Review: The Rule of the Clan

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“] Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner I often review good books. Sometimes I review great ones. The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom  by Mark S. Weiner gets the highest compliment of all: it is an academic book that […] Read more »

New Book ! Global Radical Islamist Insurgency

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“] Torn from the pages of Small Wars Journal….. Global Radical Islamist Insurgency: al Qaeda and Islamic State Networks Focus Vol. II 2012-2014  edited by Dave Dilegge and Robert Bunker New and looking to be very useful. Right up the alley for our own Charles Cameron and friends of ZP blog […] Read more »

The Freikorps Revival

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen”] One of the signs that the Westphalian state system was approaching its zenith was the gradual extinction of legal private warfare in Europe (and in America , east of the frontier). While this trend predated the French Revolution with divine right absolutism monarchs taxing and regulating their nobles once formidable […] Read more »


[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“] “This important and terrifying book should be read by everyone who cares about the future of human civilization.” —Anatol Lieven Warlords, inc. ; Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi Warlords, inc. a book to which I have contributed a […] Read more »

Lind on the 25th Anniversary of 4GW Theory at Fabius Maximus

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“] Regretfully, I was unable to attend the Boyd & Beyond 2014 Conference this year. Had I been there, I would have seen Bill Lind speaking on the topic that he and a number of military officers raised a quarter-century ago when the Cold War was winding down and the Soviet […] Read more »

The Cockroaches of War. And of Jihad

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"] John Robb had a cool post on the ultra-radical takfiri insurgency ISIS/ISIL and their self-proclaimed Sunni “Caliphate“, the Islamic State, whom he gave as an example of “the cockroaches of war”: ISIS Opens The World’s Biggest Bazaar of Violence ISIS is a marketplace — a freewheeling bazaar of violence – and it is [...] Read more »

New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"] American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson  Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand [...] Read more »

Ronfeldt’s In-Depth Review of America 3.0

   David Ronfeldt, RAND strategist and theorist has done a deep two-part  review of America 3.0 over at his Visions from Two Theories blog. Ronfeldt has been spending the last few years developing his TIMN analytic framework (Tribes, Institutions [hierarchical], Markets and Networks) which you can get a taste from here  and here or a [...] Read more »

Is Grand Strategy Democratic?

[by Mark Safranski - a.k.a. "zen"] Grand strategy in 1941 A very interesting article at Small Wars Journal by Captain Sean F.X. Barrett, USMC on the state of contemporary grand strategy. Definitely worth the time to read the whole thing:, but I am only going to make meandering comments on a few sections: The Democratization of [...] Read more »

Interview: W.K. Winecoff

For the second in my interview series, I interview newly minted political scientist W.K. Winecoff. W.K.'s work is in network analysis, an area that many security thinkers are increasingly embracing. But he also does International Political Economy (IPE). Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M) as DoD is currently discovering, so IPE work is an area many security thinkers not usually inclined towards dollars and cents should check out. Lastly, he's also one of the O.G.s of the political science and International Relations blogging team. I thought I'd ask W.K. a few questions about his work. It turned out that W.K. is quite talkative when it comes to this stuff, and I'm posting his interview excerpted. You can read the full, uncut interview here

Follow W.K. on Twitter or check his homepage.

Adam Elkus: Lots of people in national security and international relations are attracted to network analysis. What prompted you to study networks? 

W.K. Winecoff: With the proviso that my work (much less my philosophy) is not all-networks-all-the-time, I think the best answer is that network analysis conforms to many of our intuitions about the way that social systems work. It is relational and systemic, interdependent and hierarchical. A society is a network; that's why we often talk in terms of community, polity, market, congregation, corporation, whatever. These are ways of describing linkages between people and groups, which is the definition of a network. So why not use network tools to study these systems?.....

{I]n IR and IPE we've spent a lot of time constructing elaborate theories related to complex interdependence, spatial dependence, diffusion/contagion, joint memberships in institutions, epistemic communities, and systemic relationships more broadly. Network methodologies are very well-suited for working in those contexts. Network science has now advanced to the point that there are some pretty well-established methodological tools -- inferential and descriptive -- that folks who understand basic probability can more or less pull off the shelf without too much trouble. Until very recently that hadn't been true, so I understand why network analysis is still catching on in some circles, but at this point there aren't any good excuses for not using these tools when its appropriate to do so. And it is almost always appropriate to do so......

Perhaps more importantly, other methods are often not well-suited for the analysis of world political systems. Regression-based statistical models assume that observations are independent from each other and are distributed identically (I.I.D.). If this is assumption is not true then statistical results will be biased in an unknown direction by definition. I know of no substantive theory in IR, IPE, or really any other corner of social science or foreign policy analysis that would accept that assumption as being valid. Not a single one. Sometimes that might not matter: we'll get lucky, the dependencies will be weak, the errors will still be random, and we won't commit an inferential error. But it's heroic to believe that will always, or even usually, be the case......

