• George Psalmanazer fake news

    Citizens Must Be Sophisticated Consumers of News

    “There’s No Way to Report Many of the Fastest-Spreading Las Vegas Conspiracy Theories on Faceebook” | Quartz

    “Facebook and Google Pledged to Stop Fake News. So Why Did They Promote Las Vegas-shooting Hoaxes?” | Los Angeles Times

    “Russia’s Hybrid Warriors Got the White House. Now They’re Coming for America’s Town Halls” | Foreign Policy

    “These are the Facebook Posts Russia Used to Undermine Hillary Clinton’s Campaign | Think Progress

    “Fake news” is more than just the domain of Russian influence operations. It’s a permanent part of the media landscape—and it has been for millennia.  You can think of heresy in the early Catholic Church as a form of “fake news.” You can think of the yellow journalism that took the United States to war against Spain at the end of the 19th century as a more recent example.  In today’s media environment, there are those who trade in fake news as a way to attract viewers and advertisers.  Characters like Alex Jones of Info Wars stand out, but he is not the first infotainment charlatan, and he’s likely not the last.

    The challenge for citizens in democratic societies is to distinguish reliably between legitimate news—things we need to know and understand in order to shape our societal response—from fake news—stories that serve some other purpose, from profit to corrupt influence.

    In the aftermath of this week’s horrific massacre in Las Vegas, we saw disinformation rear its ugly head. Facebook and Google promoted links to known-conspiracy peddlers that were completely devoid of fact about who the shooter was and what his motive might have been.  In some respects, it’s understandable.  In the heat of breaking news, any explanation feels grounding—particularly if it serves to confirm our worst fears and biases.  But that’s precisely when citizens need to stop, gather more information, and think.  An example from history illustrates our task:

    In the early 18th century, a fair-haired, blue-eyed man appeared in London going by the name of George Psalmanazar.  He claimed to be the first-native born person from Formosa (now, Taiwan) to travel to Europe.  He claimed to have been abducted by an evil Jesuit priest and brought forcibly to France where they tried to convert him to Catholicism.  He refused and escaped, only to be captured by Calvinists who tried to convert him.  Again, he refused their efforts to convert him and escaped—or so Psalmanazar claimed.  Upon arriving in London his stories of abuse, especially at the hands of the Jesuits, played to the confirmation bias of his audience who distrusted Catholics and disliked Catholicism.

    Many of Psalmanazar’s claims just didn’t add up. First off, blonde-haired and blue eyed, he didn’t look Asian.  His stories of barbaric practices—the ritual sacrifice of 18,000 boys under the age of 9 every year—didn’t seem plausible given what was known about the size of the population on Formosa.  He was called to account before the Royal Society—where the most educated people in the 18th century came to share their latest data-driven understanding of the world around them.  They questioned Psalmanazar. Sir Edmund Halley (famous for Halley’s Comet) asked all manner of precise questions about astronomical observations from Formosa.

    Psalmanazar was a gifted storyteller and could definitely think on his feet. He continued to fool some, but then the information networks of the late 17th and early 18th centuries began to produce results that undermined Psalmanazer’s claims.  The head of the Royal Society was none other than Sir Isaac Newton.  Not just a genius of the scientific sense, he was an early super-user of information networks.  He was a share holder in a number of joint-stock companies trading around the world.  He held position in government.  He was at the hub of a vast network of information that moved by letter, by journal, and by report back to headquarters in Western Europe.  Together, the input from all of these networks served to undermine the credibility of George Psalmanazar who died in relative obscurity an admitted fraud.

    The take-away for the current consumer of information is one of hope and one of imperative. The Enlightenment in Europe is rightfully celebrated as the awakening of reason in public life.  Science, data, and reason supplanted faith and orthodoxy.  There remained much to learn about the physical world and progress would take centuries to achieve, but there is hope in the fact that perhaps our era is not so flawed if the age of Sir Isaac Newton suffered the intellectual insult of a George Psalmanazar.

    The imperative to the contemporary citizen is that we, as consumers of information, must do what the Royal Society did in the early 18th century:

    • Challenge assertions. Ask yourself—how can I confirm what I’m reading? In 1704, that meant writing letters and waiting weeks and months for a response. Today, we can google it.
    • Ask: is anyone else reporting it? If something is a big explosive story, then it’s not only going to be covered by a news outlet you’ve never heard of before. Again, google it. Is anyone reputable covering it? If not, maybe wait a couple of hours before you share it, Tweet it, or forward it.
    • Ask: would the person or organization making such claims be in a position to actually know the facts they are reporting?  Journalists at major news outlets, in particular, spend years and years cultivating sources. It’s unlikely someone you’ve never heard of before at a previously non-existent news outlet scooped them. In George Psalmanazar’s case, the suggestion that he was a native born Formosan, with blue eyes, fair skin, and blonde hair, seems like it should have been a tell that he wasn’t being honest. There are similar tells today.
    • Finally, ask: do the circumstances around the news play to confirmation bias? Psalmanazar got as far as he did, in part, because he arrived in London with a story that blamed Catholics and Jesuits in particular. Stories of their wicked ways were expected in early modern England, and Psalmanazar found a receptive audience then just as comparable stories about Muslims do today—not because the stories are true, but because they confirm the bias of their audience members.

