Best work of 2019-2020
Hi everyone! Thanks to those of you who have subscribed.
My name is Richard Hanania, many of you know me from Twitter. I’m a research fellow at Columbia University and Defense Priorities, and my main areas of focus are international relations and political psychology.
Although I continue to publish in academic journals, I’m spending more of my time on more policy relevant research.
My political views are unorthodox, combining parts of positions traditionally associated with the right and left. I tend to think the truth is rarely in “the middle”; it’s much more common that one side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong, or both sides are wrong and missing something important. But neither side is right or wrong on everything, and each has major blindspots.
I criticize the cultural left, what is often referred to as “wokeness” or “identity politics.” There’s certainly stupidity and evil on the political right, though it’s usually a lot less powerful. At the same time, my main field of study has led me to be extremely critical of American foreign policy, which many conservatives do not like. Despite studying international relations, I’m skeptical of it as a field, and believe that its most important assumption, that states act rationally, is fundamentally wrong.
My worldview is informed by an epistemological approach that thinks in terms of probabilities, seeks to be aware of political biases, favors data over speculation and, when data are ambiguous, relies on common sense rooted in well supported priors about the way the world works. Here’s a blog post from Bryan Caplan on what a healthy epistemological culture looks like. I wholeheartedly endorse the message, and find myself following more people who adhere to these rules and fewer who do not.
I’m going to be sending this newsletter out as often as needed in order to keep everyone updated on my work. My articles are consistently updated on my Google Scholar page, so see here for everything across my entire academic career.
For this first post, I’m going to share my most important work from 2019-2020. This includes articles in the popular press, academic publications, and Twitter threads. Feel free to reach out with any comments or questions. If any article is paywalled, just e-mail me and I’ll send you a copy.
I may add additional content available only to the newsletter, but don’t have plans to do so in the immediate future.
Foreign Policy Op-eds
“The Real Threat to U.S. Elections Doesn’t Come from Beijing or Moscow.” Real Clear Defense. September 3, 2020.
“The U.S. Should Adopt Reasonable Policies to Calm Relations With Beijing.” Real Clear Defense. June 30, 2020.
“Bolton May Be a Beast, but He’s Washington’s Creature.” The American Conservative. June 23, 2020. Review of John Bolton’s memoir on his time in the Trump administration.
“There Is No Thucydides Trap Between the U.S. and China.” Real Clear Defense. June 8, 2020.
“Lessons of the Pinker Affair: The Problem with the Academy is False Beliefs, Not Intolerance.” Quillette. September 16, 2020. Where I argue that the problem with the academic left is not mainly an issue of free speech, but more about right versus wrong. A focus on “free speech” in the abstract distracts from the fact that these people believe in things that are objectively crazy.
“Trump, Social Science, and Media Bias.” The Wall Street Journal. July 4, 2019. Debunking of popular study used to argue that Russian trolls helped President Trump win in 2016.
“The Humanitarian Turn at the UNSC: Explaining the development of international norms through machine learning algorithms.” Journal of Peace Research (online first).
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has transformed from a body almost exclusively focused on conflict to one that addresses a wide variety of issues. Despite a series of powerful works in recent years showing how international norms have developed over time, we still lack clear understanding of why and when international institutions change their missions. This article argues that while international politics is usually characterized by inertia, shocks to the system, or focal point events, can compel rational actors to adopt new logics of appropriateness. Since 1945, the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Helsinki Accords stand out as such events. Through latent Dirichlet allocation, a machine learning algorithm used to classify text, UNSC resolutions between 1946 and 2017 can be divided into the subjects of War, Punitive, and Humanitarian. The topic Humanitarian exploded in frequency after the Cold War, and more refined models show that words related to human rights and elections similarly increased after Helsinki. These changes are rapid and occur in almost the immediate aftermath of focal point events, showing their importance for norm diffusion. The analysis also reveals another shift towards humanitarian topics in the mid-2000s, demonstrating the ability of topic modeling to uncover changes that have been missed by earlier kinds of analysis.