Closer to home for me, the financial crisis revealed the importance of this in two ways which have clear analogues with many other areas of IR, security studies, comparative politics, and other fields. First, because no quantitative IPE folks saw the financial crisis coming. We had no models, no empirics, basically nothing. We didn't even have a way to contextualize it. It was like the end of the Cold War for IR, 9/11 for security studies, and the Arab Spring for comparativists. We all missed these huge events, which were clearly a spasm of interdependent processes.

Second, because no quantitative IPE folks were able to say anything much about the crisis after the fact -- and security folks and comparativists spent some time flailing after 9/11 and the Arab Spring, respectively -- except what everyone else was saying: bankers are greedy bastards; blowback (i.e. "balancing"); autocracy isn't sustainable. So what? Bankers are always greedy but we don't always get global financial crises. The U.S. has had a foreign military presence for 70 years but we never had a 9/11. Autocracy has been the norm in the Arab world for decades but we've never had a cascade of revolutions.....

Now we're starting to go back and revisit some of [standard IR/comparative politics] claims using network methods and we're finding out that many of them aren't robust at all. Skyler is leading the way on this in security studies. He's already called the democratic peace into serious question. Not any particular theoretical explanation of it… the correlation itself. Once structural network processes are taken into account a lot of the variables at lower levels of analysis wash out, including regime type. The same is true in other areas. This is the danger of the I.I.D. assumption: it can't handle endogeneity, and a lot of what we observe is endogenous. I have a pretty strong suspicion that analyses seeking to explain phenomena by reference to regime type are pretty much over. If I'm right, this will be the biggest development in the discipline in a long time......

AE: What do people most frequently misunderstand about networks?

WKW: In terms of IPE -- and to a lesser extent IR -- I think there are two. First is that network analysis is just about drawing pretty pictures. That it's not rigorous empirically. Whenever I hear that -- and I still hear it a fair amount -- alarm bells start ringing. It'd be like saying that cosmology is just looking at sparkly things in the sky. That may have been true a long time ago ago, but it's certainly not true now. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what is possible. We now have a lot of descriptive and inferential tools that make detailed empirical examinations of networked systems feasible.

The second is a two-parter, concerning a belief that it is not rigorous theoretically: that insights from network science are trivial and/or obvious. These are related but distinct. I'm not quite sure why people think networks are trivial in IR/IPE when no one else in the world seems to, but they do. I think it's because they don't understand the importance of topology and dynamics in a network context. At a prominent panel at the flagship conference of the International Studies Association, I heard one of the most famous internationalist political scientists say, with a straight face, that we all know that networks are important because if one node gets infected any other node can get infected. That the only insight from networks was like something we could learn from the movie Contagion. I've seen that movie. S/he described it well. But that is fundamentally not what network science says. Not all network topologies behave the same in the face of shocks. Not all pathogens (or financial crises, revolution diffusions, etc.) spread the same way. So the structure is not trivial, and those who think it is do so because they don't understand quite what they're dealing with. (As an illustration, this scholar was using the Contagion example to argue against the importance of structural theories: yadda yadda things spread we all know that who cares.) 

Another example: one of the most cited papers in IR that mentions networks distinguishes them from "markets" and "hierarchies" as distinct organizational forms. This, again, misses the point entirely. Markets are networks: they are an aggregated grouping of interdependent actors which are connected by the relationships between them. And networks can be -- and almost always are in real-world social systems -- hierarchical, and a hierarchical organization cannot be anything other than a network. So I think there is some foundational misconceptualizing going on that I'd like to see corrected.

In particular, I think the discipline doesn't understand the difference between simple random networks -- the kind in Contagion where all nodes and all links are basically the same -- and complex dynamic networks -- the sort that constitutes the global economy, where all nodes and links are demonstrably not the same. The two types don't behave the same way. They don't have the same properties. They can't be treated as if they were identical, either in theory or method. They are so different that in some ways I wish they weren't both called "networks".......

AE: You are one of the most vocal international political economy proponents in the blogosphere. What does IPE give a policy analyst or political scientist that other approaches lack? 

WKW: Thomas Oatley (my dissertation advisor) has argued that at best academic social scientists are irrelevant to policymakers. His basic point is that we generally seek to explain why they do what they do. Presumably they already know why they do what they do, so why would they need us? Perhaps this is why economists have a more prominent role than political scientists. I disagree with Oatley, to some extent. I think the information problems policymakers face are significant enough that IPE should be able to help provide policy advice.