    The best antidote to fake news is an informed, critical-thinking citizenry. The information tools at our disposal today are staggeringly vast in their reach and miraculously fast compared to the correspondences that informed the Enlightenment.  But we must choose to be better consumers of and purveyors of information.  Our task isn’t anything more complex than making a conscious assessment about the information we share in our own networks and demanding the same from our friends and followers.  The tools are there.  We just have to use them.


  • Pell Center Study Warns Russia Threat is Bigger than the 2016 Election

    Newport, RI – Vladimir Putin’s Russia is engaged in a well-financed and determined campaign to undermine democratic political and social institutions as well as international alliances, and to remove resistance to Russia’s foreign policy objectives. Russia has the motive and the means to do so, according to a new report from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.

    Cover of "Shatter the House of Mirrors"“Shatter the House of Mirrors” is based on the proceedings of a closed conference held at the Pell Center on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, in June of 2017, drawing together 36 researchers, technologists, scholars, journalists, and policy experts from North America, Europe, and Australia.  The invitation-only conference operated under Chatham House Rule, so participants and their affiliation may not be identified.  The report was authored by the only two public participants in the conference: Dr. James M. Ludes of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University and Dr. Mark R. Jacobson of Georgetown University.

    The report recommends broadening the public focus beyond possible crimes committed by President Donald Trump and his staff during the 2016 campaign.  “The Russian effort is larger than the election of a president,” wrote Ludes and Jacobson. “It seeks to sow division within the United States and within the broader community of western democracies. While crimes need to be prosecuted if they occurred, the public should be sensitized and their attention reoriented to combat the broader Russian effort to weaken our faith in our free institutions, and undermine the political cohesion of the United States.”

    The conference produced several specific recommendations:

    • Improve transparency and raise public awareness of the threat. Specifically, the Pell Center authors call for the appointment of an independent bipartisan commission to establish a widely-accepted understanding of Russia’s actions, means, and objectives in the 2016 U.S. election. Specifically, the study highlights the need for a public accounting of irregular social media activity in battleground states prior to the 2016 election as well as on-going social media efforts to sow division in the United States.  Ludes and Jacobson also call on the news media to review, and if necessary revise, their standards and practices so that they don’t become unwitting vehicles for foreign propaganda.  Social media platforms, themselves, must be regulated and held to federal standards of transparency when it comes to political advertising.  Finally, the study recommends public and private investment in the investigations and reporting needed to educate the American public about a threat that has not waned.
    • Prepare the executive branch for a new cold war. Organizations from the White House to the intelligence community need to be reviewed for their efficacy in meeting the propaganda challenge to the West, according to Ludes and Jacobson. The White House must communicate to Con­gress the need for any new authorizations to meet this threat. It must also request suf­ficient appropriations for these activities and prosecute these programs vigorously. The authors called on the Trump administration, as well, to provide the diplomatic leadership required for an international response to the common challenge posed by Russian intervention in the democratic processes of the West.
    • Congress must lead. Ludes and Jacobson argue that in the absence of clear executive branch willingness or readiness to lead on this issue, the U.S. Congress must take the initiative. It can do so by elimi­nating “dark-money” in American politics; requiring more transparency by corporations operating in the United States; embracing bipartisanship in the defense of American democracy; and reforming the laws governing the activities of foreign agents operating in the United States—to begin by considering legislative changes that would require state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, to publicly reveal their sources of funding.
    • Invest in the American people. Finally, the authors of the Pell Center conference report urged the public to once again consider education a national pri­ority and the cornerstone for an effective defense of democracy. Russia, they argue, “exploited Amer­ica’s media illiteracy, our civic illiteracy, and our historical illiteracy.” The Pell Center study calls for increased funding for programs to increase the public’s resistance to influence by foreign powers.

    “Shatter the House of Mirrors” is available for download here.

  • Columbus_Taking_Possession

    Globalization is a Human Impulse: Picks of the Week

    Why Globalization Stalled And How to Restart It | Foreign Affairs

    The Place Where Globalization Kept Its Promise | Marketplace

    The Pillars of Trump’s Nationalism are Weakening | The Washington Post

    Globalization has gotten a bad rap over the last couple of years.  The concept is invoked regularly to explain the loss of American manufacturing jobs (though automation is likely the bigger culprit going forward).  More ominously, the new bogey-men of American politics are so-called “Globalists”—people, this theory holds, who want to subvert American sovereignty to global standards, laws, and rules.

    In American politics, two stories are emerging—a narrative dichotomy, if you will.  On the one hand, there is globalization, predicated on the free movement of ideas, goods, wealth, and people.  On the other there is a nationalist story manifested in national limits on the movement of those things in order to protect national identity and, some would argue, national interest.  These competing stories, like any false dichotomy, are dangerous and important because whichever story dominates public discussion will lead to diametrically opposed policy choices and outcomes.

