The Curious Case of Curiosity: Why Don’t We Care More?

Curiosity Photograph of Mars

Monday, August 6th, 2012, 1:32 AM EST. NASA space rover Curiosity completes its 352 million-mile journey in space and lands, successfully, on the planet Mars. NASA experts claim that the rover’s advanced technology, which will transmit unprecedented amounts of information about the Red Planet back to Earth, makes realistic President Obama’s goal of landing human beings on Mars by the 2030s. The whole endeavor, to paraphrase our Vice President, is a big deal. So why don’t we care more about it? Why is any other news story topping pictures from Curiosity–such as the one above of a mountain on Mars?

I recognize that it is difficult to isolate any particular reason for the existence of such an intangible trend. A complete explanation would include a combination of certain sticky realities about our society in 2012, a discussion of historical patterns, and time contingent considerations such as the global recession. However, I do think it is worthwhile to highlight one factor in particular which I think has caused us (that is, Americans living in the year 2012) to underrate the importance of an event like the Mars landing. Specifically, NASA has failed to provide a satisfactory raison d’etre in the post-Cold War era. Consequently, without the Soviet Union, interest in and valuation of NASA and its ongoing missions has drastically declined.

Ever since its inception 54 years ago, NASA’s existence was justified to the American public, at least implicitly, in two ways: exploration and functionalism. The former would usher in a new golden age of discovery. The latter would provide positive externalities to other parts of American society. Delicious powdered fruit drink aside, NASA and its missions contributed to countless American scientific achievements. Most famously, of course, NASA played an important, if mostly symbolic, role for the United States in the Cold War, highlighted by the moon landing. Ironically, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, NASA also served as a conduit for cooperation between the two nations. Regardless, during the Cold War, NASA derived most of its functionalist support from its unique ability to “defeat” the Soviets time and time again.

After the Cold War ended, NASA’s raison d’etre was reduced almost entirely to space exploration. Those who had supported NASA for the positive externalities it provided had mainly done so because of the Soviet Union. Without the Soviets, their interest in NASA and its missions fell off. Two groups comprised the Americans who had supported NASA because of the explicit space exploration agenda: those with unconditional support and those with contingent support. When the economy suffered, the latter group expressed a new-found dissatisfaction with NASA politically (through a push to cut NASA funding during lean times) and commercially (through a lack of interest). These Americans simply dropped NASA from the agenda in favor of more pressing matters–the economy, health care, etc.

As a result, the only remaining Americans with serious interest in the continuing missions of NASA were a small minority–a small part of one group that had supported NASA during the Cold War. Media outlets report stories according to the public interest that they believe those stories will receive. Consequently, we receive stories based on commercial viability, not on significance. Thus, we might hear about the initial rover landing but miss out on the real story: the findings of the rover in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. The effect becomes self-reinforcing since we then interpret the commercially viable stories as the significant ones, which the media then picks up on, and so on.

Even if the ongoing story may only capture the imagination of a minority of Americans (I am, admittedly, one of these Americans), Curiosity rolls on. And, thankfully, NASA has extensive coverage of its findings, with accompanying pictures and video.

Rio +20: Discussing the Earth for Future Generations in the Perennial Country of the Future

Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which got underway on June 13th in Rio de Janeiro and will continue till the 22nd, has not yet made the headlines of major newspapers.  In The New York Times, most of the coverage has been featured in Energy and Environment (or “green”) blogs and a handful of op-eds. The Guardian has covered the conference, but relegated it the Environment section.   

Rio+20 did not make it onto the agendas of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin. The apparent lack of full international impact was attenuated by the presence of Wen Jiabao, Manmohan Singh and François Holland who will soon be arriving in Rio. Naturally, the conference is not over and things may yet change as the negotiations evolve.

