follows, we will see that a single metric of housing-finance, namely mortgage credit-to-gdp, captures the comovement of the components of the US financial cycle quite well. Figure 3 displays raw and detrended US mortgage credit-to-GDP. We can see the extraordinary boom in the run-up to the Great Financial Crisis. Figure 4 displays filtered US mortgage credit-to-GDP from 1951-2016 (using the same bandpass filter).


Figure 3.


Figure 4.

The US housing-finance cycle has become increasingly coupled to credit-to-GDP (Figure 5). It has long been coupled to property prices (Figure 6) and has become increasingly synchronized with the raw credit cycle (Figure 7).


Figure 5.


Figure 6.


Figure 7.

Figure 8 displays the comovement of the US financial cycle and the US housing-finance cycle as measured by mortgage credit-to-gdp. We can observe three closed financial cycles that can be identified either by the three peaks or the four troughs. Mortgage credit-to-GDP (the US housing-finance cycle) barely rose in the first. Then there was a discernible but mild boom in mortgage lending during the late-1980s financial boom. But in the financial boom of the 2000s the two were phase-locked; so to speak. Note the increasing amplitude of both the cycles and the rigidity of the comovement in the last cycle. The past twenty years have witnessed a coupling of the two cycles.*


Figure 8. The US financial cycle and the US housing-finance cycle.

What explains the coupling of the financial and housing-finance cycles? One word: Securitization. Basically, the extraordinary amplitude of the financial cycle in the lead up to the Great Financial Crisis was the result of shadow lending. Figure 9, 10, and 11 show the contributions of banks and credit unions, US housing-finance agencies (“Agency MBS”), and shadow banks (“Private-label MBS”) respectively. Shadow lending accounted for 90% of the increase in mortgage credit-to-GDP during the housing-finance boom of 2003-2007.

Shadow banks here refers to finance companies, ABS issuers, and mortgage real-estate investment trusts (M-REITS), which are essentially artificial firms created by Wall Street to warehouse the raw material (mortgages) used to manufacture financial assets. Thus, securitization brought expanding dealer balance sheet capacity to the housing market and thereby amplified the US housing-finance cycle.


Figure 10.


Figure 11.


Figure 12.

An interesting question for future research is whether housing-finance cycles are synchronous with financial cycles more generally. That is, is this an American peculiarity or is it true of other countries as well? Another open important question is how Borio’s financial cycle relates to Rey’s global financial cycle which is defined in terms of the comovement of global asset prices.

*We know from Rognlie’s work that the growing share of capital income in total income is explained almost entirely by capital gains on real-estate. That’s a third closely-related cycle.



Gary Johnson and the Case for Isolationism


Gary Johnson’s humiliation (“What is Aleppo?”) at the hands of Mike Lauer of NBC has gone viral. Johnson’s remarkable ignorance of foreign affairs is widely seen as disqualifying. This is not an unreasonable judgement but I will argue that it is mistaken. The knowledge and sophistication of the President herself is of secondary importance. What matters first and foremost is the nation’s grand strategy.

The Libertarians, including and especially Johnson (“No more policing the world”), are Isolationists. Because Isolationism has been demonized for decades Libertarian political entrepreneurs try very hard to avoid the label. But that is also mistaken. Isolationism is and will always remain a viable and attractive grand strategy for the United States.

A grand strategy is a state’s core formula for survival and security in a dangerous world. It serves as the organizing principle of foreign policy. Great Britain’s nineteenth century grand strategy was to maintain maritime primacy and act as an offshore balancer on the Continent. Bismarck’s grand strategy in the 1870s and 1880s was to ensure that Germany was always in a “party of three” among the five great powers. Both grand strategies were informed by the geopolitical positions of the state and were thus very effective.

The first fundamental fact about the United States’ geopolitical position is that vast oceans separate the United States from all other great powers. Because of ‘the stopping power of water,’ even if the United States were not the strongest state in the system it would continue to remain extraordinarily secure. The second fundamental fact about the US’ geopolitical position is that it has been the strongest state in the system for over a century.

