• Globalization: Not Dead Yet

    Every fall I teach a course on the history of globalization.  It is the highlight of my year and it gives me a seemingly endless supply of grist for understanding.  So when I read an article from The Los Angeles Times that claimed the Coronavirus may threaten globalization, it set my wheels turning because it speaks to a popular misunderstanding of what globalization actually is.

    More than a century before Christ, Rome and Han China were the two wealthiest empires of the ancient world—and the most commercially active.  Not surprisingly, there is substantial evidence of that their merchants traded with one another.  Along the old Silk Road, merchants from the West brought glassware, statuettes, and slaves trained as jugglers and acrobats which they traded for silk, exotic fruits, rare birds, ostrich eggs, gem stones, gold, silver, spices and perfumes from China. 

    This trade continued for centuries.  So when Marco Polo left Venice in 1271 with his uncle and father to try to reach China, they knew there was money to be made—lots of money.  At the time, Europe was an economic backwater.  The bulk of the world’s wealth existed in Asia.  When you read The Travels of Marco Polo—the book he published upon his return to Venice, it’s not just a travelogue.  It’s like the old J.C. Penny catalogue—an accounting of all the things you can trade between Venice and China. 

    Within several decades, the bubonic plague cut-short the enthusiasm for trade with China that Marco Polo inspired with his stories of great wealth.  When the plague arrived in the middle of the 14th century, it is estimated to have killed up to one-third of the population in both Europe and Asia—that’s as many as 120 million lives in Asia, alone.  Mass death shook the existing world order.  Death was everywhere, then famine.  Weak governments collapsed.  Trade shrank considerably.  The pursuit of wealth from distant trade would have to wait.

    It took decades, but eventually trade along the old Silk Road resumed.  But when it did, the Chinese were no longer interested in European pottery.  They would only trade for gold and silver.  By the end of the 15th century, changes in ship design (we could sail INTO the wind) and the advent of navigational instruments made trade by ship with Asia viable.  That set off a scramble to find a shorter route to China as well as the gold and silver demanded by the Chinese in order to trade with them.

    When Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, it was the culmination of an impulse to trade—to seek the most efficient route of getting to China.  But as the enormity of the discovery of the New World came into focus, European conquerors soon began the largest transfer of wealth in human history.  In the 50 years after Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola, European powers shipped more gold and silver from the Americas to Europe than had existed in all of Europe previously.  And with that, the wealth of the world shifted west—a progression that marched onward until the 1990s, when it began moving back towards China.

    I have no doubt that there will be changes and disruptions to the way we trade and the frequency with which we travel—at least temporarily—as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Global supply chains are already stressed and there is logical concern over reliance on foreign manufacturers for critical supplies like personal protective equipment.  But if this brief history teaches us anything, it’s that the impulse to trade with others is a characteristic of humanity.  Even in the face of the bubonic plague, which was orders-of magnitude worse than Coronavirus, people still dreamed of riches to be made from trading over vast distances.  Pandemic might disrupt the particular mechanisms of trade, but it won’t disrupt the impulse to trade.

    Globalization is a process by which the experience of everyday life—marked by the spread of goods and ideas—becomes standardized around the world.  It may change in the details, but globalization is here to stay.

  • Russian Disinformation in the Age of Coronavirus

    Just because there’s a global pandemic doesn’t mean that the great game of international politics takes a break.  In fact, just like the rest of society, international powers are adapting to—and in some cases exploiting—the Coronavirus.  The two most aggressive players are Russia and China, and while they have different international objectives, they are both aggressively pursuing their goals. 

    In Russia’s case, the government of President Vladimir Putin continues to use disinformation to create a wedge between members of NATO, the EU, and in America’s trans-Atlantic relationships.  His ultimate goal is to weaken organizations that exclude Russia, and undermine the political cohesion of Russia’s Western rivals in order to achieve a freer hand at home and internationally. 