At the same time, in Brazil, environmental issues are more controversial and central than ever before. Since Marina Silva ran for the presidency with the Green Party and received almost 20% of all valid votes in the 2010 elections – more than any third runner since 1989 – environmental issues have been at the center of many political, economic and energy debates. The controversial Belo Monte dam generated a lot of debate, mobilizing a wide range of groups from actors of the all-mighty Globo to college students. Similarly, the Brazilian Forest Code, a piece of domestic legislation, has remained an enduring source of dispute between the so-called group of “ruralists”, on the one hand, and congressmen associated with social and green movements, on the other, with President Dilma’s pragmatic administration caught in the middle.

Brazil has changed considerably since the 1992 Earth’s Summit.  At the time, it was the world’s eleventh largest economy; now it is the sixth with a larger GDP than countries such as the United Kingdom and Russia. Brazil has achieved its lowest level of income inequality since 1960 (when inequality first began to be measured), with 40 million people having left poverty and entered the new middle class.  According to the well-respected higher education institution, the FGV, by 2014, 60% of the population will be in the middle class, and, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), by 2016, extreme poverty will be no more in Brazil.

With such economic development, the impact on the environment has been no less impressive. The deforestation of the Amazon is greater than ever, even though the rate of deforestation has decreased since 2008. In fact, the current size of deforestation is 758.4 thousand  km2, an area larger than France and just slightly smaller than Turkey (see this map).

Is it precisely because Brazil is changing at such a rapid pace that environmental issues are becoming central to its politics, while the current economic downturn and looming stagnation in Europe and the United States have ensured that environmental concerns have lost center stage to issues such as jobs and fiscal balance?

If we look at Inglehart’s materialist-postmaterialist value change thesis, it makes sense that the more developed the country becomes, the more likely it is for postmaterial issues to become relevant, especially for upper-income people. Still, Inglehart explains at least part of this value shift through a “socialization hypothesis”, which assumes that values learned early on tend to be relatively resilient over one’s life. Even the staunchest optimist of the “arrival of Brazil’s future” would be hesitant to suggest that these instances of debate around environmental issues reflect a change towards new, postmaterial values. As many others have suggest, this model cannot really account for short-time events that can counterbalance or speed up this shift in values.

Moreover, as Limongi and Cortez argue here, conjuncture evidence can make you miss the forest for the trees, so to speak: Marina’s share of votes, despite being larger than expected, did not change the pattern of the past six Brazialian presidential elections in Brazil which remain a contest between the two main parties, the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Furthermore, PT and PSDB hold different positions concerning recent environmental issues (see here for the parties’ positions on environmental conservation in the Amazon and the Forest Code). Perhaps then, the episodic centrality of environmental issues in Brazil is simply generated by big events, such as Rio +20, or is a result of straightforward political competition between the two main parties. At the same time, it would be hard to deny that the green movement has not grown in Brazil since 1992.

Regardless of the driving causes of the environmental debate in Brazil, one cannot but be left disappointed at the low regard shown by many rich countries towards Rio +20. For better or worse, these rich countries lead both the debate and the action concerning the environment, even pushing poor countries towards choices in periods of scarce resources. Now that the tide has (temporarily) turned, rich countries have lost an opportunity to show a less opportunistic commitment to the environment.

Does China Want Change?

Among China watchers, there is an ever-louder group of voices singing the imminent downfall of the country’s political system. The chorus goes something as follows: “The faux representation afforded by the National People’s Congress, the empty channels for public participation, the meaningless village elections— these shell institutions do little to stem the CCP’s growing legitimacy deficit. Protests are already on the rise. Sooner or later, something will happen and the people will rise up and demand real democracy. It’s only a matter of time.”

For many in the prediction game, that time has already come and gone, or it is rapidly approaching. In 2001, Gordon Chang predicted The Coming Collapse of China, asserting that underperforming loans would break China’s financial system and trigger the fall of the CCP within a decade. In a 2011 editorial, Chang revised his estimates to say that the system would fall within one year’s time. This has also proven false. In 1996, Henry Rowen used economic data to predict that China will become democratic “around the year 2015.”