    For example: with globalization, people move to where economic opportunity exists, just as wealth moves to economic opportunity.  That’s immigration.  That’s foreign direct investment.  With a nationalist orientation, you might limit the movement of people into your country to only those who can materially benefit your country—however you define that.  You also might restrict the flow of capital into your country.  So if a foreign interest seeks control of important industries, you might restrict or even prohibit that.  Or you might put a tax on things manufactured in other countries when they cross the border into our country in order to make American-produced items more competitive from a price perspective.

    The nationalist critique emanating from far-right sources in the White House and at Breitbart is over-stated.  Globalization is not an objective, but a process by which the features of every-day life—whether we’re talking about the spread of things or ideas—is increasingly standard around the world.  The view of globalization as a process is borne out by history.

    While some contemporary analysts trace globalization to the post-World War II economic system, that is only its most recent manifestation.  In fact, globalization is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.  We can find its antecedents in the earliest human history—in the way written language spread, in the way food-stuffs spread, in the way art and culture spread, even in the way religions spread and evolved.

    At its core, the process of globalization seems to be a human impulse—we need to connect, to discover, and to trade.  And the more we do those things, the more standardize life becomes around the world.  Consider this: in 1492, Columbus discovered the New World.  Historians describe what happened next as the Columbian Exchange—the largest transfer of biology in history between the old and new worlds.  To the New World, Europeans brought smallpox, sugarcane, and, eventually, African slaves.  From the New World, Europeans brought back venereal disease and food stuffs, things like the tomato, the potato, and the chili pepper that became part of the basic diet of people around the world.  Just think about the use of red pepper in “national dishes” across Europe and Asia—that doesn’t happen without Columbus.  That doesn’t happen without connection and exchange.  And these forces are at the heart of what today we call globalization.

    So many of the simmering debates in the United States grow from globalization: immigration, trade, and the role of international institutions.  Since the end of World War II, Western and Western-oriented leaders have put their faith in the belief that trade and exchange will contribute to peace between the great powers of the world.  So far, that’s proven a good bet.  But we have a moment now between Brexit in Europe and the policies pursued by the Trump administration on trade and immigration, when the forces that bring us together seem to be on the wane.  They’re being challenged specifically as politicians emphasize the value of our national identity and the nation over the things that remind us of our shared humanity across the globe.

    How we resolve these issues will shape the global economy, our own domestic productivity, and questions of war and peace across the coming century.

  • Russian bear

    The Unholy Alliance of Russia and the American Far-Right

    America’s neo-Nazis don’t look to Germany for inspiration. They look to Russia | The Washington Post

    Trump, the alt-right and the Kremlin: White supremacists’ Russia links are no secret | Salon

    Pro-Russian bots take up the right-wing cause after Charlottesville | Pro Publica

    There are unmistakable ties between American white-supremacist groups, including those active in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Russia.  While the specific events in Charlottesville have not been linked directly to any foreign power, demonstrable ties exist between individuals and organizations and are consistent with a broad Russian effort to weaken the internal cohesion of the United States by encouraging secession, ethnic divisions, and white nationalism.

    Russia has cultivated ties with organizations and individuals on the right in both Europe and the United States.  In Europe, Russia’s efforts have taken the form direct support to far-right political parties, financial support for nativists such as Marine Le Pen in France, and even the planting of fabricated news stories.  In the United States, we see ties between Russia and organizations like those advocating for secession in California and Texas, among other places.

    In the United States, there is also a strange affinity for Russia espoused by some in the evangelical Christian community  who see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a Christian leader preserving White European identity against an Islamic onslaught.  These views of Putin are widely held among American white supremacists.

    Of course this is not to say that Putin controls American white supremacists or that white supremacists are motivated by anything other than their own warped world-view.  But history and recent evidence demonstrates that one feature of Soviet and, now, Russian active measures is to exploit and encourage divisions that already exist within Western societies—whether it was the American civil rights movement fifty years ago, the peace movement of the 1980s, or the controversy around the Black Lives Matter movement today.

    The objectives of Soviet and now-Russian active measures against the West have been remarkably consistent: sow discord, emphasize divisions, discredit Western liberalism and the world-order which rests on it.  These objectives are predicated on a zero-sum approach to international politics.  If the West—and the United States in particular—is weaker, that’s seen in Moscow as good for Russia.  If Western liberalism—free elections, pluralism, free speech, and free institutions—appear dysfunctional, that helps secure the illiberal regime in power in the Kremlin today.  These divisions also limit American soft-power and distract the American people from Russia’s actions in places like Syria and Eastern Ukraine.

    One of the easiest, most divisive issue for the Russians to exploit are the issues around race and identity that have so long bedeviled the United States.  As Clint Watts explained to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier this year: “Russia targets specific audiences inside electorates amenable to their messages and resulting influence–in particular alt-right audiences incensed over immigration, refugees and economic hardship.”

    But these ties are not just theorized.  Richard Spencer, credited with coining the term “alt-right,” led an earlier tiki-lit protest at the same statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville in May.  Bathed in the sweet smell of citronella, these self-proclaimed protectors of confederate history broke into a peculiar chant: “Russia is our friend.”

