The world is terrible today. The US has just begun bombing in Iraq, the Russians are still menacing Ukraine, Syria remains in shambles, the African ebola outbreak continues to worsen, the Israel-Hamas ceasefire has collapsed, and to top it all off Azerbaijan seems to have decided the time is right to declare war on Armenia in a rerun of one of the deadliest conflicts of the Soviet collapse. This may just be a bluff, it may be serious, or it might be both. Not coincidentally, last week we just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. The amazing thing is that (except for the ebola outbreak) all of the above crises can be traced back to the events of a hundred years ago.
The wreckage of World War I still marks these conflicts. The fall of the Russian empire set off vicious wars amongst the various nationalities – including the Azeri-Armenian war and the failed Ukrainian War of Independence. The Soviet takeover froze those conflicts, but the fall of the USSR booted them right back up and they continue to play out. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a direct consequence of the British seizing Ottoman Palestine and opening it up to Jewish settlement. Iraq and Syria are creations of the war as well, and the weakness of these multi-ethnic, loosely-bound states are the legacy of heir creations as ad-hoc colonial divisions. In some sense, the blurring of the border under ISIS control may be more stable than the rigid state boundaries that existed before.
World War I deeply broke the prevailing international system, and a century later the consequences are still playing themselves out at the cost of many, many lives. Something that you should keep in mind when anyone confidently predicts the outcomes of military action.
One of the reasons that American presidents go to war – not a good reason, mind you – is known as the “Rally Around the Flag” effect. When America gets involved in an armed conflict, whether as defender or aggressor, the president becomes more popular and more highly-approved, and often the conflict itself is accompanied by a burst of legislation unrelated to the war. There’s a lot of debate over precisely how strong the effect is and what drives it, but the existence of the effect itself is one of the best-known findings of political science.
This could be relevant for the decision to embrace cyberwarfare. Today the NYT reveals that the Obama adminstration was deeply divided over the question of whether to use cyberweapons to attack the Syrian government. The NYT reveals the deep discussion over the strategic benefits and risks – but one that does not appear there is the potential effect on American public opinion. Cyberwarfare is still visible to affected foreign players (and possibly friendly/neutral ones too) and America is strategically accountable for its actions in this sphere, but it can be plausibly denied in a way that bombers and paratroopers can’t. If Obama had decided to go forward with attacks on Syria, he would have had to deal with the fallout from Syria and Russia, but it likely would have remained secret until the next Edward Snowden leaked it.
If cyberwarfare is normalized, more acts of national aggression will take place out of the public eye. As a positive question – a question of facts – public opinion is a significant constraint on executive action. As a normative question, people differ a lot on whether this constraint is a good or bad thing. Perhaps the people stop wise Presidents from taking the actions necessary to protect the country; perhaps the people’s reluctance to go to war stops foolhardy Presidents from making dangerous leaps into conflict.
The growth of cyberwarfare will be a neat and potentially worrying test of who is right.
Interestingly, Republicans seem to be more supportive of bombing Syria than Democrats, though both are on balance opposed. This is unsurprising – Democrats are less supportive of bombing places in general but often line up behind the President, while Republicans are more supportive in general but don’t care for this Obama fellow.
But it brings up an interesting question – when and where does party consensus actually matter? For example, in 2002-2008 the urgency of global warming was generally accepted by the Republican Party, leading to sights like the infamous Gingrich-Pelosi “couch” ad. But upon Obama’s election, the opposition to any action has become completely hardened. Or during the Bush Administration, Democrats were generally highly critical of expansive executive powers, while the Obama Administration has exploited the “imperial presidency” to its limits with barely a whisper of protest from Democrats. However, other issues remain remarkably stable in partisan valence over decades – for example, the Democratic push for centralizing healthcare regulation and Republican opposition.
Obviously, different issues and belief sets have different values of “stickiness”. Keynesians talk about “sticky” prices, which can’t be adjusted in response to changing economic conditions and ultimately drive firms into bankruptcy and economies into recession. Well, some political values are similarly sticky, whereas others aren’t. Republicans’ belief in lower taxes for the rich, and Democrats’ beliefs in higher taxes for the rich, are incredibly sticky. Other beliefs like executive power, civil rights, and regulation are much less sticky and both the parties flip back and forth a lot – Nixon created the EPA and Clinton unleashed Wall Street, after all.
It could be worthwhile to look at how to measure the “inertia” of beliefs and values. These seems like it should be possible, through historic public opinion polling and rates of change. I would guess that the high-“salience” issues, things people care about a lot like taxes, are stable. Other more peripheral issues like civil rights* bounce around a lot since peoples’ opinions are less well-developed. Since they have lower inertia, they are much more responsive to changes in political leadership, convenience, and changes in circumstance.
More interestingly, do different parties over time have different total levels of inertia? This could truly go either way, and I don’t have any real hypotheses. It is certainly plausible that parties become much more flexible or less flexible over time based on their voting base composition. Or perhaps parties in opposition are always more flexible. Or perhaps their level of inertia is roughly constant – their core beliefs become that much more tightly held in response to tactical flexibility. The Republican Party has flipped positions on many practical issues since Obama took office – but at the same time, Republicans seem to be taking much more seriously their core commitments to a low-tax, low-spending government.
Learning to recognize which value are sticky could be a boon to governance, as majorities could know what is worthwhile to bargain with minorities over instead of wasting time where no bargains are possible.
*: Describing them as “peripheral” is sad, but when was the last time you voted based solely on a civil rights concern?