“Worse than Nothing: Why US Intervention Made Government Atrocities More Likely in Syria.” Survival 62: 173-92 (2020). This article takes on those who argue that, if Iraq and Libya show what happens when the U.S. intervenes in the Middle East, Syria shows the costs of doing nothing. In fact, the U.S. did quite a lot in Syria, and it had disastrous effects on the lives of the people in that country by exacerbating the civil war and encouraging harsher methods by the government to put down the rebellion.
“The Prejudice First Model and Foreign Policy Values: Racial and religious bias among conservatives and liberals.” (with Robert Trager) European Journal of International Relations (online first).
Scholars who study public opinion and American foreign policy have accepted what Rathbun et al. (2016) call the “Vertical Hierarchy Model,” which says that policy attitudes are determined by more abstract moral ideas about right and wrong. This article turns this idea on its head by introducing the Prejudice First Model, arguing that foreign policy preferences and orientations are driven by attitudes toward the groups being affected by specific policies. Three experiments are used to test the utility of this framework. First, when conservatives heard about Muslims killing Christians, as opposed to the opposite scenario, they were more likely to support a humanitarian intervention and agree that the United States has a moral obligation to help those persecuted by their governments. Liberals showed no religious preference. When the relevant identity group was race, however, liberals were more likely to want to help blacks persecuted by whites, while conservatives showed no racial bias. In contrast, the degree of persecution mattered relatively little to respondents in either experiment, and the effects of moral foundations were shown to be generally weak relative to those of prejudice. In another experiment, conservatives adopted more isolationist policies after reading a text about the country becoming more liberal, as opposed to a paragraph that said the United States was a relatively conservative country. While not necessarily contradicting the Vertical Hierarchy Model, the results indicate that under most conditions the Prejudice First Model presents a better lens through which to understand how foreign policy preferences are formed.
“Losing Elections, Winning the Debate: Progressive Racial Rhetoric and White Backlash.” (with Eric Kauffmann and George Hawley) PsyArXiv (2020).
Recent years have seen liberals moving sharply to the left on issues related to race and gender, the so-called “Great Awokening,” accompanied by commentary arguing that this has led to a popular backlash against the left. Through a preregistered survey, this study polls a representative sample of white Americans to test the effect of a Democratic candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand, arguing for programs designed to help blacks and declaring the significance of white privilege in American life. Our results show that statements about white privilege decrease support for the candidate, with an effect size that is about equal to a one standard deviation shift to the right in ideology. The effect is concentrated among moderates and conservatives. Advocating reparations and affirmative action has a similar but smaller effect. At the same time, arguing for reparations actually increases support for such policies, and discussing white privilege may decrease some aspects of white identity among conservatives. The results indicate that taking more liberal positions on race causes white voters to punish a Democratic candidate. However, there is no evidence for the hypothesis that white Americans move to the right in response to such rhetoric or develop stronger feelings of white identity.
“Does Apologizing Work? An empirical test of the conventional wisdom.” Behavioural Public Policy (online first).
Public figures often apologize after making controversial statements. There are reasons to believe, however, that apologizing makes public figures appear weak and risk averse, which may make them less likeable and lead members of the public to want to punish them. This paper presents the results of an experiment in which respondents were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual had stood firm. In the first experiment, hearing that Rand Paul apologized for his comments on civil rights did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. When presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, however, liberals and females were more likely to say that he should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology. The effects on other groups were smaller or neutral. The evidence suggests that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished.
“Ineffective, Immoral, Politically Convenient: America’s Overreliance on Economic Sanctions and What to Do about It.” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 884. February 18, 2020.
Why America is not headed towards civil war.
Why you shouldn’t listen to Peter Turchin. See also here, where he refuses to tell me exactly what he said would happen in 2020, even though he writes articles regularly talking about how he predicted everything that happened this year. Some mockery.
Thread on the most interesting parts of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I am finishing up now.
Same from Robert Draper’s To Start a War, a book on the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. If you study that time period, you see most clearly how irrational American foreign policy is. There wasn’t really a plan for the war and what would come after, just improvisation based on gut instinct and political calculations. Most other aspects of American foreign policy are not much better thought out, see for example the Cato report on sanctions above.
Thread on some of my other previous threads.
Razib Khan’s Brown Pundits podcast.