    This last point is important: a lot of Russia’s online influence campaigns have played both sides of issues in the United States, whether its immigration, gay-rights, or vaccines.  Russian leaders don’t care if Americans chose any particular policy outcome; they want to watch us tear ourselves apart.  They are chaos agents, seeking to undermine America’s political cohesion by amplifying divisive messages.  They did this in social media posts celebrating parents who “crossed a border” so their children could “cross a stage”—meaning graduate from an American high school.  To some, such posts look like a welcome pro-immigration post.  To many others, it looks like a celebration of law-breaking.  That dichotomy, that cognitive dissonance, that binary choice is exactly what the Russians seek to exploit and even amplify.  They did so during the Ebola crisis, they continue to do so around vaccines.  They will certainly do so in the midst of this pandemic.

    Russia also uses the fear associated with new diseases to attack the goodness of the United States.  Consider the case of HIV/AIDS.  In 1983, three Soviet intelligence officers placed a story in a small, English language newspaper in India alleging that the virus that causes AIDS was engineered in the United States to target blacks and the homosexual community.  This was an analog era.  A story placed anywhere would take time before it went global.  By 1987, however, the story had been published in 80 countries and in 30 languages with real consequences for U.S. policy, especially when the country moved to try to stem the spread of the virus in sub-Saharan Africa.  But that lie also made it into American minds, too.  A study from the University of Oregon found that as late as 2005, 20% of African-Americans believed HIV was created in a government lab.

    Russian disinformation around the H1N1 flu—the so-called “Swine Flu” in 2009 and Ebola in 2013-2014 also alleged the viruses in those outbreaks originated in U.S. government labs. 

    Finally, we need to remember that the Coronavirus is taking place in an election year.  In October of 2019—long before any of us were talking about quarantines and novel viruses, the FBI and DHS warned that Russian influence campaigns in 2020 would be focused on voter-suppression—similar to some of their tactics in 2016.  It’s not hard to imagine a fall disinformation campaign intended to target certain groups of Americans to keep them from voting in key districts or states.  We may have seen a fore-taste of that already.  On March 15, 2020—just a month ago, rumors began swirling about a nation-wide lockdown soon to be announced by the president.  The rumors were groundless, but they inspired the National Security Council to put out a Tweet that night forcefully denying the rumor.  What was insidious about this was that the rumor wasn’t just spread on social media platforms, but also via text messages on our phones.  We’ve seen similar disinformation campaigns on so-called peer-to-peer platforms in other parts of the world, but not in the United States. 

    Disinformation spreads the same way a virus spreads—from person to person, contact to contact, social-media-account to social-media-account, hence the phrase “going viral.”  All of us can help control the spread of disinformation by being discerning users of social media.  Don’t retweet, share, or send anything that seems sensational; that isn’t from a credible source; or that seems like a massive scoop from some no-name-outlet. 

    We’ve heard a lot of late that our individual and collective behavior is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19.  The same is true of disinformation. 

  • An Ode to Government Inefficiency in the age of COVID-19

    When is it okay to start thinking about life after the virus?  It’s hard to ask that question because the news is still bad in so many places.  The crest of the pandemic hasn’t arrived anywhere in the United States and we’re looking at more days of sickness, and isolation, and, tragically, death. 

    Yet, there are questions we will need to grapple with as we begin to rebuild.  Perhaps no question is grander than this: what kind of world do we want to see created in the aftermath of this emergency?

    The virus has revealed some giant faults in the American system:

    • We have seen up-close the great digital divide where wealthy kids have access to computers and easy internet access while less fortunate students are issued school Chromebooks and told to sit in the parking lots near public buildings to access free wifi. 
    • Public health turns out to be a national security issue, but nearly 30 million Americans aren’t defended by routine health insurance.  How would we think about a national defense strategy that excluded 10% of the American population from our defense plans?
    • Finally, years of rhetoric dismissing the value of government looks empty and vacuous now that we need government at all levels to organize the response to COVID-19. I don’t believe government is the answer to all things—but for some things like public health, national defense, and basic investments in science, I think there is no alternative.  Only the government can do things that are, by definition, inefficient or which may only pay off in the midst of a so-called “black-swan” event. 

