Nightcap

  1. Today’s most pressing questions cannot be depoliticized Aaron Timms, New Republic
  2. Views of evil: Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings Bryan Weynand, Gospel Coalition
  3. What America doesn’t get about dictatorships Raul Gallegos, New York Times
  4. Lost wallets, around the globe Cohn, Maréchal, Tannenbaum, Zünd, Science

Venezuela, still going down

Venezuela crisis seems far from being solved, and the country now is entering into actual civil war. Some thoughts on that:

Contrary to leftist conspiracy theory and popular belief, the CIA does not interfere in other countries every other week. The last major US intervention to take down a government in a big country was in Iran in 1953. In the long run, considering the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it didn’t go too well. Therefore, it is understandable that today people in the White House are cautious.

Also contrary to popular belief and leftist conspiracy theory, the US hasn’t interfered much in Latin America in the past seventy years or so. Interventions in Central America and the Caribean were commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century (mostly during the progressivist government of Woodrow Wilson) but mostly cooled down in the 1930s.

Latin America in general and Venezuela, in particular, has little democratic experience, and this has nothing to do with outside forces. The counties in the region simply tented to make bad choices, rejecting classical liberalism in favor of mercantilism and political centralization.

Internationally, I believe that John Mearsheimer presented the most convincing theory to date: all countries desire to be superpowers. That’s the best way to feel safe in an anarchic world. However, given the dimensions of our planet and the current state of our technology, it is impossible for any country to be a global hegemon. Given that, they try the next best thing: to be regional hegemons and to stop other countries from being hegemons in their regions. The US is clearly the hegemon in the American continent. China and Russia are not happy with that and will try anything to change it. In the last few decades, both countries invested heavily in Venezuela, including its military capabilities.

On a regional level, Brazil could balance Venezuela to some extent. But it can’t, because the Worker’s Party trashed the country, while at the same time helped Venezuela. Brazil is too busy solving its own problems.

Sadly, Venezuela is by itself. While Nicolas Maduro has oil to buy his generals, and they don’t suffer from a conscience crisis, the humanitarian crisis will endure.

Relicts of the past? The current challenges for diplomacy

The last few weeks were quite a blast for me: I’ve interned at the German embassy in Rome. A new job in a new city. I thought to process the experiences I made here in one (or a few?) articles.

It’s been quite a rough month for Germany’s Foreign Affairs department. First, Daniel Kriener, the German ambassador in Venezuela, was forced to leave the country after welcoming Interim President Guiadó at the airport of Caracas. Interestingly, although plenty of other diplomats joined him, he was the only one to be declared a “persona non grata” for interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs. A few weeks later, a deputy speaker of the German Bundestag (who is also a member of the liberal party) demands to expel the US ambassador Grenell for the same offence. Prior, the US diplomat has criticized Germany’s plan to break their promise of contributing more to NATO’s defence budget. Albeit I politically agree with both actions of the diplomats in these cases, they delineate the ongoing structural changes in the diplomacy sector. To illustrate this, I will first provide a theoretical framework to analyze ongoing diplomatic challenges before trying to examine the role of diplomacy in the future.

Principal-Agent Theory and decreasing relevance

I conceive diplomacy as mostly a principal-agent based problem. I believe that many problems in diplomatic negotiations can be traced back to the classic effects of asymmetric information. Since two principals, in this case two states, cannot negotiate with each other directly in most cases, these arbitrations are carried out between various agents. Those agents are of course not always the ambassadors. In a broad meaning, one can apply the principal-agent paradigm to diplomacy by every negotiating process initiated by the state.

Through the lens of the principal-agent paradigm, I perceive the main task of diplomacy to achieve a good negotiating position, for example through an informational advantage. However, due to globalization, state-to-state diplomacy has been drastically weakened. The negotiating game is now mostly carried out within other institutions with lower transactions costs. Two countries want a new trade deal? Just orientate on WTO Rules. Sue another country? Call the International Criminal Court. A few voices made reasonable arguments even for abolishing unnecessary embassies and only keeping the crucial ones. The Trump administration, for example, seems not eagerly committed to fill the around 18 vacant ambassador positions hastily.

Certainly, the globalization combined with the expansion of robust institutions leaves little space for traditional diplomacy as a driving force in interstate relations. This is not necessarily a bad development: As Paul W. Meerts points out, this can be a huge chance for weaker states since negotiating in multilateral rather than bilateral constellations tends to weaken the position of stronger states. Thus, playing out the trump cards in negotiations will be harder for the hegemon. We can currently witness this in the Brexit debate: Even though the strong states, Germany and France, have a vast repertoire of power resources to use as leverage against GB in the negotiations, the can hardly deploy them through EU’s multipolar negotiating structure.

