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Trade, Diplomacy, Culture: How America Can Lead the World without Its Military

Why doesn't America win wars anymore? Because the objectives are so poorly defined. Maybe it's time to rethink foreign policy.

William Ruger: As a realist, I’m not naïve about the world. It can be a dangerous place and that’s one of the reasons why we have to have a strong national defense. And it sometimes means we have to actually use our military power against other countries and other organizations that might threaten us or that have attacked us—that’s the reality of the world.
But we really do need to think about a foreign policy that is careful to focus on our interests and is cognizant of those human costs. And I think that it isn’t being mushy-headed to say: look, there are people—real people—harmed by our activities.

You can think about those soldiers killed overseas. Now it’s one thing if they’re killed in a war like World War II—a war that was necessary for America to fight for its safety against a really bad regime like Nazi Germany—and another thing to think about a situation where we’re trying to engage in regime change against a country that offers very little threat to the United States, and may be a bad regime, like in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but a regime that has not directly attacked us and is not necessarily a threat to core American interests. And we need to think hard about what those costs would be in that situation. And the human costs are quite powerful, and we can see that here in America, if you visit a military hospital you can see people who have lost limbs or you could see it in communities where there are people suffering from things like PTSD that are less obvious to the eye.

But you also see it down range and oftentimes we read the newspaper and it says, “three American soldiers killed here or there." But those are people with families that care about them, parents who love them. We need to think about that and to make sure that if you’re going to ask people to make that ultimate sacrifice that they’re not doing so in vain. That there is a real sense of the urgency about why we need to do this: it tiers up to our safety, it’s necessary to do so, the other alternatives in the toolkit of statecraft have been exhausted, and that you have an understanding of how to prosecute that conflict and how to get out so that we’re not just endlessly expending money and people’s lives on something that isn’t working.

So we need leaders to think about those things and to recognize that. And one of the things that I would recommend is to go over to the newer parts of Arlington cemetery, and you can see that cost. And again, if that cost is worth paying because it’s necessary, I understand. My grandfather fought in World War II. He was wounded in action, was captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp. And he suffered from his experiences there throughout his life. Well that’s a cost that was worth paying, and lots of people—hundreds of thousands of people—suffered far more than my grandfather did. They gave the ultimate sacrifice.

But for a war of choice, a war that tiers up to some idealistic goal that’s unrealizable, we really need to think hard about those costs. Think about Vietnam—and a lot of people are watching the documentary series—and you see some of the really bad ideas and bad incentives involved in the prosecution of that war. And you really feel for the 58,000 American lives that were lost there and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, innocent lives lost, throughout the Vietnamese county whether in the north or the south. And it’s just heart wrenching.

But it’s no different when it’s on a smaller scale, when it’s a place like Iraq or a place like Libya. And fortunately the United States did not lose a lot of people in Libya, but the fact is we’ve created a situation that has a cost there as well. And again, presidents and congress need to think primarily about America’s interests, but when we’re trying to help people abroad you need to think about what the consequences are going to be for those who are ostensibly trying to help. And oftentimes that has led to bad results.

So in general over the last 15 to 25 years our foreign policy simply isn’t working. It is not making us safer. And that’s why we need to reconsider what we’re doing. We need to rethink our grand strategy. We need to rethink how we’re using diplomacy and economic levers of statecraft. We need to rethink our budgets and the types of platforms we’re building and the types of missions we want to send our troops on.

This is vitally important so that we can rightsize the military for the challenges ahead. And I don’t think we’re doing that, which is why we need to bring new voices into the conversation.
The other thing I think that we should ask for is: we would like our executives to practice humility. That means that they need to understand what they don’t know, and to have that be part of the decision-making process. Sure we can talk about, “Well, we’re not sure what would happen, but we have to plan for it.”

Sure, but if you’re really having to plan for so many things based on assumptions upon assumptions upon assumptions you can have a situation in which you can’t actually satisfy the conditions for success except in theory.

An approach that is focused on greater realism and more prudentialism in our foreign policy does not mean that the United States should abandon the world.

The United States needs to be engaged abroad in terms of trading with other countries, providing positive-sum outcomes between peoples, diplomacy, cultural engagement, people to people engagement. We can be engaged in the world and open to the world without thinking that the United States needs to be everywhere and without the United States having to lead and be militarily deployed to every part of the globe. So that’s really important, that we not throw the baby out with the bath water, right. The United States can be engaged internationally; it can avoid xenophobia or isolation without spreading American democracy, say, through the sword, or being forward-deployed in so many parts of the world and trying to be deeply engaged in all kinds of local conflicts in every part of the world.

America seems to have forgotten a crucial fact about war: the human toll on both sides. William Ruger, Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Foundation, asserts that it would be naive to think that there is never an appropriate time for war—WWII demanded it, for example—but America's wars in recent decades appear to lack objectives, or at least objectives that are suitable to the amount of lives, funding, and global upheaval that these wars have cost. The U.S. can engage with the world without the military, says Ruger—spreading democracy is not a divine mission. Instead, let's trade, practice diplomacy, exchange the best of our culture, and most of all be humble on the world stage. 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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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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