    More broadly, the virus is going to challenge us to think about the role of the United States in the world, the future of globalization, and whether we would more readily respond to the next pandemic with greater international partnerships or on our own. 

    The historical analogy I keep coming back to are the two world wars of the 20th century—and specifically the peace making that followed.  After World War II, leaders of the winning powers decided—consciously—that the future of humanity required people to work together, and so they built an international system based on norms, the rule of law, and cooperation.  We expanded free trade, and celebrated human rights and science, and we talked about progress.

    U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had sought a rules-based international system after World War I, as well, but it fell apart really in the process of negotiating the peace treaty.  Instead of nations trying to work together after World War I, nations built walls, limited immigration, and ratcheted up tariffs to protect national industries.  Instead of avoiding war by working together, national leaders sought revenge, dominance, or chose to effectively bury their heads in the sand in hopes that the troubles of the world would pass them by.

    Unfortunately, it feels like the world we’re heading towards is more like the world after World War I, than World War II.  Americans have been so inundated with rhetoric and stories about the shortcomings of government that we’re not yet ready to think that government can be part of the solution to modern pandemics.  We’ve been told that reliance on foreign medical supply providers is a threat to our security and that we need to make face-masks in the United States exclusively for American doctors and nurses. 

    I’m sure that fantasy is a comfort to some, but it’s a mirage.  If you don’t let government, and healthcare for that matter, operate with some inefficiencies, then it won’t matter where you produce face masks, other protective equipment, or ventilators, unless you’re willing to let the government buy massive quantities to sit in warehouses possibly never to be used before they expire. 

    But that’s precisely what governments can do because they are not supposed to be motivated by profit, but rather by service to the nation and readiness for crisis—even if that seems wasteful at times or inefficient.

  • The Questions Matter

    I watched the Democratic primary debate from Las Vegas last night.  I don’t know if what we saw was good for Democrats, good for Republicans, or good for the country.  I know politics is fierce.  It’s bare-knuckled.  It’s theatrical.  And last night’s debate had its fair share of drama. 

    But there are so many issues worthy of a national discussion that I’m mystified why debate moderators don’t ask better questions, bigger questions, more meaningful questions that will give us a better chance to glimpse the intellectual curiosity and readiness of those who would lead us and give us a sense of the kind of president any one of these candidates would be.

    Now, I realize that complaining about debate moderators is almost as ancient a past-time as complaining about referees in sports.  So I went and pulled the debate transcripts of a few presidential debates over the last 60 years to see if I was just particularly curmudgeonly during last night’s debate or if, in fact, we can do better. 

    Let’s just take one example: the final Nixon-Kennedy debate from October 21, 1960. 

    The very first question was to Vice President Nixon from radio newsman Frank Singiser.  He asked about U.S.-Cuba relations and, specifically, “in what important respects do you feel there are differences between you, and why do you believe your policy is better for the peace and security of the United States and the Western Hemisphere.”

    Tonight, in contrast, the moderator played gotcha with Senator Amy Klobuchar over her inability to recall the name of Mexico’s president in an interview last week.  How much more meaningful would it have been if the moderator had asked candidates about their respective plans for “the peace and security of the United States and [its neighbors in the] Western Hemisphere?”  That might have inspired a conversation about border security, international engagement, the value of diplomacy, trade, and international aid.  It might have given us insight into how each of the candidates would represent the United States on the world stage. 

    In 1960, the ABC network’s John Edwards asked the first question to Senator Kennedy.  He wanted to know who Kennedy would appoint to his cabinet.  Both Kennedy and Nixon refused, wisely, to put forward names in the midst of a campaign.  Still, a similar question asked tonight might have drawn a contrast with the current president who has said he favors so-called “acting” members of his cabinet because they give him greater independence from congressional oversight.  On a day when President Trump named his new, acting Director of National Intelligence, this question could have provided key insights about how the field of Democrats would approach building their cabinet and explore their relative respect for the Senate’s Constitutional roll in confirming cabinet secretaries.

