There’s been a lot of loose talk over the past week about whether President Obama needs to clean his foreign policy house. Folks like David Rothkopf, echoing the refrain from the first-term memoirists, urge the president to get a new team and/or a new foreign policy process:

[T]he president needs to sit down with Rice and lay out a clear set of priorities for fixing what is broken in the White House system that addresses these problems. Perhaps other high-level adjustments to personnel could assist with this. In any event, defensively sticking with the status quo will send a message to the world that Obama does not recognize his errors or is unwilling to acknowledge them, which will not only exacerbate the problems but effectively marginalize him for the remainder of his term.

Then there was David Ignatius’s column from last week, where someone in the White House appears to be trying to stage-whisper that post-midterm changes will indeed be made:

[L]oyalty aside, Obama appears to be interested in a talent infusion that would add depth and expertise; a model was his recent appointment of retired Gen. John Allen as special envoy for Iraq and Syria. More such top-level hires may be coming in an effort to widen the administration’s bandwidth.
“We are aware that the next two years will be transformative in the Middle East, the Iran relationship and Asia,” says a senior White House official. “The John Allen appointment symbolized a broader openness to bringing in the best people in the country to think through and manage these problems.”

As everyone writing about this topic acknowledges, however, personnel shuffles are useless unless the president is willing to engage and listen to new ideas. One can blame the foreign policy process only so much for mistakes. Unless policy principals alter their ideas about how to handle various global challenges, mixing up the policy inputs probably will not change the policy outputs.

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So here’s a book that Obama needs to read, because it will help inform him about one of the areas where he has a true blind spot: how authoritarian leaders think about war.

Written before the last six months of authoritarian unpleasantness, Jessica Weeks’s just-released “Dictators At War and Peace” nevertheless explains an awful lot of what’s been going on in Russia, China and elsewhere. An assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Weeks argues that international relations scholarship has focused too much on the differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes and not enough on the differences within authoritarian regimes. She sets up a typology of non-democratic states: authoritarians with powerful civilian audiences (think China or Iran), authoritarians with powerful military audiences (think Thailand), and personalist strongmen without powerful domestic audiences (think Putin in Russia).

Weeks’s cogent argument is that civilian authoritarian regimes are about as risk-averse towards initiating force as democracies and military juntas are somewhat more likely to initiate force. It’s the third category that is highly more likely to initiate force, even if the odds of winning don’t look all that great. These kind of strongmen likely didn’t rise to power without valuing coercion and risk-taking as tools of the trade. They are more likely to surround themselves with yes-men, and more likely to stay in power even after a military defeat. Their very stupidity and insensitivity to costs makes them dangerous on the global stage.

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Reading Weeks’s incisive book illuminates the very different challenges that, say, Russia and China pose to U.S. foreign policymakers. The trouble with Russia is that despite report after report after report that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has been an economic disaster, this will not deter continued Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin’s cost-benefit analysis calculations look very different from everyone else’s. Indeed, as Russia’s economy goes south and the Great Chinese Hope fails to materialize, Putin is likely to lash out even further. The West had better get prepared now for that eventuality.

China offers a different caution. The upside is that China’s leadership is much more cautious and constrained. If Weeks is correct, then concerns that the East China Sea or South China Sea will be a replay of events in Ukraine are way overblown. On the other hand, this also means that Chinese leadership is also of a higher quality than Russian leadership. Which means that China will pose a much greater long-term challenge to U.S. interests than Russia — and so Washington had better get prepared.

By all means, everyone policy principal in the National Security Council should read the whole thing.

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