Shadow Government

The incredible shrinking democratic critique

The Obama campaign has levied more than its fair share of bogus critiques of Governor Romney and the Republicans. Already in 2011, one of their favorite critiques won the dubious distinction of being Politifact’s “lie of the year.” Alas, the lie of year in 2011 has a chance of defending the title in 2012 what with the extreme response to Paul Ryan. And 2012 has seen a steady parade of charges, each more absurd than the last: Governor Romney is guilty of a felony, Governor Romney never paid taxes, Governor Romney causes people to die from cancer, Governor Romney hates puppies.

Yet, for my money, the charge that takes the greatest chutzpah for an Obama supporter to offer with a straight face is the claim that Governor Romney has insufficient experience and qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief. I might listen respectfully to someone who argued that Senator Obama was unqualified in 2008 and now in 2012 wants to say Governor Romney is unqualified, too. Perhaps someone like that exists and, if so, perhaps a reader could direct me thither.

But it takes a special kind of blinkered partisan to have touted the national security qualifications of the junior senator from Illinois (not quite through his first term in office) and now to question the preparedness of the former Governor of Massachusetts. And yet such blinkered partisanship abounds today, and even makes occasional appearances at FP.com. Consider two recent examples.

Exhibit A: Wes Clark claims, “[Romney] doesn't bring any real national security experience to the issues at hand. He doesn't have any foreign-policy experience. He has less foreign policy experience than Senator Obama had when he ran.” This is the kind of nonsense one expects to hear from a reality TV host, not from a serious observer of the national security challenges we face today. Oh, wait a minute…

Exhibit B: Michael Cohen blogs that Romney’s pick of Ryan shows that he neither understands nor cares about foreign policy. Cohen neatly elides over the obvious comparison with a delicious hand-wave -- “say what you will about Obama’s foreign-policy expertise when he ran for president in 2007 and 2008…” Yes, what about that expertise that seemed unimportant in 2008 when Obama was running against a war hero who had made national security policy a life-long focus, but should now be uppermost when Obama is facing Romney? Cohen’s answer is that Obama was right to oppose the Iraq war, which makes him vastly superior to everyone who supported it (people like Obama’s choice for VP, for instance, who, according to Cohen, brought foreign policy credibility to the ticket).

It is fair to critique Romney’s foreign policy platform. It is fair to critique Romney’s campaign-related foreign travel.

It is even fair to say that after 3-plus years of on-the-job training President Obama now has more national security experience than Governor Romney has. But it is self-discrediting to turn that observation into a resume-based claim that a candidate with Romney’s extensive executive experience in global business and politics somehow flunks the commander-in-chief test. If Obama supporters want to be taken seriously on national security, they need to make serious arguments. Claiming that then-Senator Obama was qualified whereas Governor Romney is not, is fundamentally unserious.

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Shadow Government

The Olympics and measuring national power

For the past decade, it has been virtually impossible to attend a conference or panel discussion on United Nations reform without someone within the first five minutes making the point that the current lineup of permanent UN Security Council members is a hopelessly archaic snapshot of great powers in 1945 and desperately needs updating. I have long agreed, and even indulged in that talking point myself on numerous occasions. [Sidenote: A tip for students and interns looking for an easy way to get senior policy leaders to notice you and nod in agreement at cocktail receptions -- if there is ever a lull in the policy chatter, just clear your throat and solemnly make this point about U.N. reform. And if one of your friends who read this beats you to it in the conversation, other reliable stand-bys include saying "You know, I really think the US needs to think more strategically" and "I must say, our national security system is broken and really needs a comprehensive interagency reform, just like Goldwater-Nichols."  Of such points are blue-ribbon task forces and future conferences made...] 

But every now and then -- every four years to be precise -- something happens in world affairs that shows perhaps the current P-5 membership of the U.S., China, UK, Russia, and France isn't necessarily so obsolete after all. Yes, the Olympics. Looking at the medal tables from the just-concluded London Olympics, the top four medal winning countries also happen to be four permanent members of the UNSC: the U.S., China, UK, and Russia. And the fifth permanent UNSC member, France, is not far behind at all at eighth in the medal rankings.  Furthermore, the countries ranked fifth and sixth in the medal tables are Germany and Japan, both of whom have for years been making credible claims for permanent UNSC membership.  Nor is this year a fluke. The 2008 Beijing Olympics had the same four countries atop the medal tables, with France even closer in sixth place, while Germany and Japan were fifth and eleventh, respectively.  