    When NBC’s John Chancellor asked his first question of the debate in 1960, it was about how the United States would respond to a resumption of nuclear testing by the Soviet Union.  In 1960, this was an urgent issue, and both candidates responded with a serious reflection about the need for negotiation with the Soviets.  Today we face a wealth of urgent issues.  Consider China’s growing power around the world. While the United States has been fighting costly wars since 2001, China has been quietly expanding power, resources, and relationships across Asia, Europe, and Africa.  Or consider the transformational potential of technology—whether we’re talking about genetic engineering, robots, or artificial intelligence.  We should care more about the next president’s familiarity with these issues and whether they are prepared to offer thoughtful leadership on complex and potentially dangerous issues than with the number of homes any candidate owns.

    This is going to be a long, primary fight and there will be many more presidential debates in this cycle.  We need the moderators asking questions on these stages to focus on things that really matter and not lose us in the noise of personal attacks.

  • http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/tellingstories/

    Our Republic is on the Ballot

    The most important player in a republic—including ours—is the citizen. 

    From our consent, leaders derive the authority to govern: to raise taxes, to declare war, to enforce laws and treaties, and to do all the things we expect of government.  From the ranks of citizens, our government draws its judges, its soldiers, its officials at every level—including our representatives in the House and Senate as well as the White House.  There is no hereditary class of leaders in the American tradition.

    In the United States, it is because our government is, as Lincoln put it, “of the people,” and “by the people,” that it is also “for the people.”  The U.S. government exists to protect our rights, to pursue our commonwealth, our shared progress, and our societal growth.  In a well-functioning republic, government does not serve the interests of any individual leader or faction, but the interests of all citizens.  We can have incredibly spirited debates about what “the interests of all citizens” might be, but historically we have understood that it extended far beyond the narrow interests of current political leaders.

    Now, just a week after Senate Republicans blocked the conviction of President Trump in his impeachment trial, we see the Executive Branch not engaged in the pursuit of the public good, but in a narrow prosecution of the president’s personal interests.  We’re witnessing a purge of executive branch personnel who testified against the president.  We’re seeing nominations of qualified Americans withdrawn from consideration in the Senate because they might be questioned about the president’s actions in Ukraine.  We’re witnessing—in broad day-light—presidential interference in the criminal prosecutions of his friends and supporters. 

    This is not normal. 

    The president drives this agenda with a kind of open information warfare against the American public.  He attacks, again and again, any news source that doesn’t push a narrative favorable to him as “fake news.”  He floods the information space with distractions and misdirection.  He uses a technique known as “reflexive control,” to illicit narratives and questions that serve his own purposes.  (The Hunter Biden story was baseless, but it got reporters all over the country to report on an allegation of corruption involving the Biden family.  The truth didn’t matter, the allegation did, and Joe Biden has suffered in the polls as a result.) Finally, the president relies on the “illusory truth effect”—in short, if someone repeats a claim again and again, it will gain an audience who accept it as gospel truth.  That’s why the president so often repeats short-hand phrases like “the witch-hunt” to describe the Mueller investigation, or “socialists” to describe Democrats; and uses nicknames like “Shifty Schiff,” or “Nervous Nancy” to diminish his opponents.  He’s telling a story that might not be believable at first blush, but over time his claims gain ascendency through the simple process of repetition.

    But more than his critics in Congress, the president must respect the American electorate—the citizen, because it is we, the people, who will decide, ultimately, whether he remains in office a year from now.  We will decide if we’re okay with his intervention for personal gain in criminal prosecutions, with his interference in the prosecution of war crimes, or with his attacks on the professionals in the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI, and the Department of Defense. Collectively, citizens will be the judge and jury of this presidency.

