Author Archive | Eric Posner

The One Percent Doctrine Revisited

In response to my skepticism about President Obama’s justification for the surge of troops in Afghanistan, Heather Hurlburt explained on Bloggingheads that the U.S. needs to stabilize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border not only to keep extremists in Pakistan out of Afghanistan, but (more important) to keep extremists in Afghanistan out of Pakistan.  If the Pakistani regime comes crashing down, then nuclear weapons might be sold or given to Al Qaeda, which might then use them against the United States.  Does this sound familiar?  Sounds like the latest version of the one percent doctrine to me.  Just as the Bush administration claimed it had to invade Iraq in order to prevent Saddam Hussein from handing over nukes to Al Qaeda, the Obama administration says it has to expand the war in Afghanistan in order to prevent Pakistan from handing over nukes to Al Qaeda.  Okay, 5 percent for Obama, 1 percent for Bush.  Reread the speech: the frequent reference to Pakistan, starting with the title of the speech, lends plausibility to Heather’s theory.

In his willingness to use military force to counter remote but potentially significant threats, Obama does not seem so different from his predecessors.  What about his emphasis on multilateralism, which Heather makes much of?  In fact, no one really supports America’s war in Afghanistan/Pakistan.  Not the European governments, whose token forces are deeply resented by European publics.  Not the frequently forgotten rest of the world—places like China, Russia, and India.  For all his eloquence, Obama is constrained by events, and reaches for the same tool that American presidents have used for decades—military force, with other nations if possible, but without them if necessary. […]

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Prospects for a Climate Treaty

Ken Anderson’s post a while back expressed pessimism for classic collective-action reasons:

Well, I do not understand how this Copenhagen conference manages to overcome the collective action failure problems that have been encountered in Kyoto and every other exercise in this area.  Extremely diffuse damage from a multitude of players, now and into the future; diffuse set of actors who must act in a coordinated way; individual states being tasked to take sacrificial actions that in the short and medium term at least are bad for their individual economies and their voting citizens; consistent record of failures not just in the nature of the promises made, but in their non-fulfillment even as they stand … on what grounds does anyone plausibly think that Copenhagen might produce a different outcome?

Noah Sachs replies:

Anderson is too pessimistic.  After all, over 180 countries have already agreed to two prior climate treaties (The UN Framework Convention in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997), as well detailed rules for implementation (Marrakech Accords in 2001), all of which are currently being implemented.  The UN Framework Convention remains the organizing document for continued international efforts to address climate change, and the majority of industrialized parties to Kyoto are expected to comply with their Kyoto commitments by the end of the first commitment period, in 2012 (with some notable exceptions, such as Canada).  The EU-15 are on track to exceed their Kyoto commitments by 2012.   Reports of the death of Kyoto are greatly exaggerated.

This was news to me.  The most recent scholarly work I am aware of indicates that only four of the EU-15 are on track to meet their Kyoto commitments.  The document cited by Sachs assumes that the EU countries will take actions in the future to reduce GHG emissions beyond those […]

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In 1974, a pair of scientists published a paper claiming that chlorofluorocarbons, a compound used in refrigerators, air conditioners, aerosol spray cans, and other devices, migrated into the atmosphere, where they damaged the ozone layer.  The ozone layer protects human beings from some of the harmful effects of the sun; the predictable consequence of its loss would be millions of skin cancer cases.  The scientists’ work was hotly contested; it eventually gained support in the scientific community, but there were also dissenters.  EPA would later regulate the use of CFCs in aerosols, but it was clear that unilateral regulation by the U.S. government would not solve the problem.  CFCs manufactured and used in any country could damage the ozone layer.

The American government turned to the Europeans, the other major manufacturers and users of CFCs.  Europeans, however, did not trust the science and expressed skepticism about the CFC theory.  After further scientific research established that an ozone hole had opened up above Antarctica, and that the likely cause was the emission of CFCs, the Americans dragged the still skeptical Europeans into a treaty regime that tightly regulated the use of CFCs and other ozone-depleting gases.  The Montreal Protocol is the most successful environmental treaty ever (the only successful environmental treaty?).  The hole has been gradually shrinking and is expected to disappear later this century.

The odd part of this story is that, while not everyone agreed with the scientists who found the link between CFCs and ozone depletion, and that indeed, like everything else, the link was uncertain, albeit likely, governments were able to agree on a treaty regime.  The leading supporters of a treaty were those tree-huggers in the Reagan administration, who were persuaded by a cost-benefit analysis that the benefits from a ban on CFC greatly exceeded the […]

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Suppose that astronomers around the world alerted us that a large asteroid is headed in our direction, and might collide with the earth in the year 2012.  The astronomers cannot give us a precise probability of collision because of many imponderables.  The laws of physics are, of course, uncontroversial, but there is some disagreement about the precision of the instruments used to measure the location of small objects at great distances.  It is also, of course, possible that the asteroid could be deflected by another object before it reaches the earth.  And astronomers concede that they do not know everything there is to know about outer space.  When pressed, the astronomers will say only that the scientific consensus is that a collision is “very likely,” and that, if it occurs, the consequences will be catastrophic.  To build a defense system—say, rockets that would intercept the asteroid and knock it off course—would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

As is always the case, there are a few dissenters.  A highly regarded astronomer at MIT points out that astronomers have made incorrect predictions in the past and argues that a collision is possible but not likely.  A few physicists who do not specialize in astronomy argue that scientific instruments are not as precise as some people think, and the astronomers’ risk estimate should therefore be distrusted.  A scandal erupts when emails at the West Anglia Space Research Unit are released, and shows that some scientists tried to arrange a boycott of a journal that published a few articles of the skeptics.  At the same time, thousands of astronomers not connected with the West Anglia Unit continue to insist that the risk of a collision is very high.

A few questions.  In this scenario, would there emerge an industry of non-credentialed “astronomy skeptics” […]

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Against the War Tax

Representative David Obey’s Share Our Sacrifice Act would finance the war in Afghanistan by imposing a tax on the public.  The idea is yet another in a line of gimmicky populist measures that are sprouting like dandelions this political season, and it has garnered the support of apparently sensible people.  But it has little to recommend it.

One of the Economist’s bloggers says “it’s a very bad idea to get involved in a long, grueling, expensive war without explaining to the American people how much they will have to sacrifice, and securing their support.”  But the War Tax doesn’t explain anything and, as the author says elsewhere, would only reduce their support for the war.  The Economist cites Spencer Ackerman who notes “the military lament that only a select and small proportion of the country is actually at war.”  But soldiers volunteer for service; no one is required to join the military.  If the argument were that soldiers are underpaid and should have higher wages, or that the dependents of soldiers who are killed should receive more generous benefits, it would be possible to sympathize.  The only effect of the war tax would be to raise revenues for the government, which could use them for additional spending or to pay down the debt.  The war will go on, however the revenues are used.

It is possible that the Afghanistan War is a bad idea; if so, the remedy is to end the war, not to raise taxes.  If it is a good idea, the benefits will accrue to the inhabitants of the future, who will be protected from terrorists and other baddies, not us.  We perform a benefit for the future, and we charge them for our costs; what is there to object to?  Deficit spending for what is in […]

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Why Has Holder Decided to Try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Civilian Court?

The answer is not “the rule of law.”  According to the WSJ, Holder said:

The 9/11 attacks were both an act of war and a violation of our federal criminal law, and they could have been prosecuted in either federal courts or military commissions.

So the U.S. government has the option to try suspected members of Al Qaeda in civilian court or in military court.  The “rule of law,” then, does not compel traditional civilian-court protections.  However, the question remains unanswered.  To say that one has an option is not to say why one exercised that option as one did.

Then what is the answer?  It is surely this: the Obama administration has decided to offer a two-tiered system of justice.  We might call them the “high-quality” (civilian) tier and “low-quality” (military) tier.  The high-quality approach offers greater accuracy; the low-quality approach offers less accuracy.  The Obama administration will use the high-quality system against people when it has a strong case, and the low-quality system against people when it has a weak case.

This approach makes sense.  Endless detention without trial is no longer a politically viable option.  The government will make a judgment as to whether a suspect is dangerous or not.  If the case is good, the high-quality system will be used.  If the case is bad, the low-quality system will be used.  In this way, the government can ensure that people it thinks are dangerous will be locked up.

This system is superior to the two possible one-tier systems.  A pure low-quality system (military commissions only) suffers from credibility problems.  People will not believe that all the people who are convicted are guilty.  A pure high-quality system (civilian courts only) would result in too many acquittals.  People who the government believes are dangerous will be back […]

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A Peek in the Times’ Archives

Sept. 1, 1939

Nazis Invade Poland
Overcrowding in Germany Cited

Sept. 2, 1939

For Nazis, a Hard Time To Be Europeans
Neighbors’ Suspicions Caused Stress, Resentment

Sept. 3, 1939

In Central Europe, Other Countries Invade Their Neighbors, Too

Sept. 4, 1939

When Fuhrers Snap
Rallies, Pogroms Took Toll on Leader


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Reply to Farrell, Part n

Henry Farrell replies to my replies.

International Law and Rational Choice Theory.  I agree with Henry’s discussion of the limits of rational choice theory and so don’t understand why he thinks I commit the fallacies that he describes.  It would be one thing if I said that states’ compliance with treaty X is consistent with rational choice because the folk theorem allows for cooperation, while states’ noncompliance with treaty Y is consistent with rational choice because the folk theorem allows for noncooperation.  Or if I said that states comply with treaty W because they care about their reputations for complying with W but that states fail to comply with treaty Z because they don’t care about their reputations for complying with Z.  But I never make such arguments, instead ruling out the first type of argument as uninformative and the second as circular.  My account of international law is parsimonious, and the usual criticism directed at it is not that it can be manipulated so as to explain anything, but that in fact it fails to explain why certain legal regimes have been successful.  So, for example, if in fact states do overcome a collective action problem and collectively sanction states that violate human rights, that is a problem for my theory, not something that I try to explain away by asserting that states have an interest in (say) having a good reputation for enforcing human rights treaties.  This is why both Henry and I have invoked the empirical literature on this topic.  If I could save my theory by redefining state interests or picking and choosing among multiple equilibria, I wouldn’t have bothered to cite evidence.

Again, the major criticism of my theory is not that it is unfalsifiable but that it is false.  I have acknowledged […]

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Does the UN Human Rights Council cause states to treat their citizens better than they otherwise would?

Continuing our exchange, Henry Farrell says that the answer is likely yes, noting that “there is good evidence that the HRC’s predecessor, the even more widely excoriated UN Commission on Human Rights did have a measurable, and arguably positive, effect in punishing notorious human rights violators, despite its many flaws.”  He cites two empirical papers by Jim Lebovic and Erik Voeten.  The first found that the Commission targeted and punished (that is, publicly “shamed”) countries with worse human rights records (except those with significant geopolitical power such as China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia).  The second found that the World Bank and other multilateral aid institutions gave less aid to countries that were condemned by the Commission than to those that were not.

However, Henry reads too much into the papers.  The papers do not show that the Commission caused any countries to improve their human rights practices.  The first paper shows that a lot of talk took place but not that the talk led countries to treat their citizens more humanely.  The second paper finds no evidence that the World Bank lent less to countries with (objectively) worse human rights records than to countries with better human rights records.  (Even if it did, other empirical research shows that even significant sanctions, far worse than the refusal to extend loans or aid, rarely cause states to change their behavior.)  It is possible that countries dislike public criticism enough to change their behavior, but the first paper shows that cozying up with a great power is just as good a strategy for avoiding criticism from the Commission as improving one’s human rights record.  The results of the second paper—as well as results elsewhere in the literature on the (weak) relationship between international law and human rights practices—suggest that states targeted […]

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Reply to Henry Farrell, Part II

I mentioned before Henry’s defense of the laws of war.  Here is the relevant passage.

There is likely a very plausible case to be made that these norms ought to be much tougher and more restrictive than they are – even if they are not a product of power politics they are limited by these politics. Nonetheless, even if they are weaker than they should be, they are still a lot better than nothing. And here, the Goldstone report was exactly right – the ‘but he did it first’ excuse is not, and cannot be a justification for committing war crimes. … Both Gideon and Eric would point to the undoubted fact that the leading politicians of great powers (or their important clients) are highly unlikely to find themselves in the dock for war crimes. But direct punitive sanctioning is not the only effect of law. It can influence the perceived legitimacy of a particular state, its actions and its leadership. It is quite clear that Israel has taken a substantial reputational hit from the Goldstone report, even if it will never be condemned by the UN Security Council, and that Israel’s leaders are worried and upset about this.

I expressed some doubts about this logic in my earlier post.  Here I want to point out another problem with this attitude, at least if one takes seriously its logic.  Let us suppose that the Goldstone report was reasonable and fair (I have not read it, so I have no opinion on this issue).  It is worth recalling that it was commissioned by the Human Rights Council, and would not have taken place but for the decision of that institution.  The Human Rights Council is dominated by illiberal states that cannot agree to condemn North  Korea or Iran or Sudan, […]

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Bloggingheads, cont’d.

Henry Farrell continues our conversation about my book.  One thing he says is that international law should not be regarded as a single entity, which is either “good” or “bad,” but is a label attached to a multitude of cooperative arrangements undertaken by states, which should be evaluated on their own terms.  Security Council resolutions have no inherent moral valence, even though they are issued pursuant to the legal authority created by the UN charter, and are legally binding themselves.  The Security Council is a club of great powers, after all; it has no democratic (or other) legitimacy.  The resolutions are valuable just insofar as they alert other states that the great powers agree on a course of action, which is a useful thing for states to know.  The resolutions have pragmatic value, then, not moral value.  By contrast, the laws of war really do have moral value because they serve a moral purpose—the reduction of suffering during wartime.  Unlike the UN charter, the laws of war reflect moral norms that cross borders.

I am sorry that Henry, having read my book, thinks that I hold the contrary view, at least with respect to his broader methodological point.  The global legalists I criticize are the ones who fetishize international law, not I.  I’m not sure, though, Henry appreciates the radical implications of his argument, at least for the lawyers and states who purport to follow their advice.  No one actually says that states should be free to disregard Security Council resolutions for pragmatic reasons.  When the United States invaded Iraq, the main source of outrage—at least in some quarters—is that the United States violated the UN Charter.  Why is this?  The proper reaction, according to Henry, would be to tote up the costs and benefits of the American intervention, […]

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Should Israel Attack Iran?

That was the topic of a conference last Friday at the American Enterprise Institute.  The three panelists who addressed this question agreed that an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be worrisome indeed, not because Iran would immediately incinerate Tel Aviv, but because it would almost certainly use its conventional forces and its terrorist infrastructure more aggressively once it enjoyed the protection of the Bomb, because an Iranian nuclear force would provoke a nuclear arms race in the middle east, and because collapse of the current regime, should it ever come, might put loose nukes into the hands of dangerous elements who are less interested than the regime in self-preservation or are less easy to identify and target.  Some people believe that if every country had a nuclear weapon, the world would be more peaceful rather than more dangerous—“More Guns, Less Crime” internationally speaking—but the panelists did not.  We survived the cold war but there were a number of close calls; given enough nukes and enough time, something very bad will happen.

John Bolton pressed the case for an Israeli attack with customary vigor, but the other two panelists were more persuasive.  Michael Rubin believed that an Israeli attack would either not succeed at all or do no more than delay the nuclear program by a year or two.  Logistics are too hard; Iranian defenses are good and getting better; the program is too advanced.  Martin Indyk argued that diplomacy could still do some good, but the impression he gave was less that of enthusiasm about the prospects for diplomatic success, which sounded pretty hopeless, but, like Rubin, of the futility of military action, leaving diplomacy as the sole alternative.

