Brooks and Krugman

In “Dogs, Cats and Leadership” Bobo gurgles that maybe we should ask candidates questions that would reveal qualities we associate with pets.  In the comments “Socrates” from Downtown Verona, NJ had this to say:  “There you go again, Lord Brooks, with yet another O Henry false equivalence finish.  False equivalence is a propagandist’s finest friend…and your friendship is flourishing.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Trade and Tribulation,” says Donald Trump’s popularity and Bernie Sanders’s Michigan upset prompt the question: Are we in a protectionist moment?  Here’s Bobo:

When he was in the middle of his Syrian peace deal negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry would go to President Obama with a request: Could the U.S. quietly send a few cruise missiles to hit Assad regime targets, just to send a message and maybe move the Syrian president toward a deal.

“Kerry’s looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage,” a senior administration official told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.

Obama continually said no, and eventually grew impatient. Goldberg asked Kerry if he thought he has more of a bias toward action than Obama. “I do probably,” Kerry responded. “I’d say that I think we’ve had a very symbiotic, synergistic, whatever you call it, relationship which works very effectively. Because I’ll come in with a bias toward ‘Let’s try to do this, let’s try to do that, let’s get this done.’”

The new Goldberg essay is a profound and comprehensive look at President Obama’s foreign policy thinking, and especially his steadfast desire to reduce American involvement in the Middle East.

But it’s also fascinating to read in the midst of a presidential campaign. It shows how insanely far removed campaign bloviation is from the reality of actually governing. It also reveals that the performance of presidents, especially on foreign policy, is shaped by how leaders attach to problems. Some leaders are like dogs: They want to bound right in and make things happen. Some are more like cats: They want to detach and maybe look for a pressure point here or there.

If we want to understand the dog or catlike qualities in candidates, we should be asking them a different set of questions:

How much do you think a president can change the flow of world events?

President Obama, for example, has a limited or, if you want to put it that way, realistic view of the extent of American influence. He subscribes to a series of propositions that frequently push him toward nonintervention: The world “is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place and full of hardship and tragedy,” he told Goldberg. You can’t fix everything. Sometimes you can only shine a spotlight.

Furthermore, Obama argues, because of our history, American military efforts are looked at with suspicion. Allies are unreliable. Ukraine is always going to be in Russia’s sphere of influence, so its efforts there will always trump ours. The Middle East is a morass and no longer that important to U.S. interests.

Even the Iran nuclear deal is seen as a limited endeavor — not to reshape the Middle East but simply to make a dangerous country less dangerous.

Do you think out loud in tandem with a community, or do you process internally?

Throughout the Goldberg article, Obama is seen thinking deeply and subtly, but apart from the group around him. In catlike fashion, he is a man who knows his own mind and trusts his own judgment. His decision not to bomb Syria after it crossed the chemical weapons red line was made almost entirely alone. His senior advisers were shocked when he announced it. The secretaries of state and defense were not in the room.

More generally, Obama expresses disdain with the foreign policy community. He is critical of most of his fellow world leaders — impatient with most European ones, fed up with most Middle Eastern ones.

When seeking a description of a situation, does your mind leap for the clarifying single truth or do you step back to see the complex web of factors?

Ronald Reagan typified the single clarifying truth habit of mind, both when he was describing an enemy (Evil Empire) and when he was calling for change (tear down this wall). In his interviews with Goldberg, Obama leans to the other side of the spectrum. He is continually stepping back, starting with analyses of human nature, how people behave when social order breaks down, the roots and nature of tribalism.

Do you see international affairs as a passionate struggle or a conversation and negotiation?

Obama shows a continual distrust of passion. He doesn’t see much value in macho bluffing or chest-thumping, or in lofty Churchillian rhetoric, or in bombings done in the name of “credibility.” He may be critical, but he is not a hater. He doesn’t even let anger interfere with his appraisal of Vladimir Putin, praising him for being courteous and businesslike. Because fear distorts judgment, he seeks to place the threat of terrorism in its proper perspective: More Americans die from falling in bathtubs.