Perhaps the reason the “fall of China” prediction has fallen flat to date is that it rests on the notion that Chinese citizens actually want a new political system. A simple glance at the data, or simple discussions with a few citizens, would make us reconsider this assumption.
Confidence in Government (World Values Survey)

The figure above shows summary data from the fourth wave (2005-2008) of the World Values Survey (WVS). Among other attitudinal questions, the WVS asks respondents their level of confidence in their government on a four-point scale. The bars reflect the fraction of respondents responding “a great deal” or “quite a lot.” With the exception of Vietnam, Chinese citizens voice greater support of their government than any other country in the world.

Of course, we should take this fact with an oversized grain of salt. Cross-national surveys of this sort are notoriously bad and suffer from a host of biases— incomparable sampling procedures, poor translations, different cultural interpretations of question wordings, among others. Most importantly, respondents living in repressive political contexts— like China and Vietnam, for example— may be unwilling to voice their true opinions when asked sensitive questions about government. It may be that Chinese citizens have confidence in the CCP, or it may be that fear leads them to systematically bias their answers.

At the risk of sounding like a party mouthpiece, my guess is that the truth is probably closer to the former than we would like to believe. China scholars have long documented that Chinese citizens have a deep reservoir of trust in “the Center.” Many ostensibly subversive activities— protests, non-compliance with rules, petitions— are actually ways for citizens to communicate their grievances to the central government, which is perceived as responsive. The “fall of China” crowd likes to point to rising protest figures as evidence of a desire for change, but the vast majority of protests have nothing to do with political reform. Peter Lorentzen has argued that the regime deliberately allows this “regularized rioting” to help monitor lower level cadres.

In the end, public opinion in authoritarian contexts is difficult to gauge, and so we are left trying to blend imperfect survey data with more impressionistic anecdotal evidence. To build my own impressions, I have taken to asking a simple, direct question among my closer Chinese friends.

If you could change China’s political system today, what would you do?

There is no shortage of demands— more transparency, more freedom of speech, an open media, unregulated internet— but I’m always struck by how often multi-party competition is missing from the list. When probed on this issue, most will give a reply of the sort “this is not appropriate for China.” Some will flip the conversation back at me and point to recent Congressional debacles over the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff. These events are smugly broadcasted by China’s state media outlets, and they undermine the very credibility of the American system. If this is what democracy is, we’ll stick with our one-party system, thank you very much.

So does China want change? It is impossible to know for sure, but there seems to be a societal current pushing for limited liberalizing political reforms. Full-blown multi-party democracy and the “coming collapse” of the CCP?

I’m not sure we should be singing that chorus just yet.

In Syria, Don’t “Give War a Chance”

Editor’s note: the following is a piece by The Smoke-Filled Room contributor Lionel Beehner that originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

News that the White House nixed a plan last summer to arm the Syrian rebels was attributed to election-year politics. But maybe the administration’s decision not to intervene was motivated by other impulses. On one hand, there is concern that the conflict in Syria could spill across its borders and export sectarian violence to neighbors like Jordan or Lebanon. On the other, there are those that might like to see a bludgeoned and weaker Syria emerge from the wreckage.

A weakened Syria, this theory goes, would mean less ability of Syria to carry out political assassinations in Lebanon, act as a conduit for arms for Hezbollah or home of groups like Hamas, and serve as an ally to Iran. War is bad, but there are undoubtedly some voices in Israel and the United States, among other places (like Turkey or Saudi Arabia), that might like to “give war a chance.” Or at least allow for a bit more bloodletting, the better to weaken Iran’s position in the region and prevent a postwar Syria – regardless of whether the rebels or regime emerges victorious – from continuing its prewar policies of being an exporter of instability. As Yitzhak Laor wrote last summer in Haaretz, “That’s why the United States is in no hurry to intervene … It’s looking for an effective dictatorship. Not another ‘Iraqi democracy.’ Meanwhile, let them bleed.”