What, if anything, do the Olympics tell us about measurements of national power? This is admittedly a question with a touch of frivolity -- perhaps all that the medal tables tell us is which countries are most devoted to sports. But as Victor Cha and other scholars have pointed out, sports have never been insulated from geopolitics. Even a cursory glance at past Olympics reveals this, whether Jesse Owens' one-man rebuttal of Hitler's racialism at the 1936 Berlin Games, the legendary "Blood in the Water" Hungary-USSR water polo match at the 1956 Olympics in the shadow of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the reciprocal boycotts staged by the United States and Soviet Union in 1980 and 1984, or even China's use of the 2008 games to assert its global power status. As even a realist like Steve Walt has confessed, the Olympics can tap into and fuel incipient nationalist sentiments among the otherwise unsentimental.

Here I thought it would be interesting to look at Olympic medal counts in comparison with more traditional metrics of national power, such as GDP and defense budgets. (GDP and military expenditures are both admittedly crude proxies for national power; for a more extensive exploration of how power might be measured, see my American Interest article on same.) In putting together the table below, I listed the top 10 countries in total medals won at the London Olympics, and below them for comparison added six other countries that are generally considered "rising powers" in global affairs: India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Turkey, and South Africa. I then listed each nation's global rank in total GDP (nominal) and in defense spending. This is just a whimsical first cut, of course, so any political scientists out there are quite welcome to apply some methodological rigor and see if there are any genuine findings to be had.

 

Country

2012 Medal Rank

GDP rank

Defense budget rank

USA

1

1

1

China

2

2

2

Russia

3

9

3

Great Britain

4

7

4

Germany

5

4

9

Japan

6

3

6

Australia

7

13

13

France

8

5

5

South Korea

9

15

12

Italy

10

8

11

India

37

11

8

Brazil

16

6

10

Saudi Arabia

82

20

7

Mexico

33

14

34

Turkey

38

18

17

South Africa

35

29

43

 

What does this tell us? Overall that wealth, military spending, and Olympic success seem to go together -- not too surprising. The national characteristics necessary to produce Olympic-level elite athletes seem to involve a blend of hard and soft power quotients. The most obvious hard power dimension is economic; nations with more wealth are able to devote more resources to supporting Olympic training and facilities. Population levels are certainly a factor, but in relation to overall wealth. In the domain of soft power, nations with functioning governance can effectively direct their resources for determined purposes, such as developing a system to encourage Olympic athletes. Some dimension of culture is another soft power quotient that may play a part, for the self-evident reason that cultures that value sports in general, and in many cases particular sports, are more likely to produce Olympic athletes. To take just one example, as a former water polo player I've always been fascinated by the tremendously disproportionate number of elite water polo teams who come from south-central Europe, principally Hungary and the former Yugoslavia. The fact that three out of the four final teams in water polo this year were Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro shows what a powerhouse the remnants of Yugoslavia remain. Or Jamaica in track and field, which despite its meager power measurements on traditional metrics (e.g. military, economy, governance) has produced the world's finest sprinting program. Or Romania in gymnastics, and so on. 

The other side of the coin is countries that are ascendant as economic and/or military powers but who still punch below their weight at the Olympics. From the table above, the three countries that stand out the most are India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- all of which rank much higher in GDP and defense spending than in Olympic medal counts. This is understandable given that ascendant powers usually first focus on getting their fundamentals of economic growth, infrastructure, and defense on track before devoting national resources to sports sponsorship. Conversely, Olympic results are often a lagging indicator for declining powers. Nations such as Russia that are otherwise in relative economic and military decline still produce  Olympic successes, perhaps partly due to the inherited infrastructure and tradition of supporting elite Russian athletes.

Overall the American successes in London are perhaps another small but telling indicator that American decline is not yet upon us.  Now that the Olympics are over, here in Texas we are looking forward to the start of football season. As long as the United States still has football season come around every fall, I won't worry too much about American decline.  

LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages