Recent Posts by Enoch Babbage

Putin Popularity and International Relations

A fair amount of ink has been spilt over the shift in Republican opinions of Vladimir Putin. Some take this as a sign of the strength of the power of elite cues driving popular opinion, whereas others see it as nothing more than run-of-the-mill political hypocrisy. There is another possibility implied by International Relations theory.

As many International Relations theorists and Pres. Obama alike have noted that Russia is weaker than the U.S. by a lot. Structural theory implies that, since Russia is much lower on the geo-political threat scale, and it is not a rising state regardless, that the U.S. should not expend a lot of material balancing against Russia. However, if the U.S. is to behave consistently as structuralists predict, and foreign policy is affected by elections and popular domestic opinions, geo-political power relationships should be reflected in electoral outcomes and popular opinion.

In other words, the change in popular opinion among partisan groups is predicted by structural int’l relations theory. Not that long ago, when Democrats were in power, they were supportive of a better relationship with Russia. Republicans at the time could be, and were, quite critical of that relationship change, but at the time they were powerless to change foreign policy. Now that Republicans are going to be responsible, they have changed their position so that their policy preferences more closely align with the relative lower power Russia has, exactly as international structural constraints would predict. (The “term of art” for this kind of effect is “second image reversed.”)

None of this is to say that some Republicans are not also being duped by a KGB thug, as more than one mechanism can operate at once. Going forward, it will be important to observe whether or not similar changes in foreign policy attitudes occur in other areas. Will Trumps foreign policy team soften their stance in other areas, such as trade? If oil prices recover, and Russia is able to increase its relative power, will Republican attitudes shift again? Importantly, there are no theoretical explanations of why or how popular opinion would shift, even though it is weakly implied by the theory when observed through the constraints of the structure. Dare I say this would be an interesting thesis?

Another Blow to the Credibility of Experts

Expertise has been called into question a lot in recent years, and unfortunately, experts sometimes are part of the problem. Experts try to police themselves through mechanisms such as “peer review,” although even peer review has come in for harsh criticism. Yesterday, the invaluable team at Retraction Watch posted about a case that simultaneously is an expert’s worst nightmare and a confirmation of the worst accusations against experts.

In a medical journal, a reviewer stole research submitted for publication, and published it as his own. Under normal circumstances the role of the reviewer is to assure that the article submitted is accurate and noteworthy, and provide suggestions to improve it. Plagiarism represents a violation of trust. Retraction watch notes:

Although we’ve only documented a few cases where peer reviewers steal material from manuscripts and pass them off as their own, it does happen, and it’s a fear of many authors. What we’ve never seen is a plagiarized author publish a letter to the reviewer who stole his work. But after Michael Dansinger of Tufts Medical Center realized a paper he’d submitted to Annals of Internal Medicine that had been rejected was republished, and the journal recognized one of the reviewers among the list of co-authors, it published a letter from Dansinger to the reviewer, along with an editorial explaining what happened.

While such malfeasance should not be taken as an indictment of an entire community—and it is blessedly rare—such behavior is harmful to researching communities and public trust. Hopefully, sunshine will end even the few cases where this happens.

Rex Tillerson and International Relations

Donald Trump seems to have forgone a more traditional pick for Secretary of State, and may be on the verge of nominating Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson for the position (as already noted on this page). Much coverage of the issue focuses on how the non-traditional choice affects the Republican coalition or how Tillerson might favor Russia because of past business dealings.  As those domestic political issues shake out, it is worth noting that Tillerson at Secretary of State would highlight important questions about the way foreign policy and international relations work.

  1. “How much is foreign policy a unique endeavor?” Foreign policy deals primarily in issues of power, which is a zero-sum interaction. Business is in the market, where there are “synergies” and where most interactions are cooperative relative to interstate interactions, even in competitive environments (e.g. the Cola wars were surprisingly bloodless). On the other hand, negotiations and information collection—the bulk of that a foreign ministry does—may not be materially different than the same tasks in any other similarly sized enterprise. Dan Drezner highlighted the painful implications these issues have for foreign policy practitioners in a recent post.
  2. How important is the leader of the State Department and the bureaucracy to foreign policy?” In business you can fire people. In the military you can jail subordinates. Neither is true, broadly speaking, in a foreign ministry, so will having someone with a different leadership style, and perhaps no institutional, ideological or intellectual ties to the community succeed? Can a bureaucracy push back successfully, thwarting any attempts at change, and if it does how will that alter the nations foreign policy?
  3. Does structure trump foreign policy?” Since the mid 20th Century, International Relations scholars have debated the role of international structure. Structuralists argue that structure matters far more to outcomes than who sits in what chair. Non-structuralists of all varieties say that, while structure is not irrelevant, things like leadership and policy matter much more. If structure truly matters most, then does it matter at all who becomes Secretary of State? While no one contends that actual interactions do not matter at all, is it possible that Sino-American or Russo-American conflict or cooperation are already baked into the cake?

A Donald Trump candidacy already put many long-held ideas about elections to the test in American Politics. It seems Mr. Trump seems determined to do the same in International Relations and Foreign Policy.

Anonymity Online? The FBI Finds a Way Around “Tor”

The FBI Outfoxes a Program that Lets Users Hide their Identity

The FBI recently used an as yet undisclosed mechanism to circumvent the Tor protocol.

Tor Logo

Tor Logo

Tor is a project which uses a series of network servers primarily in an attempt to circumvent government surveillance. Tor forms a core backbone of the dark web, as well as an important tool for citizens of less free countries. Here’s their self-description:tor-described

⇒ The fact that the FBI has found a way around it implies that Tor is not as good at that task as previously believed, and that other countries may already posses the capability to identify Tor users, too.

The news highlights the ongoing trend of the FBI leveraging security issues in software and devices, especially as criminal suspects turn to anonymization technology such as Tor, or use consumer products that have encryption features baked into them. –Motherboard

Beyond civil liberties issues, technology companies and organizations will also be concerned if the FBI used a vulnerability without disclosing it. Hoarding vulnerabilities may empower the FBI and other government agencies to better collect information, but also places consumers and citizens at risk.

“Governments and technology companies both have a role to play in ensuring people’s security online. Disclosing vulnerabilities to technology companies first, allows us to do our job to prevent users from being harmed and to make the Web more secure,” Dixon-Thayer wrote in a blog post at the time. The FBI using a zero-day would thus be notable as it would mean the bureau used an exploit in investigations while leaving regular users vulnerable. –Motherboard

Because the targets in this case are users of the child pornography site “Playpen,” they are not a particularly sympathetic defendant. Nevertheless, this news will likely create waves in the cybersecurity and civil liberties communities as more information becomes available.

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