    Spencer’s ties to Russia, however, are provocative.  Spencer’s now-estranged, Russian wife Nina Kouprianova has worked as English translator of the works of Alexander Dugin, a Russian political theorist who champions Russia as the new Rome—the defender of white, European identity.  On August 4, 2017, Dugin was interviewed by Alex Jones on Info Wars and attacked National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster as a globalist—a member of the cabal weakening traditionally white civilization.  Previously, in 2015, Dugin delivered a lecture via Skype to Texas A&M University titled, “American Liberalism Must be Destroyed.”  That same year, Dugin spoke to the “Traditionalist Worker Party” led by Matthew Heimbach who has called for breaking-up the United States in order to create a white ethno-nationalist state.  Both Heimbach and Spencer were scheduled to speak at the rally in Charlottesville.

    In an analysis piece published by The Washington Post, Adam Taylor, without citing experts to which he alludes, dismisses Russian “influence in the U.S.” as “dramatically exaggerated” to make the case that American white supremacy is home-grown.  In all fairness, he misses the point.  No one who has studied, even casually, the long history of racial animus in the United States would see events in Charlottesville as anything other than part of the American experience.

    But that’s precisely how Russian active measures work: they identify organic features of society that can be exploited to foment division and to weaken the United States.  The only remaining question is whether we will see this for what it is: part of a broad attack on American institutions and political cohesion. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Statue of Liberty with NYC in the background.

    Emma Lazarus and American Exceptionalism: Picks of the Week

    Statue of Liberty Caught in White House Immigration Row | BBC

    Trump Advisor Stephen Miller Undermines Poem’s Connection to Statue of Liberty | NPR

    New York Today: The Politics in Poetry | The New York Times

    The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think about ourselves—read any self-help book and you know that “self-talk,” is a common refrain. When you tell stories about yourself where you are always the victim or always the hero, you are conditioning yourself to respond to other situations in that self-selected role. The same is true of the stories we tell about the United States.

    One of the dominant narratives in the American psyche is that we are a nation of immigrants. It’s a story that happens to be supported by facts. With the exception of Native Americans, we all trace our roots to another land. Our ancestors braved harrowing ocean transits—some by choice and some in slavery—to come to the New World. Over the long arc of history, our society has blended these identities together to form an American identity. When I was in grade school, the term du jour was “the melting pot.” Now, people talk about America as a tossed salad—everyone preserving their own unique flavor, but we’re in the bowl together.

    The poet Emma Lazarus contributed to this story about America with her poem “The New Colossus,” written in the late 1800s and sold to raise money for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor.

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek frame,

    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

    Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name

    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    The poem was the central point in a heated exchange in the White House briefing room this week between Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor to President Donald Trump, and CNN journalist Jim Acosta. Acosta read the most famous passage of the Lazarus poem—“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—to challenge the administration’s embrace of a legislative proposal to restrict U.S. immigration to skilled workers who speak English. Miller dismissed Acosta’s question by noting that the poem was not part of the Statue of Liberty and had only been added later. The colossus, Miller argued, was intended only to celebrate the light of liberty, not the opportunity created by migration to the United States. In other words, he was trying to change the narrative—undermining the story we have told ourselves for decades about America as a “melting pot.” If you prefer the “tossed salad” metaphor better, he’s saying immigration should be about “better ingredients.”

    Our national motto, e pluribus unum, “from many, one,” originally intended to reflect several states forming one nation, has, in more recent generations, also been seen to describe one people—the American people—emerging from immigrants from all over the world. One of the reasons the American experiment has been so successful is because we have been able to assimilate and integrate different groups into our society. If you go to Europe, in contrast, and talk to people about what it means to be French or German, very quickly you learn that national identity is based purely on the blood in your veins. But in the American tradition—and the American myth—if you adopt our values and embrace our constitution, anyone can be American—with all the opportunities and potential that entails beyond “the golden door.” Anyone, we believe, can choose to be American—and that is perhaps one of our most exceptional features as a people and as a nation. In contrast, you cannot choose to be German, even if you live there.

    To be sure, the “melting pot,” is a myth, too. We have always had grave societal challenges integrating others into the American nation. Generations have had to work to overcome stigma and suspicion, whether we’re talking about my Irish ancestors, or Islamic immigrants today. But if you go back and look at the founding documents of the American republic, the rhetoric supports a radical equality among people. It is appropriate, then, that the narrative to emerge from the immigrant experience of the 20th century is one that seems organic to our national experience. The truth is, nearly 20 million immigrants—including my Italian grandfather—entered the United States between 1890 and 1920 alone. Many were poor. Many worked as unskilled laborers upon arriving in the New World. Many spoke little or no English. They saw the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming symbol and the beginning of their American dream. They and their children would go on to win two world wars, the space race, and the Cold War. They built America’s middle class. They changed the world.

    The power of the American myth is wrapped up in a colossus standing at the mouth of New York harbor, lifting her light as a beacon of hope to all those who seek shelter. “Mother of Exiles” is what Lazarus called the statue, rejecting the “storied pomp” of ancient lands, and welcoming “the homeless,” and “tempest-tost.” Don’t send us your best, Lazarus was saying, send us those who will most appreciate liberty, opportunity, and plenty.