Because of these fundamental geopolitical facts, the United States enjoys extraordinary leeway in choosing its grand strategy. Unlike any other great power in the system, the United States can choose its level of strategic engagement outside its home region. Different grand strategies correspond to different levels of strategic engagement. Put another way, the United States can choose to define its national interest more and less expansively and deploy its considerable power resources accordingly. There are five main grand strategies available to the United States which can be ordered by the level of engagement:

  • Pure Isolationism: US forces would be withdrawn to the US homeland. And the United States would strategically disengage from the rest of the world (incl. S. America) leaving it to other powers to sort it out. It would continue to interact with the rest of the world economically and culturally but not in the security sphere. Instead it would husband its own strength.
  • Hemispheric Isolationism: The US defense perimeter would be withdrawn to the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific; thus strategically isolating the western hemisphere. The US would maintain preponderance in the hemisphere but avoid security interactions with Eurasia unless the western hemisphere is threatened.
  • Offshore Balancing: The US would maintain global maritime primacy and prevent other great powers from replicating its feat of achieving regional preponderance. In practice, this means that the US would strive to maintain a favourable balance of power in the two extremities of Eurasia. However, US forces would not be deployed on Eurasian land unless they were necessary for deterrence (as was the case in Europe during the bipolar era). It would also ignore weak states unless there was a clear threat.
  • Defensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. It would take it upon itself to defend the territorial order by the force of its arms; identifying its national interest with the stability and security of the international system. It would seek to contain near peers and grow its retinue of protectorates. US forces would be deployed across the world for deterrence and enforcement of rules multilaterally when it can and unilaterally when it must.
  • Offensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. But instead of simply defending the territorial status quo by the force of its arms it would seek to forge a more favourable international order. It would in effect act as a revisionist hegemon, seeking to “roll back” near peers instead of containing them, and conquering and reconfiguring weak confrontation states where possible.

In accordance with Parkinson’s law of international politics, the definition of US national interest has expanded along with its relative power. In the first century of its existence, the United States followed the strategy of Pure Isolationism. During the 1890s the US shifted to Hemispheric Isolationism. In the short twentieth century (1915-90), the United States deployed military forces in Eurasia to defeat and contain a sequence of potential regional hegemons (Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Union) and sought and achieved maritime primacy in accordance with Offshore Balancing. With the capitulation of Soviet Russia and the advent of the unipolar world, the United States has lurched back and forth between Defensive Hegemonism and Offensive Hegemonism.

Pure Isolationism is not a viable grand strategy for the United States; nor has it ever been entertained as such since the United States emerged as a great power. It would mean the end of the Monroe Doctrine; something that is unlikely to be on the table for a very long time. Offensive Hegemonism is also no longer on the table since it is widely seen to have been tried and failed. The lesson that US policy elites have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the costs of stability operations are simply incommensurate with the expected gains. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it:

Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.

We are thus left with (Hemispheric) Isolationism, Offshore Balancing, and (Defensive) Hegemonism. Loosely speaking, Libertarians prefer Isolationism; Realists prefer Offshore Balancing; and Liberals (esp. beltway foreign policy wonks) prefer Hegemonism.

The Policy Tensor prefers Offshore Balancing but that is not because Isolationism is not viable. Isolationism has the virtue of being cheap. Bringing the boys home would allow the United States to cut its wasteful defense spending. More importantly, the United States would entirely avoid meddling in weak states (which is also true of Offshore Balancing). And perhaps most importantly, it would remove a major driver of friction with other great powers.

A key issue in the coming years is whether a rising China should be contained or accomodated. In particular, Whether, and if so when, the United States should surrender maritime primacy in the Western Pacific. Isolationists would argue that even if China were to become preponderant in Asia, it would not threaten the United States. And this is indeed the case if US national security interests are defined exclusively in terms of the defense of the homeland, which would remain protected even after the exit from unipolarity as a consequence of the insularity of the US homeland and strategic nuclear deterrence.

If however, continued prosperity and international influence are seen as vital US national interests, then Isolationism would likely fail to achieve it. In particular, US access to world markets and resources would be subject to the veto of other great powers who would take the place of the United States in the game of world power. The Isolationists would counter that the United States would not suffer very much at all even if China became the dominant power in Asia because the United States would remain a very attractive trading partner and source of technology and innovative ideas. That depends on the state of the world. If the United States poses no threat to other great powers, they may be willing to grant it access to world markets. If they see the United States as a potential threat, they may not. In either case, the United States could easily survive but it might be poorer and marginalized.

The fundamental issue then is whether global influence is a vital interest of the United States. Isolationists argue that global power and influence are unnecessary and probably immoral. I don’t agree with it but is a consistent and ethical position. And it should be up to the American people to choose. The American people have in fact long been denied this choice. I therefore hope that Gary Johnson makes it to the debates.




World Affairs

Spin and Reality in Jarabulus


As Turkish tanks rolled across the border into Syria apparently supported by US warplanes, Western newspapers echoed the official line from Turkey that the twin goals of the incursion were to “clear Islamic State militants from their remaining border stronghold, and roll back recent advances by Syrian Kurdish militias.” The White House called the incursion “an indication of important progress” in the campaign against ISIS. Meanwhile, Biden ordered the Syrian Kurds back across the Euphrates and threatened to withdraw American support if they failed to comply. “In return, the United States got something it has pushed for in vain for years, getting Turkey to take a more proactive stance” against ISIS. What is spin and what is reality?