Personally, I don’t think there is one correct answer to whether we want a dog or a cat as leader. Depends on the situation; there are successful examples of both types. But I’m struck by how catlike Obama is. And it’s striking how many Americans have responded by going for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are bad versions of the bounding in/we-can-change-everything doggy type.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Why did Bernie Sanders win a narrow victory in Michigan, when polls showed Hillary Clinton with a huge lead? Nobody really knows, but there’s a lot of speculation that Mr. Sanders may have gained traction by hammering on the evils of trade agreements. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, while directing most of his fire against immigrants, has also been bashing the supposedly unfair trading practices of China and other nations.

So, has the protectionist moment finally arrived? Maybe, maybe not: There are other possible explanations for Michigan, and free-traders have repeatedly cried wolf about protectionist waves that never materialized. Still, this time could be different. And if protectionism really is becoming an important political force, how should reasonable people — economists and others — respond?

To make sense of the debate over trade, there are three things you need to know.

The first is that we have gotten to where we are — a largely free-trade world — through a generations-long process of international diplomacy, going all the way back to F.D.R. This process combines a series of quid pro quos — I’ll open my markets if you open yours — with rules to prevent backsliding.

The second is that protectionists almost always exaggerate the adverse effects of trade liberalization. Globalization is only one of several factors behind rising income inequality, and trade agreements are, in turn, only one factor in globalization. Trade deficits have been an important cause of the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment since 2000, but that declinebegan much earlier. And even our trade deficits are mainly a result of factors other than trade policy, like a strong dollar buoyed by global capital looking for a safe haven.

And yes, Mr. Sanders is demagoguing the issue, for example with a Twitter post linking the decline of Detroit, which began in the 1960s and has had very little to do with trade liberalization, to “Hillary Clinton’s free-trade policies.”

That said, not all free-trade advocates are paragons of intellectual honesty. In fact, the elite case for ever-freer trade, the one that the public hears, is largely a scam. That’s true even if you exclude the most egregious nonsense, like Mitt Romney’s claim that protectionism causes recessions. What you hear, all too often, are claims that trade is an engine of job creation, that trade agreements will have big payoffs in terms of economic growth and that they are good for everyone.

Yet what the models of international trade used by real experts say is that, in general, agreements that lead to more trade neither create nor destroy jobs; that they usually make countries more efficient and richer, but that the numbers aren’t huge; and that they can easily produce losers as well as winners. In principle the overall gains mean that the winners could compensate the losers, so that everyone gains. In practice, especially given the scorched-earth obstructionism of the G.O.P., that’s not going to happen.

Why, then, did we ever pursue these agreements? A large part of the answer is foreign policy: Global trade agreements from the 1940s to the 1980s were used to bind democratic nations together during the Cold War,Nafta was used to reward and encourage Mexican reformers, and so on.

And anyone ragging on about those past deals, like Mr. Trump or Mr. Sanders, should be asked what, exactly, he proposes doing now. Are they saying that we should rip up America’s international agreements? Have they thought about what that would do to our credibility and standing in the world?

What I find myself thinking about, in particular, is climate change — an all-important issue we can’t confront effectively unless all major nations participate in a joint effort, with last year’s Paris agreement just the beginning. How is that going to work if America shows itself to be a nation that reneges on its deals?

The most a progressive can responsibly call for, I’d argue, is a standstill on further deals, or at least a presumption that proposed deals are guilty unless proved innocent.

The hard question to deal with here is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration has negotiated but Congress hasn’t yet approved. (I consider myself a soft opponent: It’s not the devil’s work, but I really wish President Obama hadn’t gone there.) People I respect in the administration say that it should be considered an existing deal that should stand; I’d argue that there’s a lot less U.S. credibility at stake than they claim.

The larger point in this election season is, however, that politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder. But you know, that’s a would-be president’s job.


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