In terms of the scale of bloodshed, Syria obviously does not compare to wartime Europe. But similar dynamics played out among some powers in the early 1940s that preferred to see Germany and the USSR bleed themselves to death, before intervening to end the war. Harry Truman, before he was president, proclaimed in 1941 that “if we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.” Similarly, after Lenin pulled Russia out of World War I, he said “In concluding a separate peace now, we rid ourselves…of both imperialistic groups fighting each other.”

The phrase “give war a chance,” of course, is a loaded one whose Balkans origins in the 1990s describe the interference of international peacekeepers to impose a settlement to temporarily staunch the bloodshed, but with the unintended consequence of allowing the warring parties to rearm and thus live to fight another day. Such an imposed peace does two things: It prevents the war from playing itself out to see a clear victor emerge; and it unwillingly extends the war by buying time for the belligerents to rest and rearm themselves. Andrew Tabler and Bilal Saab,writing in Foreign Affairs, have resurrected this phrase by suggesting that a decisive rebel victory should prevail over a negotiated settlement.

But that could last years, as the war ledger in Syria is unlikely to tip in the rebels’ favor barring greater international support. Outside of Ankara, there has been little clamoring for a military intervention, much less a more limited show of force, such as a Libya-style no-fly zone. Which is perplexing, given France’s recent successful, if limited, military intervention in Mali and NATO’s success in Libya at ridding the world of Qaddafi. Obviously both interventions were far from perfect (let’s not rehash Benghazi here). But one has to assume that powerful forces are blocking Western intervention in Syria, using the convenient straw-man argument that the Russians and Chinese are blocking any meaningful action in the UN Security Council (especially since such objections did not prevent NATO from intervening in Kosovo in May 1999). One has to conclude that there are privately held views that Syria should get the wrecking-ball treatment as a way of shifting the regional balance of power in favor of the United States and Israel and against Iran. Call it the St. Augustine strategy: Lord, make Syria peaceful, but not yet.

Of course, much in the region still remains in flux. For instance, it is unclear which side of the power ledger Iraq or Egypt falls, given that both are improving ties with Tehran. Would a Sunni-dominated Syria remain an ally of Iran or Hezbollah? Would it seek closer ties with Iraq? Also, what would Syrian-Israeli relations resemble, given Israel’s recent alleged bombing of a research facility outside of Damascus? Finally, up until the war began in March 2011, Syria’s relations with the US had been warming. Is Washington privately seeking a weakened Syria, regardless of who wins the war, in the hopes of keeping Syria out of Lebanon and denying Iran its most important ally in the region?

Nobody knows. The trouble with any kind of bloodletting policy is threefold: First, it is a form of collective punishment strategy, since the bulk of the victims are Syrian civilians, many of whom never favored the Assad’s killing of Lebanese politicians or partnering with Iran. Most Syrians I’ve met in my past visits seek warmer relations with the West, are suspicious of Iran, and do not wake up in the morning wishing Israel off the map or murmuring “Death to America.” Second, this kind of strategy could easily backfire, as it will only create resentment among those Syrians in the crosshairs of this war who we should be protecting, push them into the hands of Islamist, and needlessly radicalize them to be distrustful of us (and at worst, hate us). Third, as Thucydides warned, the longer a war drags on, the greater the chances for accidents or improbable events to occur. A devastated Syria might weaken Iran’s position in the Middle East in the near term, but the longer-term consequences could make the Syrian civil war a seminal event by virtue of its duration. Just as the long civil war after the fall of Saddam in 2003 ignited Shiite and Sunni tensions beyond Iraq’s borders, a similar dynamic and cycle of revenge killings could (and already is, to some degree) erupt in the region, the longer the war drags on.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the actual motivation of outside powers is that Syria, unlike Mali or Libya, is too messy a place to intervene on the cheap. Maybe there is a real sense that for a postwar government to have any legitimacy, the Syrian rebels should “own” the outcome and win the war themselves, rather than allow some English-speaking Syrian Chalabi-type being installed by the West. Maybe the Venn diagram of idealists and realists in Washington overlap on Syria – the latter not viewing the war as a vital security concern, while the former sees an intervention as having imperial overtones.