To begin with there was simply no need for US air support. Both because Turkey has plenty of airpower of its own and because Jarabulus was absolutely deserted. ISIS had already fled, as US intelligence was well aware. No shots were fired. The prominence given to close US air support was instead a signal to Putin and Assad. The idea being that this was a joint US-Turkish operation, so don’t even think about resistance. The same concern was behind the timing of the operation which coincided with Kerry’s visit to Turkey, as well as Kerry’s very loud pronouncements of absolute support for the incursion. Forcible alterations of the territorial status quo are never a trivial matter, even if the target state has lost de facto control of the territory in question; especially so because the United States has been staunchly opposed to forcible territorial change in Ukraine, Georgia, the Senkaku islands, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

US warplanes have acted as the Syrian Kurds’ airforce for years; most recently in the recapture of Manbij a week before the Turkish incursion. At that point, Turkish officials said they expected the Kurds to go back east across the Euphrates. Preventing the Kurds from unifying the two Syrian Kurdish statelets into a single contiguous Syrian Kurdish de facto state along the border has been a consistent Turkish policy goal. There are two reasons for this. One is that unifying Rojava, the Syrian Kurdish region along the border, would be big symbolic victory for the Syrian Kurds that is likely to embolden Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. The second, more important reason, is that Kurdish control of the Syro-Turkish border would effectively close the rat line.

The rat line is the principal pipeline through which foreign fighters, money, weapons, ammunition and supplies flow to the Syrian rebels. From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey has been indiscriminate in regulating this flow. With the evaporation of the moderate opposition, almost all of this flow has ended up in the hands of jihadists. It is what keeps the rebellion against Assad alive. Without the rat line, much of the armed opposition would not survive for very long.

If the Kurds were to gain effective control over the Syrian side of the Syro-Turkish border, they would come to enjoy a veto over the rat line. They would immediately try to shut down the flow to non-allied rebels. That would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Syrian war against Turkish and Saudi proxies. Turkey, of course, cannot tolerate such a scenario.

The Policy Tensor believes that such a scenario is manifestly in the US interest: It goes furthest towards stemming the threat of Salafist Jihadism; the only identifiable US interest in Syria. The Obama administration instead frames the US interest in the context of the US’ geopolitical rivalry with Russia and Iran. Thus, the interests of allies become US interests. So we find the United States providing logistics for Saudi terror bombing of Yemen and diplomatic cover for the Turkish intervention in northern Syria backed by US security guarantees.

It is often claimed that the United States needs access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is portrayed as “a key nexus in the campaign against the Islamic State.” The United States can use air bases in Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Baghdad-controlled Iraq and Erbil to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State. Many of these are closer than Incirlik to ISIS territory and all of them are close enough. The US can also use naval platforms in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The claim doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

In going out of its way to support the Turkish incursion, the US is seeking to gain leverage against Russia as it negotiates a great power settlement in Syria. Ultimately however, the United States will throw the rebels under the bus. And we can expect it to do that with as much spin as it has just deployed to protect their lifeline.


Parkinson’s Law of International Politics


Without being either the ones who made this law or the first to apply it after it was laid down, we applied it as one in existence when we took it up and one that we will leave behind to endure for all time, since we know that you and anyone else who attained power like ours would act accordingly.

Thucydides, 411 BCE

Thucydides was describing what two thousand years later Frederick the Great called the “permanent principle of rulers,” which is “to extend as far as their power permits.” Later still, Karl Deutsch noted that “a nation’s feeling of insecurity expands directly with its power” which is “a kind of Parkinson’s law of national security.”[1] States, of course, live in anarchy. Since they cannot call 911 when attacked, they fear other powerful states; especially their strong neighbors. As states grow richer, they naturally translate their wealth into power in order to “buy” more security. This they would do even if their conception of national interest were to remain unchanged. The real puzzle is the elasticity of the very definition of the national interest. For reasons that are not obvious, how states define their national interest expands and contracts with their power. Why?

Why do powerful states seek spheres of influence? Why do they patrol the marshes? Why do they coerce and intervene in weak states and try to control their political orientation? How is that supposed to add to their power? If fear is why states seek power, then they should largely pass up opportunities to impose themselves on weak states in peripheral regions, and concentrate instead on achieving a favorable balance of power. For the fundamental fact about great power politics is that spheres of influence, colonies, protectorates and dependencies, add little to a great power’s war-making capabilities.

Not all weak states are equally useless for the accumulation of power. Some are indeed strategically important. For instance, satellites can add greatly to a state’s power projection capabilities if they are located near strategically relevant regions; that is, overlooking important sea lanes or near other great powers. Paul Kennedy observers that the tiny red dots scattered on the map were of great strategic importance to Britain’s world position; whereas the vast landmasses colored red were largely strategic liabilities.

