This year has been one of some personal transitions, hence less posting on this blog than originally planned. As 2017 comes to a close, I wanted to touch on a couple of topics among several related to the blog content.
First, 2017 is the U.N. Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Usually I try to get out quick mentions of such observances early in the year, but this time had planned a longer treatment mentioning two places I know in different ways – Djenné, Mali and Lijiang, Yunnan, China. That material will have to come out later in different form. However the topic of this year will remain important even as the calendar changes.
Early in the year, I posted several “why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) questions about policies that seemed ill-considered. That is, beyond the level of agreement or disagreement on particulars, but questions about the soundness of decisions from whatever viewpoint. Very quickly it became apparent that any attempt to continue such inquiries would become all-consuming. That in itself is a comment. In any event, I’m not planning any further WAWDTs for now.
Looking forward to a productive 2018, and sharing ideas and information here on Multidisciplinary Perspectives.
Although USDA says the review process leading to removal of the information was started last year, and there is speculation that a lawsuit by some horse trainers catalyzed the move, this action does seem to confirm fears about such removal of access to data and information long made available to the public by the Federal government.
Personally, when I heard this story it was hard to see an angle from which one could give USDA the benefit of the doubt. Such a vast amount of documents (from almost 8000 facilities) simply removed from view, when there may have been issues of legal or other concern relating to only a handful. From the descriptions, it seems the information was (is) a very important part of assuring humane treatment of animals in diverse contexts where they are used commercially or for research.
Data copying efforts
The abovementioned effort to copy (and at this point retrieve) and publish (on the MemoryHole site) the information deleted by APHIS is part of a larger semi-organized movement begun before the new US administration took office last month to copy data and other information from government websites. A major concern has been climate data, with DataRefuge site evidently playing a coordinating role (see also the presentation on PPEH Lab‘s site).
Other concerns regarding data
In addition to loss of access to data, there is a longer term concern, per FiveThirtyEight, that “the the integrity of U.S. government data could be compromised more subtly and more systematically over the next four years.”
A lot has been written about this issue, and the courts have so far examined the several problems with this EO, so there is no need for me to recapitulate all the arguments. On the whole, however, it does seem to me that the EO does nothing beyond what current exhaustive vetting procedures already do to achieve its stated premise – keeping America safer. And furthermore, it seems that among its many secondary effects may very well be dynamics making this country and the world less safe. As such it will certainly put Americans overseas, as well as people associated with the US in other countries, at risk. We’ve already heard of impact on working relations of US troops with Iraqi military, and there is the obvious dilemma presented to people who have worked with Americans as interpreters.
The “security triangle”
Part of the reason this EO cannot achieve its ostensible aim of greater safety, and may actually accomplish the opposite, is that it effectively knocks out one corner of the so-called “security triangle”: acceptance. The security triangle is a concept based on recognition that “security” has several dimensions, and highlights three complementary factors:
Acceptance: Reduce the threat by fostering acceptance and positive image in the community.
Protection: Reduce the risk (but not the threat) by addressing vulnerabilities – hardening the target.
Deterrence: Counter the threat through reliance on appropriate and legitimate force.
With this EO, the administration seems to be putting all its chips on protection, supported by deterrence, no matter what the cost in terms of diminished acceptance. That is, not reducing the threat worldwide, while trying to reduce exposure to potential risk by keeping broad demographics (country, religion) out of the US, which in turn may actually augment and energize the threat.
The security triangle model emerged from the international humanitarian community around 2000,1 but I would argue that it is more broadly applicable to national security concerns in the context of terrorism and so-called asymmetrical conflict. Keep in mind that many humanitarian operations are conducted in environments that are unstable or involve conflict, and attacks on humanitarian workers have become more frequent. So this model, and identification of its three elements, comes out of experience.
The triangle itself apparently caused confusion as some saw it as asking organizations situate themselves in relation to the three elements (as if a trade-off).2 The revised edition of Operational Security Management in Violent Environments (GPR8) downplayed the triangle, but still discussed its three elements at length.3 The main point therefore remains, and that is that a combination of approaches addressing acceptance, protection, and deterrence, is essential to assuring safety and security, while at the same time maintaining the good relations essential to effective work in these contexts. The exact mix will depend on the situation, but it is interesting that 2010 GPR8 notes that despite increased security risks in many parts of the world, acceptance turns out to be the most important factor:
Given their mission and values, aid organisations find acceptance by far the most appealing security strategy. Indeed, acceptance can and should be the foundation of all security strategies. But acceptance will not be effective against all threats. (GPR8, p. 56)
So what are the implications of all this for national policies that affect international relations?
Acceptance & “soft power”
Historically, the US government has had a whole range of messages, initiatives, and structures from “winning hearts and minds” to public diplomacy, and from USAID’s clasped hands to Peace Corps, aimed in different ways at cultivating positive images of the country. These arguably are analogous to the strategic concern of development and humanitarian organizations with “acceptance” in communities where they work. Scaling up to the level of the international system is tricky, but the US is a member of the community of nations, and its actions can affect how it is “accepted” by other nations and most importantly for this discussion, their populations.
Pres. Trump has spoken on several occasions about wanting as immigrants “people who love us….” Well such love doesn’t just happen, and it can be lost through accumulation of negative perceptions. Policy decisions that in effect tell citizens of whole countries or members of a religion that they are not wanted (even if “temporarily”) are going to have a negative effect on love, acceptance, soft power, and ultimately security (on top of legal and moral questions about such measures). And all that is, or at least was, avoidable.