    That’s a story we should never stop telling ourselves. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • U.S. Navy sailors pledge allegiance to the National Ensign during a Memorial Service.

    Trump, de Tocqueville, and Loyalty: Picks of the Week

    The Emails of Donald Trump, Jr. | New York Times

    Conspiracy or Coincidence: A Timeline Open to Interpretation | The New York Times

    Trump Revives his Playbook for Fighting Government Probes | Politico

    In late January of 2017, just a week after being sworn into office, President Donald Trump invited then-FBI Director James Comey to dinner at the White House.  In private accounts and in public testimony, Comey described his discomfort with a private meal with the president, and the awkward exchange when the president said to Comey, “I need loyalty.  I expect loyalty.”  It’s an exceptionally troubling thing for the President of the United States to ask the FBI director for a personal pledge of loyalty.  The FBI, after all, is supposed to be an independent law enforcement agency whose leaders, rank and file are loyal to the Constitution, not any one person.

    Loyalty to individual leaders is the stuff of the ancien regime in Europe—the era of kings and royal families.  Interestingly, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great admirer of American democracy in the 19th century, reflected on the meaning of loyalty.  As an apprentice magistrate, he had taken a loyalty oath to the French king, but he recognized the contrast between that pledge of loyalty and the patriotism of a free-born person whose connections to the place of his or her birth provided an almost mystical sense of loyalty, passion, and even love to the point of self-sacrifice—laying down one’s life for one’s country.  In contrast, royal subjects might take some comfort in being ruled by an effective monarch and pride in the conquests of the king, as the king was the personification of the nation.

    In a modern democracy, such as we see now in America and France, the chief executive is not the personification of the nation.  He or she is a public servant.  He is not the embodiment of the state: he serves it.  We do not pledge loyalty to any individual, but to the founding ideals enshrined in our founding documents.  In the case of the United States, those ideals and rights are enshrined in our Constitution.

    Set against this backdrop, the revelation that Donald Trump, Jr., met with a Russian attorney to receive information he was told was “part of the Russian government’s effort to help” his father’s campaign is abhorrent.  The emails reveal a commitment to his father, Donald Trump, to his father’s campaign, to beating his father’s opponent, and to winning at all cost—no matter who was behind offers of assistance.  But there is nothing in the emails that reveals any obligation or loyalty to something greater than the king, there is no sentiment that approaches what de Tocqueville called the “instinctive, disinterested, and undefinable feeling which connects the affections of man with his birthplace.”

    If nothing else, the emails of Donald Trump, Jr. reveal that he was more loyal to his father’s campaign than to the land of his birth.

    Setting side issues of legality for the moment, this is perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the affair.  Public service is not about winning; it’s about serving something bigger than yourself.  Admittedly, both Democrats and Republicans have long been locked in a race to the bottom on this issue.  But in the revelations of this past week, we see, at best, a win-at-all-costs mind-set that is a profound threat to American democracy. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • World leaders gathered to discuss NATO

    Welcome to the Chinese Century: Picks of the Week

    America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone | The Wall Street Journal

    The most extraordinary op-ed of 2017 | The Washington Post

    China’s One Belt, One Road: An Ambitious Strategy Challenging the U.S. | American Security Project

    Last week, the President of the United States returned from his first trip abroad in office, with his staff loudly proclaiming the trip a huge success.  Of course, such assessments all depend on how you define “success,” but, at minimum, the trip was enormously consequential.

    The trip underscored the President’s rejection of 70 years of American foreign policy.  At a summit with the NATO heads of state, the President of the United States failed to affirm America’s commitment to the Alliance’s common defense, despite standing alongside a twisted steel beam from the World Trade Center intended to symbolize the Alliance’s commitment to that very ideal.  Instead, President Trump urged NATO members to spend more on defense, seemingly willfully ignorant that every member of the alliance had previously pledged to do just that.

    In fact, the President of the United States has embraced a nationalist view of America’s role in the world and a return to a 19th century view of statecraft.  In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal the president’s national security advisor and chief economic advisor explained the president’s views.  Donald Trump, they argued, believes “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”  Then, the two presidential advisors noted that “America first” signals a return to America’s “traditional role overseas—to use the diplomatic, economic, and military resources of the U.S. to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world” [emphasis added].

    The nationalist course President Trump is charting in foreign policy has been resoundingly rejected by every president—Republican and Democrat—since the end of World War II.  The bipartisan center of American foreign policy has been built on allies and partnerships that address common challenges in common cause.  Trade, alliances, and international institutions are the hallmarks of the post-war-approach.  If anything, American presidents have labored mightily to create an international system that is precisely the opposite of an “arena” for naked competition.

    The international system under assault by the Trump administration was built after the Second World War because in the course of one generation, a nineteenth century mindset about competition between states and races (remember Social Darwinism?) had cost the world tens of millions of lives, countless billions of dollars in economic losses, and unspeakable atrocities, all while yielding the very capacity to destroy life on this planet.  Giants such as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Marshall built the current international system with like-minded leaders from around the world at a time when the United States had 12 million men under arms, the only functioning industrialized economy not bombed to rubble, and a monopoly on nuclear arms.  At the apex of American power, American leaders sought to create an international system predicated on norms and laws, not some Hobbesian view of nature.  We did so to lock in the advantages the United States had in the international system—including the added strength of trading partners and allies.