Contrary, there are also recent examples of deploying bilateral traditional diplomacy measures successfully. China’s initiation of Italy’s accession to the Belt Road Initiative (see Tridivesh Singh Maini’s great article here for a quick overview) is a prime example for this. But no other case shows the weaknesses of bilateral diplomacy in a more drastic way: China was able to transpose their tremendous power resources into a deal which heavily favours the Chinese economy. The very ambiguous agreement laid down a strategy of “closer economic collaboration.” The oppositional criticism of the deal coming from the very left and the right is based on economic nationalism and thus misses the important point. Chinese government exerts immense influence on key enterprises like  Tencent, Alibaba, and Badoo: Digital fundamental research topics such as AI were distributed to the firms not through competition but through the state ( I highly recommend Amy Webb’s EconTalk if you want to dig deeper into this.). Once they build sufficient digital infrastructure here in Europe, network effects and technological advantage will come into effect and engender high entry barriers and exit costs. This makes it easy for China to enforce its regulation rather than obeying European ones. Although it is hard to finally determine if multilateral negotiations would have secured a politically better deal, I favour higher short-term transaction cost of multilateral negotiations over the long-term threat showed above.

Embassies as service provider

Of course, taking care of a good interstate negotiation position is not the only task of an embassy. A popular counterargument is that the principal-agent perspective neglects the vital daily business of embassies to help their citizens abroad. Speaking of large and prestigious Embassies though, I estimate that their role as service provider for abroad living citizens will further decline. Most of their maintenance work for citizens living abroad will be redundant due to technological process and further institutionalization. Renewing a Passport, issuing visas and transporting back coffins (yep) are a frequent task, but easy to “source out” to private actors in the future.

But what is the role for ambassadors and embassies then?

This question is where it gets interesting in my opinion. Deeply rooted in international conventions and international customary law, discreet and silent work has been prerequisite for an ambassador. Carefully collecting small pieces of information and building bridges to local actors were the key for a good negotiating position. But as elaborated above, international institutions do the job more efficiently. A new role of ambassadors as advocates for concrete policy measures would be diametrically opposed to international conventions. Based upon the “legality creates legitimacy” premises, a further politicization of diplomacy seems not at present having a majority and thus is unlikely to be buttressed by legal means.

However, if we fall back into a narrative of nationalism, bilateral diplomacy will regain relevance. Otherwise, it will continue to slowly lose importance and eventually wane. Hence, the main challenge nowadays is to look for the right niche for traditional diplomacy – and it seems that it has not been found yet.

Nightcap

  1. A closer look at US hostage recovery policy Danielle Gilbert, War on the Rocks
  2. How to restore democracy in Venezuela Ryan Berg, RealClearWorld
  3. How markets and the State leave the community behind Oren Kass, New York Times
  4. I won’t drive the roundabout Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

Should the US intervene in Venezuela?

With the ongoing troubles in Venezuela some commentators ask for a humanitarian intervention, by the US. Intervention by other countries, for example Brasil, seem to be out of the question. And of course the US has long regarded Central and South America their backyard, going back to the Monroe doctrine. What would be a liberal perspective on this? Basically, there are three answers.

Most people who call themselves liberal in the US have a favourable attitude towards humanitarian intervention. Or used to have this over the past decades (until it went wrong -at least in their view- in Iraq and Afghanistan). Their motives differ, but they would probably argue that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of the suffering majority. This moral duty, however defined in detail, is seen to exist when grave abuse of human rights take place in failed state situations, people’s lives are under threat, when a danger of genocide exists. The intervention may take place unauthorized (without United Nations Security Council mandate), or authorized. Dangers of intervention are recognized by liberals, as for example the potential for abuse by the intervening state is ever present. Liberals are less concerned about the duty of the governments of intervening countries towards their own citizens.

Classical liberals start by pointing out there is never a moral duty to intervene, because, as Adam Smith wrote, for humans there is only the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends, country. This is not to say there is never a right to intervention in the classical liberal view. For sure, this right should be exercised in very rare circumstances, as international relations is more about preserving order than about achieving justice for all, and more about the importance of sovereignty for individual liberty than about obligations or rights following from a shared humanity. Yet prudent leaders do have some room for manoeuvre in international politics, according to classical liberals. However, intervention can only take place if they are able to explain to their voters and countrymen how the intervention would promote natural liberty. Foreign intervention is often counterproductive, and only an option when international disorder is seriously under threat. However, most often, the benefits of nonintervention outweigh the costs of attempting a universal protection of even a limited set of rights. Interventions start with the best intentions, but will often have unforeseen, negative consequences, which only in rare cases will be justified.

Libertarians normally have the most straightforward position: the anarcho-capitalists will not allow their private armies to conduct foreign adventures, while most minarchists (Rand excepted) are of the same opinion in case of (partly) publicly funded armies. So for them it is easy, no troops to Caracas.