A great power may also fear foreign influence in its near abroad. Specifically, it may fear that a nearby weak state could host a great power adversary’s military force and therefore pose a significant threat. This was precisely the threat revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram and the arrival of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. It is therefore understandable that great powers would try to control at least the foreign policies of weak states in their region. And this may sometimes require controlling their political orientation.  A case can also be made for acquiring influence in states that have large deposits of strategically important commodities.

But these understandable cases account for a minor fraction of Parkinson’s Law of International Politics. None of these can explain the European scamble for Africa. All of sub-Saharan Africa could’ve fallen to a single power without upsetting the balance of global power. What power in the name of God was Belgium—an artifact of the European balance of power whose very independence was the result of British policy—accumulating in the Congo? The fallacy of power accumulation by colonialism was exposed when the struggle against Germany ensued. A world’s worth of colonies were no use against a continental power with almost no colonial territories to speak of.[2] None explain the hundreds of interventions in Latin America by the United States either. The US’ ability to exclude outside powers from the hemisphere was a consequence of its regional preponderance, in which controlling Latin American polities played virtually no role. As Secretary of State Richard Olney explained in 1895,

Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects… [because] its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.

Why, then, the need to constantly meddle in other American states? And precisely what US interests were going to be secured by the interventions in Indochina and Iraq are yet to be identified.[3]

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that Parkinson’s Law of International Politics can only be explained by policymakers’ mistakes or imperial ideology. Such a systematic component of human history cannot be explained by appealing to idiosyncratic errors or historically-contingent ideational developments. Imperial ideology is best seen as apologia for imperialism; not its driver.

Classical realists believed that statesmen’s lust for power was inherent in human nature. Neorealism discarded that assumption by relocating the ultimate cause to the systemic level; that is, in the interaction of states. Neoclassical realists have since smuggled it back in. For instance, Fareed Zakaria argues in From Wealth to Power that,

Nations try to expand their political interests abroad when central decision-makers perceive a relative increase in state power.

He shows that the weakness of the American state prevented the emergence of the US as a great power in 1865-1890. Specifically, Congress thwarted the executive’s efforts to project power and extend American influence abroad by refusing to pay for it. More generally, he argues that national war potential is not enough. In order to be a great power, a state must be institutionally capable of mobilizing society’s resources to generate state power. And specifically in the case of the United States, he shows that we can rule out systemic pressure for expansion:

The United States did not expand against strong states that posed a great threat to its security but largely against areas that were weak and in which expansion would entail a small cost.

But if fear, that is to say, systemic pressure, was not the cause of US expansion, then what is left? He dismisses economic explanations out of hand. Indeed, in Zakaria’s treatment, statesmen’s lust for power functions as an exogeneous assumption; playing precisely the role it played in classical realism; without a word, of course, about man’s dark nature.

Economic explanations cannot be so easily dismissed. After all, not all great powers sought influence with the same vigor. This was largely a game played by sea powers not land powers. Athens had dozens of colonies; Sparta had none. The sea powers on the Atlantic coast established colonies and sought influence all around the world. The continental great powers developed no such appetite until they too became navalist. Both the American and Japanese spheres of influence too came with naval power. And all the sea powers, of course, were commercial trading states. Indeed, in the initial phase of European expansion, capitalism was in the driver’s seat. The Dutch, British and French acquisitions were manifestly for commercial reasons. Even American gunboats followed on the heels of the likes of the United Fruit Company. Dismissing this history requires some serious intellectual “discipline.”

But even if one were able to cover much of this feverish activity with geostrategic and commercial logics, that still leaves a susbtantial portion of Parkinson’s Law of International Politics unexplained. Both Rome and Assyria were unipolar powers that routinely intervened on their periphery for hundreds of years. Our present unipole is no different. Why would they do so uniformly across space and time in the face of no threats or commercial opportunities? I don’t have an answer but somehow it reminds me of Sebald’s take in Austerlitz:

Their body temperature will then be thirty-six degrees Celsius, like that of mammals, and of dolphins and tunny fish swimming at full speed. Thirty-six degrees, according to Alphonso, has always proved the best natural level, a kind of magical threshold, and it had sometimes occurred to him, Alphonso, said Austerlitz, that all mankind’s misfortunes were connected with its departure at some point in time from that norm, and with the slightly feverish, overheated condition in which we constantly found ourselves.


[1] Parkinson’s original formulation was a dig on bureaucracy: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

[2] The exception which proves the rule was the Indian army, paid for by the colony, which was somewhat useful as cannon fodder on the killing fields.

[3] The US veto over gulf energy does not require control of any major state in the region. The US can shut off the flow of oil to China, Japan, Germany, or whoever because it controls the sea lanes.