Beyond its obvious normative implications, such a strategy of letting the war play out to its end will invariably produce a bad outcome beyond our control, a postwar Syria of resentful citizens and ruined cities, and a regional dynamic that may or may not favor the balance of power in our favor. Nor is it clear that a weakened Syria, particularly if Assad remains in power, might not seek to intervene in places like Lebanon even more to settle old scores or distract Syrians from their postwar woes.

Hence, an 11th-hour intervention by the West after years of bloodletting will backfire. We should seek to end the war immediately, not after Syria is reduced to ruin, even if there is no clear victor.

Not Your Father’s Suicide Terrorism…

… if your father’s name is Robert Pape.

Friday, February 1, witnessed two notable suicide terrorist attacks in quick succession. Both were bad news for Robert Pape’s theory of suicide terrorism, which argues that suicide terrorism is almost always the result of foreign occupation, whether real or imagined. Pape finds that suicide terrorism is employed by ethno-national or religious groups that perceive themselves as being occupied by an outside group, particularly if other types of violence have failed and if the occupying force is a democratic state (see here, here, and here). This answer fits in nicely—perhaps too nicely—with realist skepticism of George W. Bush’s interventionism. Why shouldn’t you invade places? Reason #207: People will blow themselves up. As Pape and James Feldman argue in a 2008 book, “To stop and reverse the recent explosion of suicide terrorism, it is important to reduce the reliance on foreign occupation as a principal strategy for ensuring national interests.”

But why was Friday bad for this theory? While it is still too early to know why the suicide bomber detonated himself at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the Marxist group that claimed responsibility apparently condemned Turkish support of anti-Assad forces in Syria. That sentence reads like a bad geopolitical “Mad Libs,” but it doesn’t sound like Pape’s theory. Also occurring on Friday (and in my opinion, more problematic for Pape) was yet another suicide bombing in Pakistan where Sunni extremists attacked Shi’as. This has happened repeatedly over the last few years, and whatever the poor Shi’a in Pakistan are, they are not foreign occupiers. (The same case could be made for the Barelvis and Sufis who are periodically targeted by members of the more orthodox Deobandi Sunni movement).

Pakistan was already a problematic case for Pape given its non-occupied nature and its sky-rocketing rate of suicide terrorism from 2001 to 2010. (The chart below is drawn from Pape’s Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.) Pape’s counterargument has been that because Pakistanis feel that their government is merely a puppet of the United States, the suicide bombing campaign can be interpreted as one against the “indirect occupation” of the United States. While this line of reasoning may certainly explain attacks against the Pakistani state, police, or military, it cannot explain the soaring anti-Shi’a violence. It is basically impossible to construct a narrative where Sunni extremists perceive themselves as occupied by the Shi’a minority.

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I think Pape has made the mistake of treating suicide terrorism as a static phenomenon when, in fact, it is evolving. Suicide terrorism has grown much, much more common over the last twenty years, while the level of foreign occupation has remained fairly constant. While not a perfect indicator, one that I have on hand is the percentage of terrorist groups that engage in suicide attacks over time. I have modified data from Michael Horowitz to construct this suicide terrorist “market share” variable, which is just the number of groups employing suicide tactics divided by the total number of terrorist groups in Horowitz’s data.

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If suicide terrorism is becoming more ubiquitous, there is no reason to expect that old predictors will remain valid. Imagine if you had a perfect model of who purchased computers in the 1960s and used it to predict consumers today. You would go out of business. The cauldron of the 1981-1983 Lebanon civil war produced modern suicide terrorism. There is no reason to assume that a phenomenon that is only thirty years old will remain the same, nor its causes stay constant over time. Friday’s gruesome attacks are a reminder of that.