    While President Trump rejects the strategic approach to America’s role in the world that has maintained great power peace for 70 years, China is embracing it.  In its “One Belt, One Road” strategy, China is linking all of Eurasia through trade.  Instead of reducing its production of steel, China is using its surplus to support infrastructure that connects Asia and Europe by overland trade and sea trade across the Indian Ocean.  It is a strategy for the twenty-first century that assures China will be at the center of vitally important relationships across Eurasia.  With the jettisoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trump administration has no effective strategy to counter China, and the United States will be less secure and less wealthy because of it.

    President Trump is embarking the United States on a course that history tells us will fail.  It will be costly to the United States and others in terms of lives and treasure.  It will isolate the United States.  It will damage our economy.  It will make the traditional security we have gained from the protection of two great oceans seem like a historic curse as China leverages its geography to stitch the world together. It is ahistorical.  It is wrong.

    The United States is strongest when we lead, when we trade, when we work with others to address the challenges of the modern world.  Surrendering the advantages of the international system to other states like China and embracing the law of the jungle in its place defies explanation and logic.  In asserting an “America First” foreign policy, President Trump is diminishing U.S. power and influence and, in fact, boosting China.  Welcome to the Chinese century.


    Image Credit: North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

  • Word Cloud of Trump's tweets related to Russia from January to May in 2017

    Donald Trump: Strategic Communicator

    The first four months of the Trump presidency have been characterized by fast-moving news that often feels chaotic.  This week alone, the former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress that she had warned the White House that Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first National Security Advisory, was potentially compromised by Russia.  That same morning, the country learned that former-President Barack Obama warned President-elect Trump about hiring Flynn.  Then, Tuesday afternoon, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey who was leading the bureau’s investigation of possible collusion between Russia and individuals associated with the Trump campaign.

    While this week has been notable for many reasons, the pace of news and events has been fast since prior to the president’s inauguration.  In such an environment, communicating is a challenge.  There is so much important news, so much opinion, and so much noise, crafting messages that resound and break through requires discipline.  Donald Trump’s tweets offer a case study in strategic communication.

    President Trump, as is well known, is a prolific tweeter.  From an analytical perspective, tweets offer insights into the thinking of the American president—both his passions and his insecurities.  Between January 5, 2017, the day that the Senate Armed Services Committee first held hearings on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and May 10, 2017, President Trump sent 98 tweets related to the investigation of Russian meddling. These 98 tweets include several that seem to be efforts to distract, such as those focused on Susan Rice or allegations that President Obama wiretapped candidate Trump.  The above word cloud is generated from these tweets.  After grouping each tweet by the day they were sent, and coding them based on the basic message the president communicated in each, a surprising result emerged.

    President Trump’s tweets are not random, stream of consciousness missives.  They are logical and disciplined—repeating central themes to build several narratives about the merit and the motives of the investigation as well as to distract.  I lay out the top-three narratives below in order or frequency:

    Nothing to See Here: 44% (43 of 98) of Trump’s Russia-related tweets since January 5 are clear denials of any wrong-doing, assertions that he has no-ties to Russia, or claims that the whole issue is “fake news.”

    Look! A squirrel! 33% (32 of 98) of the president’s Russia-related tweets are intended to distract the audience.  From the allegations that President Obama wiretapped his phones, to the suggestion that Susan Rice unmasked Michael Flynn in NSA surveillance, or the frequent refrain of “leaks,” the president is eager to change the subject.

    Sore Losers: 11% (11 of 98) of the Russia-related tweets sent by President Trump since January 5 have spoken about the motives driving the people calling-for or leading the investigations of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections.  Essentially, the president argues that the investigations are politically motivated because the Democrats don’t want to admit that they ran a bad campaign and he beat them.

    Oddly enough, Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, echoed President Trump’s “sore losers” theme in an interview with CBS Evening News, broadcast on May 10, 2017.  Responding to a question from Elizabeth Palmer about whether President Trump’s ability to build a relationship with Russia was limited, Peskov said Trump was under intense “pressure by those who still argue his presidency; by those who still cannot accept he is head of state in the United States; by those who cannot . . . accept the fact that they had lost to Mr. Trump.”  In other words, “sore losers.”

    The pattern that emerges from a systematic look at Donald Trump’s tweets on one issue reveal a very focused and disciplined communicator; someone who understands his chosen medium; and, not surprisingly, someone determined to shift the narrative that has cast doubt on the legitimacy of his presidency.

    Postscript: On the afternoon of Thursday, May 11, 2017, President Trump sent three new tweets related to Russia and its interference in the U.S. election, including the following tweet.  (+1 to “Sore Losers.”)