How about the classical liberal and social liberal (as I continue to call them) position towards Venezuela? First of all: there is no question the situation is bad for large groups of Venezuelans. Maduro is a rotten and corrupt leader, standing on the shoulders of his socialist fairy tale teller predecessor – who was by the way democratically elected by those same Venezuelans, in very large numbers. Closing borders is the common instrument of autocratic leaders without any societal support. Inflation is high, the oil sector is in peril, basic medical services are beyond the reach of millions. There is a contending president, Guaidó, yet he appears to lack the support of the army and other crucial actors. The Catholic church refuses to take a position, for example.

Yet the costs of an intervention are high and the outcome uncertain. The military part might not be so easy, and will cost lives and lead to tremendous economic damage, both in Venezuela and the US. Guaidó, who now seems the reasonable alternative, is basically a young and unproven guy, without any track record. No certainty exists that he will lead the country in the good direction, even if he wants too. To reconstruct the country will almost certainly demand billions of dollars, which will not be easily recouped once the oil sector is on its feet again (remember that argument from the start of the intervention in Iraq?). It will take years before US troops on the ground can return home.

Needless to say this analysis is incomplete and lacks sufficient detail for any policy decision. Still, all in all, I would advise against intervention. Despite the bad situation, the proposed cure seems worse, not least from the perspective of the intervening country.

Venezuela and the World

Nicolas Maduro’s regime seems to be on the ropes. Brazil, being one of Venezuela’s neighboring countries, feels this especially well. The border between the two countries is getting increasingly tense.

Nicolas Maduro came to power after the demise of Hugo Chavez. Chavez on his turn was the first leader connected to Foro de São Paulo to come to power as president in a Latin America country.

Foro de São Paulo is a coalition of leftist groups in Latin America created in the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s to answer to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perceiving that they would no longer be able to depend on the USSR for help, Fidel Castro as his allies in Latin America decided to help themselves. Chavez’ rise to power was the first result of these efforts. He was followed by Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, and many others. At one point in the mid-2000s, it seemed that Latin America was already informally a “Union of the Latin American Socialist Republics”.

At closer inspection, it is possible to see that the relationship between members of the Foro de São Paulo was not always perfectly harmonious. There were inside fights for leadership. Besides that, some leaders were more pragmatic and others more idealist. Even more, the Brazilian Worker’s Party, one of the main players in the organization, was itself internally divided. But none of this stopped members of the Foro de São Paulo from giving significant support to one another.

In the 2010s Foro de São Paulo suffered from many obstacles. Oil prices went dramatically down, making Venezuela – one of the main oil producers in the world – a less dependable ally for Cuba and other partners. Dilma Rousseff, chosen by Lula da Silva to be his successors in Brazil, proved to be shamelessly incompetent as a president. In 2016 she was impeached from office under corruption charges and Lula himself was eventually sentenced to jail. Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the presidency last year marks a right-turn in Brazilian politics that further hurts the Foro de São Paulo’s ability to support Venezuela.

According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, it is simply impossible under current technological development for one country to be a global hegemon. Nevertheless, it is clear that countries try the next best thing: to be regional hegemons and to stop other countries from doing the same in other regions. The US, with its Monroe Doctrine and world diplomacy, is a very good example of this. At least since the beginning of the 20th century, the US was able to secure undisputed leadership in the American continent. However, one of the most important developments of the last decade is China’s economic advance in Latin America. Russia, a country economically very weak, is nevertheless constantly trying to oppose US diplomacy, and Latin America is not an exception.

During the Worker’s Party years, Brazil massively helped Venezuela. The ideological affinity between it and Chavez’s supporters was key in this process. Today leftist leaders in Brazil unashamedly show their hypocrisy by criticizing Bolsonaro’s remarks on intervening in Venezuela.

The fact is that countries, independently of the ideology of those in power, do try to intervene in one another’s internal affairs, no matter what international law might say about this. However, as Stephen M. Walt observes, the chances of such interventions to succeed are highly dependable on domestic factors, mostly the disposition of domestic groups to welcome an intervention.

Venezuela, one of the world’s potentially richest nations is under great humanitarian crises thanks to socialism. Socialists around the globe already have their answer to this: Venezuela was never socialist. Regardless, Venezuela is a real problem, and to buy into the left’s narrative will not help to solve it.

Nightcap

  1. A visit with Dr Quack (feeling just fine) Liam Taylor, 1843
  2. Rushdie’s deal with the Devil Kevin Blankinship, Los Angeles Review of Books
  3. The importance of recognition (Venezuela) Elsy Gonzalez, Duck of Minerva
  4. Should judges pay attention to Trump’s tweets? Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, FiveThirtyEight