Better to have a policy begins with recognizing the strengths of existing practice, then carefully evaluates what gaps if any may exist, reviews these and measures to address them with appropriate experts in and out of government, and finally plans how to implement the measures with attention to avoiding unwanted negative secondary effects.
The item that prompted me to begin writing about “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) was a news report about the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to rescind authorization for 9 internet providers to provide subsidized broadband to low income households under the Lifeline program (CNN; The Hill; Gizmodo). This is not the biggest issue out there, but in the torrent of news, it was in a way one item too many.
The details are a bit complicated, but the immediate effect seems to run contrary to the new FCC commissioner Ajit Pai‘s stated desire to end the digital divide. The Lifeline program (FCC general & consumer pages) began in 1985 as a way of assuring telephone access to people otherwise unable to access essential communications services (such as poor and elderly). Internet broadband was added to the Lifeline program in March 2016, in recognition of the increasingly essential nature of broadband – such as for students who need good internet access for their schoolwork.
The timeline and final outcome are uncertain. According to the Washington Post,
By stopping companies … from accessing the Lifeline program, Pai may be signaling his intention to apply more restrictions to the Lifeline program, policy analysts said. One such restriction could be a strict cap on the program’s budget, which is indirectly funded through fees in the bills of telephone customers.
Expansion of the Lifeline program to include broadband seemed a positive way to address one aspect of increasing inequality – access to information via the internet. Its ending or curtailment would certainly be a loss. Hopefully this can be reinstated or otherwise moved forward again in a way that benefits eligible people.
The FCC has at least one other potential WAWDT item on its policy agenda – overturning net neutrality as a governing principle of the internet.
Asking “Why are we doing this?” is often a good reality check. Posing the question is sometimes a way of expressing doubts about a course of action. It is a question that has been coming to mind a lot in the wake of various policy decisions by the new administration in the US headed by Donald Trump, and by the new Congress.
Actually I find myself asking this question – often as “why are we undoing this?” – quite a bit. And this is the proper form of the question -not “why are they (un)doing this?”- if you think of this as being one nation. We’re in this together and need to ask appropriate questions. So I don’t regard this as partisanship, but rather critical and dispassionate (as much as is possible when considering the human dimensions of some of these issues) reading of policy proposals and actions.
To really ask “Why are we (un)doing this?” however, means more than just throwing out a challenge or dismissing a proposed or existing course of action. There are several items to consider, such as:
What are the anticipated benefits of the policy/action (and for who), or what problem does it propose to address?
What legal, diplomatic, ethical, or moral obligations come to bear in deciding on the policy/action?
How will this course of action lead to the desired outcome?
What are the costs of pursuing this course of action, or of not pursuing it?
What secondary effects might result from this course of action and the steps involved in actualizing it, or from not implementing it?
In general, it seems the previous administration prioritized humanitarian concerns and international cooperation in the context of understanding the US as a nation of immigrants, while the current administration seems to prioritize protection and national interests even at the expense of international agreements, with a more “nativist” conception of America. Also the previous administration seems to have been more positive-sum in its approach to issues, while the current one sees things more in zero-sum terms.
However, even when understanding general approaches and biases, specific issues need specific questions. What are the benefits of the agreement to settle these refugees in the US is a question that can be answered more narrowly or more broadly (such as local cost/benefit vs. a more stable world system). On the other hand, the benefits of canceling the agreement are framed in terms of keeping out people described as undesirable (though frankly the president’s characterization of these refugees as coming from “prisons” is evidently inaccurate, and the apparent reference to Australia exporting the “next Boston Bombers” is also off the mark). A range of obligations are relevant in this case, from moral (humanitarian) to diplomatic (since the agreement has been made) to safety (to the extent that these refugees may represent a risk). The question of costs of settling the refugees vs. nixing the agreement can be calculated in human, monetary, and diplomatic terms. The contrary concern appears to be that these refugees represent a risk or burden that the government should avoid is one probably misinformed based on experience – but in any event addressed by answering how vetting would take place as part of the process.
The secondary effects of such issues need more attention than they seem to be getting. In this case, refugees as immigrants can be seen as benefiting the country, as they have for generations, in terms both of contributions they and their descendants make, and our national image. But some see in these refugees and their descendants as potential threats – a perception that is at least debatable (and debated) considering the long history of immigrant communities in the US, and especially in light of the rigor of established vetting procedures. Globally, the ripple effects of keeping refugees in camps could, aside from holding people in inhuman conditions, have their own longer term security risks. There is also a cost to the image of America in treating refugees in general as potential criminals. Populations are moving, in response to various problems, often fleeing dire conditions. Responses to their plight and needs – in a world system where even stable areas are seeing social problems, climate change, and increasing economic inequality – will require more than raising barriers or opening doors.
Other “Why are we doing this?” issues
As I mentioned above, there are a lot of policy proposals and decisions that have me asking this question. Such that it is tempting to acronymize it as “WAWDT,” and use that as a tag. To the extent that time permits I hope to look at some of them with attention to specific questions such as those proposed above.
In trying to answer such questions, I believe one will find that there will be a pattern to assumptions driving these proposed changes, and that some of the responses – the answers to the specific questions about “Why are we doing this?” – will also recur. For instance, the president’s reaction to this group of refugees held by Australia shares some common elements with the controversial and much more widely directed Executive Order 13769 effectively banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the US.
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