  • Donald Trump speaks at podium with presidential seal

    Trump is Changing America: Picks of the Week


    100 Days that changed America | CNN

    Trump Wants it Known: Grading 100 Days is ‘Ridiculous’ (but His Were the Best) | The New York Times

    A President’s First 100 Days Really Do Matter | FiveThirtyEight.com

    As President Donald Trump reaches the 100th day of his presidency, the media is obsessed with assessing what the real estate tycoon has done. It’s not surprising. In his first 100 days, President Franklin Roosevelt fashioned a response to the Great Depression and since then, candidates and pundits have looked to the milestone as a natural moment to pause and reflect on the first months of an administration and to speculate on the shape of things to come. Not surprisingly, most of the analyses of President Trump’s first 100 days are focused on measuring him against the legislative accomplishments he promised to achieve as a candidate.  Observers are holding him to account against his own promises—and while that’s interesting, it may also be irrelevant.

    The record of the first 100 days of the Trump administration cannot be judged by the bills passed or the executive orders signed. The measure of this first 100 days is best found in the things that have changed in our republic, the norms that his administration has breached, and the unprecedented things he or his team have tried to do or actually done. The list is long.

    Public ethics are under assault. The president failed to divest himself of his financial holdings. He continues to profit from businesses that stand to benefit from his service as president—meaning that Donald Trump himself is benefiting financially from his service as president.  His private golf club in Florida raised its annual membership fee from $100,000 to $200,000 just prior to the inauguration.  The President has thus far visited one of his properties every week since he became president, whether his hotel in Washington, his golf course in Virginia, or Mar-a-lago in Florida.  In doing so, he’s providing free advertising for these privately owned businesses at considerable public expense. In addition, the president has hired his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, neither of whom has divested from their business interests.  Ivanka, in fact, continues to conduct business while also conducting diplomacy. On the same day she met with Chinese President Xie Jinping, Chinese authorities granted trademarks to her business operating in China. It is unclear if those events were related or coincidental, but it’s also irrelevant because the appearance of impropriety is troubling on its own.

    The truth is under assault. As a candidate, Donald Trump showed a proclivity for big claims that were often disconnected from reality—if not patently offensive. As President of the United States, Trump has continued to struggle with the truth.  He alleged that massive voter fraud was to blame for his loss in the popular vote. He constantly overstates the scale of his Electoral College victory. He slams CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, regularly, for conveying what he deems “fake news,” even though he personally created media frenzies around fake news claims that Barack Obama spied on him; that Susan Rice spied on him; and that Sweden is a lawless land overtaken by Muslim immigrants. Prior to January 20, 2017, the United States government, over successive Democratic and Republican administrations, stood for transparency and a free press around the world. In Trump’s Washington, the State Department suspended its daily briefing, the White House does not release visitor logs, and the President attacks the press as the “enemy of the American people.” The result, according to a new poll from The Washington Post-ABC News poll, is that 52% of Americans believe that “mainstream news organizations regularly produce false stories.” Accepted truth is essential to the effective functioning of any democracy.  In Trump’s first 100 days, the assault on independent journalism is taking a substantial toll.

    Corporate interests are ascendant in Trump’s America. As a candidate, Donald Trump warned that his rival, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was too beholden to Wall Street bankers. Now, one of the dominant factions in his White House is led by former executives at Goldman Sachs. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence then that one of President Trump’s first executive orders rolled back protections under Dodd-Frank; or that his recently released tax proposal would reduce corporate taxes to 15%. And with corporate interests being so well served, it’s perhaps not surprising that the FCC is pushing to do-away with the Obama administration rule to protect so-called “net-neutrality”—the idea that all traffic should have the same access to the Internet. Under the new administration, reports indicate the FCC will allow companies to charge for faster access to the Internet.

    Perhaps most alarming, however, has been the attack on America’s institutions. It appears that the White House conspired with Chairman Devin Nunes of the House Select Committee on Intelligence to engineer a distraction in the face of difficult testimony from FBI Director James Comey. In doing so, Nunes—who has since recused himself from the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the November election—was complicit in weakening the independence of Congress. The chairman conspired with the White House, misled his colleagues in the House, and impugned the constitutional independence of the legislative branch.  At the same time, Trump has attacked the independence of the judiciary—a sacred feature of American democracy. Both the president and his attorney general have challenged the validity of court orders that rebuke some of Trump’s most controversial measures affecting immigration and sanctuary cities. President Trump has gone so far as to suggest that he’ll break up the 9th Circuit Court because of its rulings against him.

    At the core of President Trump’s disputes with the courts are essential American values: due process; the rule of law; the separation of powers; and non-discrimination, among them. Around the world, too, President Trump seems to be turning his back on American values by de-funding the Office of Global Women’s Issues; praising the flawed vote granting more power to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; and attacking the free American press.

    More fundamentally, the president seems intent on restructuring the international system, replacing globalization and collaboration with what appears to be 19th century nationalism. The president in his first week in office withdrew the United States from the trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide-ranging trade deal intended to cement American leadership in Asia in the next century. The president’s hostility to trade deals was well documented during the campaign: now it’s being made real, with further word that President Trump intends to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Almost seeming to anticipate it, the president raised the stakes against Canada earlier this week by slapping a 20% tariff on the import of Canadian softwood lumber.  Even more problematic, President Trump reportedly got into a heated discussion with his Australian counterpart; mocked Angela Merkel by presenting her a bill for NATO’s protection; and appears to have taken sides in the French election calling far-right candidate Marine Le Pen the “strongest candidate.”