But I don't see that as the central task of IPE scholars. Instead, I see our role as more critical and our audience as the broader public. Economists tend to assume that Benevolent Social Planners are trying to set policy optimally; when done well, IPE demonstrates emphatically that that is not the case, which is why the world does not work at all as economists believe it should. We tend to emphasize the importance of power when setting policy, highlight rent-seeking, and generally take a critical line. We can also illustrate structural features of the world economy, and explain how the structure confers power, whereas economists focus almost entirely on agents which they perceive to be autonomous. So I'd say that IPE's comparative advantage is showing how the world actually works while economists argue about how it should work.

I think this leads (or should lead) IPE away from the moralizing that economists and much of the lay public quickly fall into. If interests and ideas compete to set policy then there is little to moralize about: one side wins and the other loses, but both are trying to advance their interests. Some IPE folks side very clearly with some social class or other group, but this is an aesthetic choice. There's no moral reason to do so, or at least none that comes from our discipline. In this way IPE is much more like "science" than economics, because it is more grounded in empirical reality than just-so theory. Economics believes in a social welfare function; political science does not. Daron Acemoglu, an economist who steps more and more into IPE and CPE (comparative political economy) as time goes by, recently co-wrote a very interesting working paper excoriating the economics discipline for just this thing. He's basically saying that economists need to become political economists, which is what we in IPE are already supposed to be doing. I went through the same transition as an undergraduate economics major, which is why I went to graduate school for IPE rather than economics.

I quite like the amoral character of IPE. Paul Krugman constantly says that "economics is not a morality play" but he's one of the biggest moralizers of all. In fact it's hard to find an economist that isn't ideologically committed. In my opinion this tendency has a very negative impact on critical thinking. For example, Krugman wrote a big essay in the New York Review of Books accusing Ben Bernanke of being brainwashed by the Fed "Borg". For Krugman this was the only possible explanation for why Bernanke wasn't following the Optimal Social Policy. I couldn't believe that such a sophisticated person would make such an unsophisticated claim in a prominent media outlet. An IPE person would never write that way. We'd look at the ways in which interests and ideas are filtered through institutions to explain why policy is set the way it is. We don't think there is any such a thing as an optimal policy. That's pure fiction. Just like the Borg......

AE: You've also had some beefs with poli-sci bloggers over the years over war, peace, and international and domestic economics. What do you think your most contentious blog post was? 

WKW: All my posts are contentious. My attitude towards the blogosphere -- and, to some extent, academia -- is that it serves no purpose if it's not about contesting ideas. And when ideas are being contested the stronger the better. Come direct or go home. Be prepared to be wrong, too! There's no shame in that. I try to learn something every day, which means that every day I realize I was wrong or ignorant about something. It's not a big deal, it just requires being realistic. I don't know why sheepish people get in this business, and I don't understand why people won't update their beliefs when they do learn. The dialectic remains important.

Anyway, I write in a provocative style quite often so it's hard to know what the most contentious post was. Sometimes people don't notice or just let it go, but in terms of attention received the most controversial had to be the one where I said that Paul Krugman has the political sophistication of a 6 year old. Which is true, as an exaggerated description. He's all about blaming others; he's faultless himself. He's a truth-teller and everyone else are liars. He's been sticking his tongue out at everyone for years on the authority that his preferred policies would have worked had they been tried, but they weren't, things aren't great, so… there? He's been running victory laps despite having been defeated in every campaign he's run. This is childish, I'm sorry.

 He could be 100% right about the economics but he should really just stop writing about politics. He's in way over his head. It's a somewhat-regular theme for me, or used to be. I've laid off recently. But one of these times Henry Farrell took exception at Crooked Timber, and it got picked up all over the place: Krugman's NY Times blog, Drezner at FP, Nexon at Duck of Minerva, Daily Kos, everywhere. The CT comment thread was pretty epic even for CT. The consensus seemed to be that I was either a fool or a knave because my argument did not reduce to "evil Republicans ruined the world on purpose" (see above about how the amorality of the IPE approach appeals to me). I believe only Phil Arena and Dan Drezner were on my side.

But it never bothered me. I still think I'm right on the merits, and moreover I was arguing from the most left-wing position of anyone. Nobody got that, and so I was being criticized from the left for my criticism of the bourgeoisie(!). My argument was Marxian, it was structural. Many of my arguments are, even though I'm not in any strict sense a Marxist. I'm sure I could have come across better but I don't think it would have mattered. In some circles if you attack Krugman it's knives out. (That's another problem with the doctrinaire left these days: if you can't criticize the op-ed page of the New York Times, then who the hell can you criticize?).....

Anyway, that would have to be the biggest controversy. But I enjoy arguing with people smarter than me as a general rule. I've been fortunate enough to have attracted the attention of some of the blogosphere's leading lights, and they've been kind enough (or defensive enough) to engage with me. I've seldom come away from those discussions without having improved my understanding, which is my whole goal. I hope I continue to have opportunities to participate in those kinds of discussions.

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