    For me, the central question in the 2020 election is which candidate will best preserve and defend the Constitution of the United State of America.  The republic we love is on the ballot and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

  • Our North Star

    In May of 1952, John Foster Dulles, the man who would become Secretary of State to President Dwight Eisenhower, published an article in Life magazine titled “A Policy of Boldness.”  It was both a critique of the Truman administration’s conduct of foreign policy and a description of the establishment views of the Republican party as it sought to regain the White House for the first time in two decades. 

    I was drawn back to that article today as I reflected on the events of the week: the conclusion of the president’s impeachment trial—including Senator Mitt Romney’s principled vote, the State of the Union address, and the Iowa Caucasus. 

    In the article, Dulles called attention to “three truths:”

    1. In politics, “the dynamic prevails over the static.”
    2. “Nonmaterial forces are more powerful than those that are merely material.”
    3. There is a natural moral law which determine success and failure over the long-term in all endeavors.

    Dulles urged the United States to “let these truths work in and through us.  We should be dynamic; we should use ideas as weapons; and these ideas should conform to moral principles.”

    Dulles was prescribing a strategy to confront the Soviet Union in cold war, but his advice still resonates 70 years later—particularly after the events of this week and as we look to the political calendar ahead in 2020.

    One of the sharpest contrasts between candidates Trump and Clinton in 2016 was in the amount of dynamism each projected.  Merely in terms of tone and tenor, Clinton embodied competence, control, and intention.  Trump was chaos channeled into politics, a WWE-event with electoral consequences.  The free-wheeling nature of his campaign events served to communicate that change was coming in a way that well-crafted policy speeches or fact-sheets never could.  In Trump’s case, his dynamism was lashed to a simple mantra “Make America Great Again,” hearkening to a great national project of renewal.  When candidate Trump would make outlandish claims and Democrats were quick to point out his flaws, it communicated not better preparation on the part of Secretary Clinton, but stasis—that Democrats wouldn’t make big changes.  For a restless electorate, Trump’s dynamism was more appealing than the competence offered by the Democratic standard-bearer.  The crop of 2020 Democrats would be wise to heed this lesson.

    Dulles reminded us that politics doesn’t just operate on the level of policies—it cries out for something bigger beyond the material world.  In the cold war that meant our defenses required more than tanks and bombing planes, but also animating ideas, values, spirituality, and a belief that in the long-run, a moral code would prevail. 

    After the events of this week, a lot of Americans are asking whether a moral code still matters in American politics.  In short, it does—especially with those who understand and appreciate the heroic defense of the republic from Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Mitt Romney.  Both men spoke to ideals, values, and principles that are beyond reproach.  History will judge them well. 

    In the here and the now, President Trump’s reelection campaign is going to talk about the economy, the stock-market, the value of our retirement accounts, and dangle the possibility of further tax cuts.  They will buttress these materialistic arguments with scare tactics about immigrants and Godless, socialist Democrats.  The question I struggle with is whether Democrats will respond with fact-checking and wonky policy proposals, of if they will challenge Americans to summon our better angels.

    Ultimately, the seeds of a new political awakening are going to be found in the ideas and values that have sustained the republic for 230 years. Democracy, freedom, civil liberties, checks and balances, and the rule of law are not anachronisms, they are the life-blood of the American experiment in self-government. They have proven to be our most valuable asset internationally, and our north-star in our darkest moments domestically. 

    Those ideas and values—the birthright of every American and the envy of the world—will lead us home.

  • Life’s Brevity, Uncertainty, and Legacy

    On Monday, the Senate Chaplain Rear Admiral Barry Black, USN (Ret.) opened the Senate impeachment trial with a moment of remembrance for Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the other souls lost in the helicopter crash last weekend in Los Angeles.  He said, “As millions mourn the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and those who died with them, we think about life’s brevity, uncertainty, and legacy. Remind us that we all have a limited time on Earth to leave the world better than we found it.”

    “Life’s brevity, uncertainty, and legacy.”

