The Biggest Threat to America’s Future Is … America -The New Yorker

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Given the level of the political debate in the US regarding the negotiations with Iran, not to mention the ridiculous letter sent to Tehran, this article is all the more relevant:

Rather than accomplishing any of these things, Washington seems to be trapped in a never-ending back and forth, in which sloganeering substitutes for analysis and political point-scoring is elevated above policymaking. It’s a dismal spectacle, and if it goes on indefinitely it will exact an increasingly high price. Not the sudden collapse of Pax Americana, perhaps, but the gradual undermining of it.

http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/the-biggest-threat-to-americas-future-is-america

Yanis Varoufakis: How I became an erratic Marxist -The Guardian

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In this article, Greece’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, explains his political outlook and how it developed. Agree, or disagree, the ideas he presents here are the product of careful consideration.

“Almost all schools of thought, including those of some progressive economists, like to pretend that, though Marx was a powerful figure, very little of his contribution remains relevant today. I beg to differ. Besides having captured the basic drama of capitalist dynamics, Marx has given me the tools with which to become immune to the toxic propaganda of neoliberalism. For example, the idea that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation, is easy to succumb to if one has not been exposed first to Marx’s poignant argument that precisely the opposite applies: wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness.”

http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist

What ISIS Really Wants -The Atlantic

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The following article is a long, detailed discussion of ISIS’ ideology, how it influences their policies, and what the implications are for the West’s attempts to deal with the threat they pose.

“The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

There are a number of things to consider when reading this article. First, how accurate is the description of the groups ideology. Although the article does give a good account of how ISIS explains its ideological position, there have been critiques of the way the article deals with Islamic thought (see: http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/02/18/3624121/atlantic-gets-dangerously-wrong-isis-islam/).
Second, are ISIS’ goals derived from their ideology, or does ideology just provide legitimacy to mundane political goals after the fact.
Third, are there ideological schisms within ISIS and if so, what could they mean for ISIS’ policies? Ideological movements (communists in the USSR and Khomeini’s Islamist followers in Iran) looked monolithic at first but it did not take long before deep divisions became apparent. We actually know very little about what is happening inside of ISIS right now. It is possible that ideological divisions may lead to moderation, with soft-liners diluting the ideological zeal of the movement. But it is also possible that divisions will lead to more extreme behavior as competing factions try to out-bid each other for ideological legitimacy.
Fourth, there is a tendency to see ideologies as static, when in fact they may evolve over time. It may evolve because of internal divisions and debates. Or, it may evolve as the organizational needs of the movement change. Right now, ISIS is in its formative stages. The extremism and violence provides the group with an identity, improves solidarity and intimidates internal dissent.However, if ISIS survives over the long term, it will likely begin to function more and more like a regular state, with regular institutions etc… In the Iranian case, the day-to-day demands of running a state and keeping it safe had an important moderating effect on the ideology of the leadership. This may, or may not happen with ISIS.

We keep trying to understand Putin. Why do we keep getting him wrong? -WP

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Here are a couple of articles trying to explain Russian foreign policy in terms of Vladimir Putin’s personality because, as the first article puts it, “how hyper-personalized his government is”. This article laments our poor understanding of Vladimir Putin, and highlights some of the problems associated with focusing on personality and the individual level of analysis:

“There’s no world leader as over-analyzed as Vladimir Putin. Just last week, we learned of a 2008 Pentagon study that concluded the Russian president’s “neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy” and that Putin probably had Asperger’s syndrome. He’s also been called a narcissist, diagnosed with “pleonexia” (the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others), and simply been accused of being a “thug.””

The alternative it suggests, which focuses on Putin’s world view, also sounds a bit simple:
“Putin’s frame of reference for how the world works is totally different to ours. He lives in a different world”. But there is a little more nuance to it, suggesting the roots of his world view can be found in Russia’s historical experience rather than Putin’s early childhood or a neurological disorder.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/02/12/we-keep-trying-to-understand-putin-why-do-we-keep-getting-him-wrong/

The second article, entitles “The Accidental Autocrat”, is more detailed, arguing: “Understanding Putin requires exploring three core aspects of his political and personal character: the fighter, the Chekist, and the believer. These roughly correspond to Putin’s instincts, his professional training and methods, and his religious and patriotic convictions. The parts may seem not to fit, but that is often the case with Russia’s rulers. (After all, Stalin, the “Red Czar,” was trained in a Georgian seminary.) Putin is best understood not as a divided character but as an integrated if complicated one: the Russian in the Kremlin.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/03/the-accidental-autocrat/303725/

When reading either or both of these articles, you should keep a couple of questions in mind: First, how much of Putin’s personality as it is reported is manufactured for consumption. Secondly, even if Putin’s persona is entirely genuine, did political conditions in effect ‘select’ that type of leader. That is to say, if Putin had not come to power, the way Russian politics have been working, someone else exactly like him would have. Finally, how much autonomy does Putin have as a decision maker? Is he constrained by state institutions (probably not), powerful constituencies and/or political opponents, or public opinion? Ultimately, Putin may actually have a great deal of autonomy, but you should always ask yourself this question before you accept that the individual is the key to the decision-making process.