Chalmers Johnson, RIP — Wikileaks & NK


First, Chalmers Johnson has died. This happened in late November, but the Yeonpyeong shelling captured the attention of my blogging. But given how important he was to the study of East Asia in political science, this should be mentioned here. This is very sad for our field. Two years ago, when Samuel Huntington died, I felt the same way. These guys are what we all aspire to in political science. I can’t think of one thing I have written in my career that I would recommend over an article by someone like Johnson or Huntington. Every time I whine about Asian mercantilism, Johnson’s work is in the back of mind (as is Robert Wade’s). I read Johnson’s Asian political economy stuff in grad school, and I see it living in Asia all the time. That is what our field is supposed to produce – these sorts of durable, well-researched insights that make our world a little more understandable. Very nice, and a genuine loss. (This is why we have political science, by the way.)

To be sure, Johnson jumped the rails in the 2000s with Bush and the Iraq War. I read the Blowback trilogy after the Iraq invasion. The first one is the best, but by the time he gets to the last book and starts musing about a military takeover of the US, you’re wondering if this is the same guy who wrote path-breaking research on Asia. Johnson was in good company though. Lots of other good left-wing foreign policy writers were pushed over the edge by W also; Chomsky and Bacevich spring to mind. Read Michael Lind’s useful deconstruction of how the foreign policy left kinda lost its head over W. But still, I think this stuff is quite valuable. It is a useful check on US neo-con fantasies that unipolarity and American exceptionalism mean rules don’t apply as much to the US as to others. It is hard in retrospect to think the Bush presidency wasn’t a disaster for the US, and Johnson, corrected for overstatement, will tell you why on foreign policy. (For an example, of lefty criticism that maintained better perspective on the Bush years, try here.)

2. Living in Asia means I missed the full coverage of the Wikileaks flap. My sense generally is that they don’t tell us too much we didn’t already know. I think Carpenter gets it about right here, and Yadav gives an excellent IR take here. I would only add 2 things:

A. Occasional random revelations like this might actually serve a foreign policy purpose. They remind others in world politics that for all our diplomatic niceties, we can see right through them and know they are flim-flaming us. This brings a certain (inappropriate to be sure) pressure on these guys to get their act together. It is kinda nice to see the Russians reminded that we are under no illusions about Putin’s closet semi-dictatorship, or for the N Koreans to know that we are thinking about a world beyond their nasty, civilian-murdering slave state, or for Robert Mugabe to know that we basically think he’s bonkers. Secretary of State Clinton is absolutely correct that this stuff should not have been leaked, but didn’t anyone else find it refreshing to hear US diplomats speaking honestly and insightfully? Wasn’t it pleasing to hear US officials trenchantly blow off the world’s buffoons? I was pretty impressed actually at the quality of their off-the-cuff analyses, and pleased to see my tax payers dollars contributing to this work.

B. I worry about the long-term build-up of secrecy in the US government under the cloak of national security. Lefty writers like Johnson or Bacevich will even tell you we live in a National Security State now. A healthy democracy requires openness and transparency. Over time, stuff really should get declassified. It is the property, in the end, of the taxpayers and the voters, because it is our government. Assange himself seems to be drifting toward toward some bizarre hexagonal conspiracy theory stuff, but I am sympathetic to the general notion that the US is too secretive and that the presumptive prejudice in the US bureaucracy should be for declassification unless otherwise demonstrable and clear national security grounds can be established. An Economist blogger captures my concerns pretty well, and of course, the Bush administration, once again *sigh*, is responsible for much of the recent fear of secret government in the US. Greenwald, as usual, nails the hypocrisy of those defending spiralling classification.

3. This is unrelated, but if you haven’t read this description of the 30 worst pundits-turned-hacks in the US, you should. It is a great dissection of everything wrong with journalism masquerading as social science, too frequently in the service of ideology. It is left-biased, but so what. It is punchy, trenchant, humorous, and good warning to everyone with a blog (me too) to do you homework and not just recycle your prejudices. It illustrates one of the great benefits of the Internet – independent bloggers and others can fact check and hit back in real-time. It makes me worry that maybe I recycle stuff here…

3 thoughts on “Chalmers Johnson, RIP — Wikileaks & NK

  1. >> but didn’t anyone else find it refreshing to hear US diplomats speaking honestly and insightfully?

    I completely agree Bob. (Disclaimer: My opinion is purely based on the coverage on Guardian). I didn’t quite get the general angst in US leaders and in particular Lieberman. In my opinion, he acted like a complete idiot and had it not for him showing his DHS chops the cable-gate would likely have been a non-starter.

    At the same time, I would say that some of the recent stuff is definitely disturbing – Shell buying their way into Nigerian government, US Contractors enjoying the little boys’ in Afghanistan, Yemen intervention that is not an intervention etc.

    Btw, check out the twitter feed for #wikileaks – lots of fun comments.


  2. I had the same reaction to the leaks – they were reassuring in a way. Insightful, well-written, honest, lots of fun, telling details.

    Getting the secrets-disclosure balance right is tricky. The government must continue to insist that those with access to secret information treat it carefully, and must of course continue to punish those who don’t. But at the same time we’ve chosen, as a country, not to punish news organizations that publish secret information.

    Greenwald has convinced me that Assange didn’t actually release *all* the cables, only a tiny fraction. But they still number thousands, and the vast majority had no real news value. Assange was reckless and motivated not by any sense of journalistic integrity (moderated by a professional ethic) but by hatred of statecraft and, probably, the US in general.

    The result of his recklessness will be more secrecy, not less. The government will (over)react, more information will get the top-secret treatment, and controls over information will tighten. Frankly, this is really kind of justified because something must change in an age when any disgruntled or deranged federal employee with a USB drive can disclose hundreds of thousands of important documents.

    This is just sad all the way around – a loss for transparency in the long run. Too bad.


  3. Andrew Bacevich in “The New American Militarism” identifies himself as a conservative who agrees with the Radical left critique of the political establishment, that both the GOP and Democrats are far too similar. But, his arguments are moral, not economic, and I would grant him his self-identity.

    On Wikileaks, Assange is no Ellsberg, since he has no intelligence analysis competence. His radical views about transparency are impractical. As a former intelligence analyst, I can state without moral qualms or hypocrisy, that any intelligence worker that is proven to have violated his/her oath should be executed, and its only public notoriety that would rule that out. Treason is the only offense for which this horrible punishment is warranted. But still, even if I think most laypeople have an unwarranted fear of secrecy, Bradley Manning is a whistle-blower not a man of conscience. Cablegate highlights the legal penalties against whistle-blowing, not secrecy or transparency.


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