    This country’s founders understood the brevity, uncertainty, and legacy of life.  That’s why they created a constitutional system predicated on the rule of law and not the success or merit of one man or one family. That’s why in the earliest days of the republic, the central theme of American foreign policy was to show the world that a republic could endure.  That’s why for 231 years, patriots of every partisan stripe have understood that the success of politicians and parties can be brief and uncertain, but our collective legacy is the preservation of the Constitution.

    Now, for the first time in my adult life, serious people are worried about the ability of the republic to endure. Extremists talk openly about civil war should the president be removed from office or lose an election. The president’s defenders even argue from the well of the Senate that a president can undertake any action that benefits him– or her-self personally, if the president believes his own fortunes are the nation’s fortunes.

    In these broadsides, I see real peril to the Constitution.

    In Federalist 68, Hamilton warned of “cabal, intrigue and corruption” as the “most deadly adversaries of republican government.” In the event of wrong-doing, the president, Hamilton assured us in Federalist 69, could be impeached and removed from office, in stark contrast to “The person of the king of Great Britain [who] is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of national revolution.”

    Yet, here we are in January of 2020, and the president’s defenders are making just that argument: that the president can do no wrong; that no tribunal can touch him; that to even consider the prospect of removal from office is to invite violence in our streets.

    This is a darkness that the founders would have found familiar.  Victors in political revolution, they drew revolutionary fervor from unchecked royal authority, and they designed a constitutional system to prevent its rise in the United States. Preserving that order has long been the labor of patriots. 

    It still is.

    As long as there has been a United States of America, life has been brief and uncertain.  The fortunes of the nation and its citizens have risen and fallen.  We’ve been  beset by civil war and world wars, we’ve navigated humanity’s development of technology that could eradicate all human life, and we fought to grant the blessings of liberty to all of our citizens.  The one constant, the one enduring feature of American life over all those years, the real legacy of the founders was not the success of the Federalists or the Whigs; it was the Constitution.

    In 50 or 100 years, whether Donald Trump was removed from office in 2020 will be less important than whether we preserved the Constitution and the system of government it describes.  That’s the legacy this generation will be judged on, just as surely as we have judged every generation before.

  • We’re All on Trial

    At some point in my misspent youth, I discovered the magic of films from Hollywood’s golden era. Somewhere between Academy Award winners like “Casablanca” and “The Best Years of our Lives,” I found a wartime musical with a thin story about a young soldier who met starlet Joan Leslie at the famed Hollywood Canteen.

    For people who might not know it, the Hollywood Canteen was an actual nightclub for service members during World War II.  Hollywood royalty of the era like Bette Davis and John Garfield helped organize all the guilds and unions of the film industry to create and support the club, while stars would volunteer as hosts and hostesses, and—legend has it—even dishwashers.

    The Warner Bros. musical “Hollywood Canteen” features a soundtrack stacked with giants from the era: the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the Andrews Sisters, the Golden Gate Quartet, Roy Rogers, and more.  Some of the songs tied into the romance on the screen, others (like “You Can Always Tell a Yank“) were simple tributes to the troops, an homage paid by Hollywood to the men fighting the war. 

    Even then, as a young history student, I was fascinated by popular filmmaking during the war.  Film after film featured a scene where one of the main characters would articulate a simple reason for fighting World War II.  In “Hollywood Canteen,” it was explained in terms of a wounded soldier from Brooklyn being able to dance with Hollywood royalty.  In the film’s telling that was the essence of democracy—the great and the good were no different than the rest of us, everyone was equal, and that was something worth fighting for.

    Of course, there was myth-making in the film, a sanitized version of America that ignored women’s contribution to the war effort, systematic racism in the U.S. military and across society, and a host of other sins.  But there are times when those myths serve an important purpose: to remind us of our ideals, even when we fall short of them.

    I watched as much of the impeachment proceedings as work and family obligations would allow this week, and I’m ready for a little escapism.  I’m ready for a reminder about America’s ideals, about a return to national unity, about the celebration of something bigger than ourselves. 