    Finally, as the president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon put it, the Trump administration is attempting to deconstruct the modern administrative state. Put another way, the Trump administration seeks to roll back a century’s worth of progressive governing. Killing Obamacare is part of that agenda, as is slashing by one-third the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, lifting restrictions on coal-powered electricity generation, and making sure that there is no way for the United States to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate accord.

    The left can’t make up its mind: Trump is either incompetent or an evil genius. He can’t be both. If you believe that government is too big, as Trump claimed in 2015, and that it must be curtailed, then it’s not what you build, it’s not the laws you pass, it’s what you make government capable and incapable of doing. In that spirit, it’s not just what the president builds that’s important: it’s what he destroys, eliminates, and depletes. From that perspective, the first 100 days of the Trump administration have been highly consequential. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Combat boots on the ground next to a small American Flag

    Climate Change is a National Security Threat: Picks of the Week

    Trump Signs Executive Order Unwinding Obama Climate Policies | The New York Times

    Trump’s Climate Change Shift is Really about Killing the International Order | The Washington Post

    Solar Employs More People in U.S. Electricity Generation Than Oil, Coal and Gas Combined | Forbes

    For more than a decade, I have studied climate change—not because I am a tree-hugger, polar-bear-loving, environmental activist, but because I am a national security analyst trained to identify dangers before they pose an imminent threat to the United States of America.  It is my professional opinion that climate change will pose a threat to the security of the United States in my lifetime.  In fact, in many ways it already is.

    There are clear indications and warnings that something has gone wrong in the climate system.  Long-term trends in a host of indicators are flashing red.  Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide—a potent greenhouse gas contributing to the warming of the planet—have risen steadily since I started watching the data in 2007, from 385 parts per million (ppm) to the current 405.61 ppm.  Global temperatures in 2016 were the hottest on record, and 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have all come since the year 2000—the one outlier was 1998.  Scientists warn that the climate can’t warm beyond 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial averages without cataclysmic consequences for humanity—a warming scenario that scientists believe will arrive as atmospheric CO2 levels reach 450 ppm.  Arctic sea ice had the smallest summer minimum on record in 2016 and, perhaps not surprisingly, the smallest winter maximum in 2017.  Antarctica has lost, on average, 118 gigatonnes of ice each year since 2002, while Greenland has lost 281 gigatonnes each year.  Sea levels have risen an average of 3.4 mm per year since governments began using satellites to measure them in 1993.

    This is not about polar bears or pine forests.  My concern arises from the threat these changes pose to the existence humanity has carved out for itself over the last ten thousand years.  Climate change threatens to disrupt precipitation patterns leading to droughts in some places and floods in others.  According to one study, 634 million people around the world are at risk of rising seas.  Strong, wealthy states may be able to survive these challenges.  But weak states with dysfunctional governments will be stressed to the breaking point.  There is already considerable evidence that the Syrian civil war, which has claimed more than 400,000 lives and displaced nearly half of the country’s pre-war population, was contributed to by climate change.  A severe drought from 2007 to 2011 devastated agriculture and led to economic crisis in the countryside.  As more and more Syrians fled to the cities, the government was unable to provide relief.  A brittle, authoritarian regime resorted to using force against its own people to keep power.  In recent weeks, it’s been reported that as many as 1,000 U.S. troops are headed to Syria to help fight Islamic extremists associated with ISIS who have capitalized on the Syrian civil war.

    In the 1970s, the scientific advisors to the Department of Defense, a group known as The Jasons, identified climate change as a potential threat to U.S. national security.  In the 40 years since they first issued their warning, the evidence has mounted and the U.S. national security community, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, have echoed and reinforced those warnings.

    In 2015, the leaders of the nations of the world agreed to ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The Paris Accord, as the agreement is known, was a testament to the diplomacy and effort of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.  The critical piece in all of this was that the United States and China—the world’s two largest polluters—agreed to act.  Central to America reaching its goals by 2025 was President Obama’s Clean Energy Plan, a broad set of policies designed to accelerate the adoption of clean technologies like wind and solar at the expense of fossil fuels, especially coal.

    This week, President Trump issued an executive order to block implementation of the Clean Energy Plan.  He has said he wants to put coal miners back to work and bring “clean coal”—which we should note is a myth—into America’s energy mix.  For a president who claims to be focused on restoring jobs and American economic power, he ignores that solar, today, employs four times as many workers as the coal industry.

    Coal is not the future of American energy, but that likely isn’t the point.  President Trump has espoused a rebirth of American nationalism in which he will reject globalization and global solutions to problems.  He only cares about American economic growth and American national security.  As such, international agreements to fight climate change are anathema to him.  They constitute an approach to the world that is wholly foreign and incompatible with his world view.

    But here’s the thing: while the United States can probably weather the direct impacts of climate change in the near-term, the global impacts will draw in American power and even American military power—just as the civil war in Syria has, already.  A world at 450 parts per million CO2 will be more violent and more dangerous—and that means more dangerous for the United States, too.