With every day, the globe rolls farther from Obama’s (and Reagan’s) dream of a nuke-free world.  Determined states can build nuclear weapons […]

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Perils of Global Legalism

Henry Farrell and I discuss my book on bloggingheads.  We briefly touched on the topic whether the EU could be a model for international law (Henry-yes, me-no).  It is interesting in this connection to read the following passage from one of the Economist blogs.

Chinese intellectual curiosity in the EU seemed to peak a few years ago, when in Beijing and Shanghai think tanks grew moderately excited about the idea that Europe was about to adopt a constitution and equip itself with a permanent president and foreign minister. Such European swagger fed into China’s (only natural) desire to see a more multipolar world develop, to replace the post Berlin Wall era of American hegemony.

Then came 2005, and French and Dutch referendums that rejected the draft EU constitution, tipping the union into four years of institutional squabbling that has still not ended. In the meantime, the forces of globalisation, accelerated by the global economic crisis, left the relative decline of Europe as a trading power even more cruelly exposed.

The EU is also exceedingly bad at dealing with Beijing. The 27 member countries undercut and compete among each other for commercial advantage, while the central EU bureaucracy has allowed itself to be bogged down by process (there are scores of EU-China structural dialogues now).

Now, a common Chinese view of Europe amounts to:
–   Europe is in decline but has not come to terms with it.
–   Yet Europe still wants to impose its values on China.
–   There are structural problems in dealing with the EU because of the difficulty in distinguishing EU from member-nation interests.


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Human Rights Versus Multilateralism

Human rights advocates are unhappy with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, citing three developments: (1) the failure to back the Goldstone Report; (2) the failure to pressure Sri Lanka to improve its treatment of Tamils; and (3) the willingness to deal with Sudan’s President Bashir, who was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court.  It turns out that Sudan is a useful ally in fighting terrorism and Sri Lanka is, well, complicated, and Israel is Israel.  As Julian Ku notes, coddling Bashir is hardly a way to support the ICC, which is already reeling from the decision of members of the African Union not to extradite him to The Hague if he enters their countries, in violation of their legal obligations (most of them belong to the ICC; a few have since backpedaled).  Meanwhile, the Obama administration has apparently succeeded in pressuring Spain to water down its universal jurisdiction statute, the one that the Spaniards were supposed to use to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and David Addington.  Well, good for the Obama administration: it has implicitly repudiated campaign rhetoric that endorsed global legalism, and it didn’t take it as long as one might have thought.

The only real break from the Bush administration on the human rights front, rhetoric aside, was the decision to join the comically named Human Rights Council, which is dominated by human-rights abusing countries and almost never condemns anyone (except Israel) for violating human rights.  The Human Rights Council replaced the Human Rights Commission, which was disbanded because it was dominated by human-rights abusing countries and almost never condemned anyone (except Israel) for violating human rights.  Aside from rubber stamping anodyne periodic reviews of countries (which make for fun reading*) and condemning Israel, the Council issues resolutions promoting the values of […]

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Bernhard on Prizes

Thanks to bouilhet for finding the passage I mentioned in my earlier post (from Wittgenstein’s Nephew):

If one disregards the money that goes with them, there is nothing in the world more intolerable than award ceremonies. I had already discovered this in Germany. They do nothing to enhance one’s own standing, as I had believed before I received my first prize, but actually lower it, in the most embarrassing fashion. Only the thought of the money enabled me to endure these ceremonies; this was my sole motive for visiting various ancient city halls and tasteless assembly rooms– until the age of forty. I let them piss on me in all these city halls and assembly rooms, for to award someone a prize is no different from pissing on him. And to receive a prize is no different from allowing oneself to be pissed on, because one is being paid for it. I have always felt that being awarded a prize was not an honor but the greatest indignity imaginable. For a prize is always awarded by incompetents who want to piss on the recipient. And they have a perfect right to do so, because he is base and despicable enough to receive it. Only in extremities, when one’s life and existence are threatened– and only until the age of forty– is one justified in receiving any prize or distinction, with or without an accompanying sum of money. When I received prizes I did not have the excuse that I was suffering extreme hardship or that my life and existence were threatened; hence by receiving them I made myself not only low and contemptible but positively vile, in the truest sense of the word. 


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