    That’s not to say we don’t need to go through this.  In fact, in trying to hold a president accountable, Congress is living up to the charge handed down to us by our founders.  There is something noble and right in that.

    But I’m left with a belief that it’s not just the president who is on trial, it’s all of us.  Our system of separated powers is on trial: can a co-equal branch of government hold a president accountable?  Our media is on trial: can it faithfully convey hours and hours of detailed testimony in a way that busy Americans will be able to digest?  Our ability to think for ourselves is on trial: will we, as citizens in this great republic, take the time to move beyond sound bites and consider the evidence ourselves, or will we take sanctuary in our familiar intellectual and political bunkers?  Democracy—even reduced to that simple definition offered in “Hollywood Canteen,” that the rich and the powerful are as accountable as you and me—is on trial, too.

    It’s not just the president with a lot at stake in this impeachment trial. We as Americans have a lot at stake, too, including the myths and ideals that have served as guide-stars in the American experience and as an inspiration around the world.

  • It’s Up to Us

    The most important player in a republic like ours isn’t the president, it isn’t the speaker of the House, and it isn’t the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.  It’s the citizen.  The citizen.  Whether she lives in a rural, farming community, or if he’s riding the subway to work in a skyscraper, each of us possesses a spark of sovereignty that collectively determines the direction of the nation.

    Unfortunately, our ability to choose our own course is under attack.  It has been for several years.  In the fall of 2017, my colleague Mark Jacobson and I delivered a report describing the threat posed by Russia’s attacks against American democracy.  We described a well-funded and sophisticated strategy that sought to capitalize on America’s own internal divisions in order to increase the Russian government’s freedom to act at home and abroad.

    The truth is, as a nation, we have not done nearly enough to respond to this threat.  That reality has meaning for 2020 and it will have meaning as we look ahead to future elections.  Let me explain.

    In 2017, we called for several specific actions—some requiring Congress to act, others focused on the administration, and others requiring contributions from across American society.  In particular, we called for:

    • bipartisan efforts to improve the public’s understanding of the threat;
    • introspection in America’s newsrooms about reporting on stolen private communications;
    • regulation of social media so that political ads and sponsored content are clearly identified;
    • organizational changes in the White House and in the intelligence community to deal with this threat;
    • action by Congress to eliminate so-called “dark money” in American politics, requiring greater transparency by companies operating in the United States, and forcing state-sponsored media, like Russia’s RT and Sputnik, to reveal the sources of their funding; and
    • investment in the American people, including the scholars and journalists who will educate the rest of the public about this threat while simultaneously contributing to improved civic and information literacy.

    In truth, the threat didn’t go away after 2016.  Just this week we learned that Russian military intelligence—in fact, the same unit responsible for the attacks on American political leaders and parties in 2016—has been trying to hack the computer network of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company at the heart of President Trump’s impeachment.

    We have to ask ourselves, what were the Russians trying to steal?  And if they leaked what they stole, would U.S. news outlets be more discerning and exercise greater discretion than they exhibited in 2016?  I’m doubtful.

    The danger I worry about is that American politics—with unfettered free speech, dark money pouring in from unknown sources, and shell companies masking foreign participation—could become the battleground for great power competition.  We know the Russians are active.  What’s to keep the Chinese out?  Or the Iranians?  Once states internalize that they can benefit from lawlessness in American politics, the United States will cease being a super-power as our electoral politics becomes the battlefield for any state with the means to steal and spread information and disinformation. 

    That’s not hyperbole.  It is happening. 

    The most beautiful thing about American politics is the free exchange of ideas.  We want candidates to say what they think about China’s growing assertiveness without worrying that China might attack their campaign.  We want candidates to call out Russia’s aggression in Ukraine without worrying that Russian political warfare might be used against them.  We want American voices in our elections, not foreign money and not foreign influence.

