How American Foreign Policy Inspires Resistance, Insurgency, and Terrorism
The #1 problem with America's mission to spread democracy? We don't know how to do it.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He has been a Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also served as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. Additionally, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005. Professor Walt is the author of The Origins of Alliances (1987), which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award. He is also the author of Revolution and War (1996), Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), and, with co-author J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007).
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences.
He has been a Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also served as a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He presently serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press. Additionally, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.
Professor Walt is the author of The Origins of Alliances (1987), which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award. He is also the author of Revolution and War (1996), Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), and, with co-author J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007).
Stephen Walt: Well, the United States really since the end of the Cold War has launched a project to try to spread what you might call a liberal world order in many parts of the world. We started the 1990s thinking that democracy, free markets, and lots of other good things were spreading almost automatically, but the Clinton administration decided to give it a shove with NATO expansion, with a number of other programs designed to spread democracy in various places, and then, of course, the Bush administration took it to the next level with the invasion of Iraq. But this didn’t stop under the Obama administration which, of course, tried to topple Muammar Gaddafi, as well.
So this is a bipartisan product of democratic liberal internationalists and republican neoconservatives, and the basic idea is to try to spread something like the American system in as many places around the world as we could. The problem is: this doesn’t work very well. It failed in Iraq, it’s failing in Afghanistan, it failed in Yemen, it failed in Libya, and it’s not looking particularly good in places like Hungary and Poland, which are starting to show certain illiberal signs. Moreover, the optimism people once had about Russia becoming a member of the democratic family of nations, I think, have been disappointed as well.
Now why has this failed? Well, the first problem, of course, is that spreading democracy into other countries inevitably means regime change. You’ve got to get rid of the existing government and replace it with something new. But of course when you take apart an existing order you can’t be sure what the new order is going to look like, and you’re going to create a lot of angry losers, people who are resentful at their loss of power and status. And in some places like Iraq or Libya they’re able to take up arms to resist this effort.
So simultaneously you create an incentive for resistance, an incentive for insurgency, and by destroying the existing order you also create an open space where terrorists and other extremists can flourish. So a big problem first is: you’re beginning by tearing apart a new order without knowing how to replace it. And that really is the second problem: we don’t know how to create viable democracies in other countries, and especially in countries that have never been democratic before, where there are deep ethnic divisions, where they’re not necessarily very prosperous. And we ought to remind ourselves that it took 200 years or more for democracy to emerge in the West, that was a violent and contentious process. And to believe, as we did in say 2003, that we could invade Iraq and create a shiny new pro-American democracy in five or ten years was positively delusional.
And I think you see this in one final way: when the United States ends up owning one of these countries it has to occupy it, it has to try to keep order, but it doesn’t know enough about the inner workings of that society: which people are reliable? Which people can be trusted to do the kind of social engineering that creating a new nation or creating a new system of government would entail?
So, recently in Afghanistan a local American commander had to apologize for issuing a propaganda leaflet, which included the flag of the Taliban, some Quranic verses, and an image of a dog. Dogs are regarded in parts of the Islamic world as unclean, and to associate that with the Quran, of course, was deeply offensive to many of the Muslims for whom it was intended. Now I mention this only because the United States has been in Afghanistan for 16 years and we still haven’t fully figured out how to operate in that society in order to have reliable positive effects. And the bottom line here is this well-intentioned effort to spread American values, American institutions, into many different corners of the world has been an almost complete failure.
And if the United States wants to promote its values it ought to devote much more effort to creating an exemplary democracy here in the United States so that other countries will look at the United States and say, “I’d like to have something like that,” and then build their version of it. It’s something that we can do leading by example, but not leading with the military edge.
Two more good illustrations of our inability to do nation building in many parts of the world are the failed effort to create a new democracy in Libya. There was an uprising in Libya as a consequence of the Arab Spring and the United States and several of its democratic allies, especially France and Britain, decided to intervene on behalf of the rebel forces. Now this was originally intended, or so we said, as a purely humanitarian act to prevent Muammar Gaddafi, who was at that point still in power, from conducting some kind of mass killing of the rebels. But we quickly expanded beyond that and gave help to the rebels in the form of air power, such that they eventually succeeded.
But of course, once the Gaddafi regime, which was by all accounts a horrific, inefficient despotism, but once it was gone there was no order left, and instead of a stable, effective democracy, what you had instead was the emergence of warlords, factions, militants, and essentially a failed state. It also involved Libya’s very considerable arms arsenal getting spread out and scattered to a variety of other extremist groups in other places, including Syria.
So the bottom line here is: a well-intentioned effort to promote human rights and spread democracy ends up creating a failed state instead. And that is essentially the same story one could tell in a place like Yemen where the United States has repeatedly intervened to try to promote more democratic outcomes, and where we now have another failed state, one where Saudi Arabia has intervened with military force, where there is a cholera epidemic that spreading, vast human suffering, and the country is further away from being an effective democracy today than it was when the United States first started meddling. Again, this just teaches us the lesson that the United States has enough trouble making democracy work here in the United States itself, trying to create it in other places that have never been democratic—and especially trying to do that with military force—simply doesn’t work.
I think there are a set of humanitarian circumstances where the United States should think about intervening. And primarily when we think there is going to be a large-scale mass killing in the order of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. And in those circumstances we may or may not intervene, depending on, first of all, whether or not we have strategic interest that reinforce the imperative to do more, but also whether or not we are confident that intervention is actually going to make things better as opposed to making things worse.
Now an obvious case of this is Syria. There’s been a horrific civil war going on in Syria now for more than five years, upwards of a half a million people have died and many Americans have wanted the United States to get more actively involved in arming one side or the other or perhaps trying to impose some kind of no-fly zone. The difficulty is: it is hard to be confident that any of those measures are actually going to make the situation better. Why? Because there are really no “good guys” in this particular fight, and to the extent that there are some moderate forces within the Syrian Civil War they are among the weakest and the least likely to succeed.
So if the United States were to intervene, it is as likely to bring some kind of violent extremist, some kind of al-Qaeda offshoot organization like ISIS to power as it is to bring a bunch of nice, peace-loving, pro-American, liberal democrats.
So it would be nice to say remove the Assad regime, put him on trial for war crimes, but what we may be leaving behind would be something considerably worse. So even in the case of a clear humanitarian incentive, and those circumstances will arise from time to time, I think we want to be careful and only intervene when we know we can make it better and when we also see a way to get out so that we don’t end up having to be there for decades.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been trying to create a liberal world order—and it's been a bipartisan effort, says Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. The problem is that pushing democracy onto other nations is a "delusional" pursuit that destabilizes states in already fractured circumstances. Walt uses the cases of Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan to demonstrate why the US needs an intervention on its constant military interventions. A better approach to US foreign policy? Walt suggests leading by example. The best way to spread democracy abroad might be to have a strong democracy at home. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
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The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
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A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."