Stephen M. Walt

A few things I missed

A few things I missed

As readers know, I’ve been on the road for most of the past week and thus missed a lot of big stories. Here are a few quick reactions to some things that happened while I was away.

1. Steve Jobs. I’m as fond of Apple products as anyone (I’m typing this on an iMac) and I found his life story pretty fascinating. But I’m with those who found the hagiography a bit off-putting, and I suspect the outpouring of adulation had a lot do with his passing at a relatively young age (I’m 56 too, so of course I think it’s way too early). Jobs was clearly a wonderful business manager and an unusually imaginative entrepreneur, but he was also a pretty ruthless dealmaker and that trait extended to Apple’s attitude towards its own customers. In general, my experiences with Apple’s "customer service" bureaucracy were less-than-happy, and I wish a few of the commentaries had reminded us that he wasn’t just a visionary philanthropist.

2. My IISS dues. I got the latest bill for my annual membership in the International Institutes for Strategic Studies, and it made me wonder if I want to stay a member. Dues have soared to more than $500 per year, and the only real benefits you get are IISS’s various publications. The Military Balance is a very useful publication (the latest edition sits right next to my laptop at home), but we do have it at the Kennedy School library and I think it’s available online too. I can’t afford to attend the IISS annual meetings and they’ve only asked me to speak there once, so I’m not sure being a member is really worth it anymore.

3. The Wall Street Protests. Like a few other pundits, I find myself in broad sympathy with this group, and that view is reinforced by David Brooks’ incoherent and patronizing attempt to dismiss them. IMHO, this movement is tapping into two important phenomena. The first is the general sense that there is a privileged class of elites — mostly connected to the financial industry — who have really screwed the country and have yet to be held accountable in any meaningful way. The second and related phenomenon is the absence of anybody in the political sphere (with the exception of new Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren) who seems to be sticking up for the people who got screwed. Instead, senators, congressmen, and secretaries of the Treasury seem more concerned with helping out those who need it least. Frankly, what is surprising is that it took this long for a true grass roots protest phenomenon to emerge (I don’t count the Tea Party, which got co-opted by Establishment folks awhile ago). And a related problem is the culture of individual greed that has become so commonplace and even venerated in American society. Individual freedom is a good thing, and so is a reward for individual initiative, but we’ve gone overboard with the idea that society benefits most when everybody just pursues their own naked self-interest. The result is pig-at-the-trough behavior by countless interest groups and socially damaging levels of economic inequality. So if these protests put a few vertebrae back in some politicians’ backbones, fine by me.

4. Infrastructure. As an addendum to my post on Korea, let’s just say that there’s a pretty vivid contrast between taking off from JFK airport (which is rather a dump), and landing at South Korea’s Incheon airport. As one participant in our conference remarked, he used to think that flying from the US to Asia was going from the first to the third world; now he feels like flying home is going from the 1st world to maybe the second. There’s no great mystery here: we’ve been systematically neglecting our national infrastructure — another manifestation of valorizing individual wealth and neglecting collective goods that benefit all of us — and it shows. If I had a billion dollars, I’d spend part of it taking every member of Congress on a trip to other countries, and then flying them back home via JFK, or Logan Airport, or maybe Newark, along with a detour onto Amtrak. And then I’d ask them if this is what they want a foreign visitor’s first impression of America to be.

5. Mitt Romney at the Citadel. GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney gave a lengthy speech on foreign policy at the Citadel, and managed to repeat just about every banal right-wing foreign policy cliche I’d ever heard. There were the usual paeans to American primacy, to our many enemies, and to our unique mission in the world. I’d offer a point-by-point critique if I thought it was worth it, but mostly I’m hoping this is just an attempt to give the GOP base some red meat rhetoric and not a reflection of Romney’s real views (assuming of course, that he has any). And for my own views on the whole "American Exceptionalism" issue, go here.