    Typically, we look to government to provide the defense of the republic, to protect us as citizens, and to organize the forces of freedom to defend our political system and way of life.  Unfortunately, although the House has passed a bevy of bills to address many of these issues, the Senate has failed to act on any of them.  The administration, despite some important actions in the intelligence community, is no better.  What’s left to defend the republic exists outside of government.

    In other words, it’s up to us, the American people—citizens—to defend our republic.  But, then again, it always has been.

  • 2020: Civic New Year Resolutions

    The start of the new year always means crowded gyms and a run on exercise gear.  I do it, too.  I have my list of resolutions, things I want to do better in the year ahead.  But as I thought about my resolutions for 2020, I went beyond the gym to focus on some broader civic resolutions I want to make real in my life this year.

    Make sure I participate in our democracy and help others to do the same.

    In case you haven’t heard, it’s an election year.  There are going to be presidential-nominating contests—either primaries or caucuses—in every state and territory of the union this year. Every contested local election will likely have primaries too.  We’ll vote for every member of the House of Representatives, and one-third of the members of the Senate. We can’t sit this out. 

    The most important player in a republic such as ours is the citizen, and among the citizen’s chief responsibilities is to participate in our democracy.  But we also know that voter suppression is a real thing.  It happens in the way states choose to purge inactive voters from their voter rolls and it happens through coordinated disinformation campaigns.  So in addition to voting, we can all lend our time and our energies to local efforts to get people registered to vote; to verify or correct our voter registration statuses and help our neighbors do the same; and we can help get people to the polls on election days.  I guarantee that you’ll love it and the country will be better for it.

    Read more long-form journalism and books.

    As a society, we don’t read enough.  As fascinating as social media can be, there’s nothing quite as efficient for communicating broad ideas and specific details as long-form writing, whether in newspapers, magazines, or in books.  One of my great pet-peeves as a professor is the growing tendency of students to cite whatever sources they find in the first page of their Google search.  I tell them to go to the library and find these bound piles of paper—a remarkable invention called ‘a book’—and read it.  When we tweet and retweet, we are stripping the nutrients from the public’s intellectual soil like a farmer who plants his field without giving it a chance to lie fallow.  Books require more patience and more time than social media, but they offer us an opportunity to go deeper, to not just read and react but to read and reflect.  I want to read more this year.

    Be a responsible purveyor of information.

    There are two parts to this.  First, I’m determined to pop my own social media bubble in 2020.  That doesn’t mean that all news sources are created equal and have the same amount of credibility.  But I want to make sure that I’m challenging myself and not simply falling prey to the appeal of confirmation bias—that’s the tendency we all have to seek out news and information that confirms what we already think and discount contrary evidence.

    Second, we need to engage in some critical thinking before we share things on social media.  In the modern media environment, we are not simply consumers of information, but also purveyors of information.  As a result, we all share a responsibility to only spread information we have real confidence in—not just stories that confirm our preferred narratives.  (This is also how we, as citizens, can contribute to defeating foreign disinformation in our politics, too.)

    Don’t assume people who think differently from me are motivated by selfishness or that my side is motivated solely by virtue.

    We tend to operate these days with a winner-take-all mindset.  We engage on social media to beat down other voices.  No one ever goes on Twitter to change their mind.  With that comes a tendency to see our political opposites as flawed or less intelligent or otherwise corrupted in some way.  We also fall prey to the temptation to see our “own side” as motivated only by virtue.  The American republic needs all of us to think for ourselves, to value truth and real debate, and to keep an open mind in our approach to public policy questions. 

    Be kind.

    One of my favorite fictional characters is George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Every year I tell myself I want to be more like George Bailey.  I want to prioritize the people in my life over my own selfish interests.  As we look ahead to the political debates of the coming election year, I hope that we will remember that if we are going to preserve this republic, we will need to see our fellow citizens not as votes to win or defeat, but as human beings with real needs and real interests beyond any specific election.  So in our engagements, in our tweets, in our conversations, we should try, above all else, to be kind, seek common ground, and remember that no matter what happens on election day 2020, we’re all in this together.