Grading candidates for Biden’s foreign policy team: William Burns

Background: Burns, a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Russia and as deputy secretary of state, gets particularly high marks for cognitive empathy—understanding the perspectives and motivations of international actors.

For our grading criteria, click here.

Bringing insight meditation to America: An interview with Sharon Salzberg

I was lucky enough to do my first meditation retreat—back in 2003—at a landmark of American Buddhism: the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. As much as any institution, IMS was responsible for bringing to America a kind of meditation known as vipassana—which is usually translated as “insight” and can be thought of, for practical purposes, as roughly the same thing as mindfulness. I was also lucky to have already met, at this point, two of IMS’s co-founders—Joseph Goldstein (who has previously appeared in the newsletter) and Sharon Salzberg, who is now world-famous for her teachings not only on mindfulness but also on lovingkindness meditation. Recently I had a conversation on The Wright Show podcast with Sharon about her latest book, Real Change, and we wound up talking both about the book and about the 1970s, when she and Joseph and Jack Kornfield co-founded IMS after sojourns in Asia.

BOB: I'm so glad I'm going to get to talk to you. We're old friends, for one thing. But also, you've got a new book out. It's the latest in a series of Real books. You've written a book called Real Happiness, you've written a book called Real Love, and this book is called Real Change

SHARON: That's right. I somehow got on the Real train. I don't know how that happened. People are teasing me, like "maybe your next book is Real Life." 


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Readings

A lament in The Beinart Notebook—a new newsletter put out by my old friend Peter Beinart—notes that Joe Biden is unlikely to pursue a very progressive foreign policy and that “American progressives haven’t mobilized to change foreign policy in the way they have on domestic policy.” If you want to help improve that situation, you should subscribe to Peter’s newsletter (while, I might suggest, continuing to read this one).

Adapting to changes our species has inflicted on Earth’s environment is possible! At least, it’s possible for species other than ours. A flower called Fritillaria delavayi, which grows on rocky mountains in China, has long been used in traditional medicine. A study by Chinese and British scientists finds that, in areas where commercial harvesting is intense, the flower has evolved to be less conspicuous, changing from a bright green to a brown or grey that blends in with surrounding terrain. 

In the New York Times, Jessica Bennett profiles Loretta J. Ross, a radical Black feminist professor who’s fighting “call-out culture.” Her weapon of choice? “Calling in.” Calling in is “a call out done with love”—that is, in private, with compassion and respect. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College, believes that “we actually sabotage our own happiness with this unrestrained anger. And I have to honestly ask: Why are you making choices to make the world crueler than it needs to be and calling that being ‘woke’?”

Trump deeply disturbed the Blob this week with his plans to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan in half by the end of the year. In Responsible Statecraft, Andrew Bacevich and Adam Weinstein criticize foreign policy elites for freaking out: “Even as the dysfunction that has characterized the war is widely recognized, few in the foreign policy establishment are willing to consider the possibility that its continuation no longer serves the interests of the United States.” Meanwhile, one of several CIA-backed paramilitary groups in Afghanistan has come under fire for allegedly killing over a dozen civilians in a series of raids last month. In Foreign Policy, Emran Feroz reports that “many Afghans want the groups disbanded when the United States withdraws.” 

In Aeon, anthropologist James K Rilling reviews research, including his own, into the biological effects of becoming a father—such as a drop in testosterone, a hormone that, in other species, has been shown to be inversely correlated with a male’s parental devotion. “We have known for decades that mothers’ bodies and brains are transformed by the dramatic hormonal changes of pregnancy and childbirth,” writes Rilling. Now we’re learning that men are “biologically transformed by the experience of becoming an involved father.”

Introducing the progressive realism report card

Remember last Saturday? When the networks declared Joe Biden the president-elect, and it was possible, for one bright shining moment, to imagine that Donald Trump would respond to news of his imminent departure from the White House by preparing to depart from the White House?  

Now, a week later, there is so much worry about Trump refusing to leave that people are semi-seriously talking about how a skilled hostage negotiator would handle the situation. But here at the Nonzero Newsletter we’re choosing to optimistically assume a happy ending to this crisis and focus our worry elsewhere. Namely: on the question of whether, after Trump is finally extracted from the oval office, its new occupant will be much of an improvement over him in the foreign policy department.

Today we launch a series of evaluations of people who are in the running for major roles on Biden’s foreign policy team. We call these evaluations “progressive realism report cards”—which raises two questions:

1) Why progressive realism? For starters, because that is this newsletter’s unofficial foreign policy ideology. (I described its essence concisely in a 2016 piece in The Nation and, less concisely, in the 2006 New York Times essay in which I coined the term.) But also because progressive realism stands in such stark contrast to the ideology of “the Blob”—the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that has long managed to retain power in Washington notwithstanding its demonstrated tendency to screw up the world. 

To put a finer point on it: I think that if progressive realist principles had guided America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been able to get the political traction he got in 2016 by promising to extricate American troops from the various messes we’ve gotten them into. Because, by and large, the messes wouldn’t exist. 

2) Why report cards? Do I honestly think that the people we give low grades will be assigned commensurately low-status positions (or none at all) in the Biden administration? No, for two reasons: (1) the Washington establishment seems to work the other way around: the worse your record on foreign policy, and the more damage your ideas have wreaked on the world, the more influence over policy you are granted; (2) we’re just a little newsletter, not a big and influential platform.  

However, if enough like-minded, public spirited readers share these report cards on Twitter or Facebook, maybe we’ll be able to punch above our weight! And maybe, eventually, thanks to efforts at this newsletter and like-minded renegade outlets, the foreign policy establishment will start to feel the heat. (A guy can dream…) 

Below is our first report card. It’s for Tony Blinken, who is probably Biden’s closest foreign policy aide and will almost certainly wind up with great influence in the new administration. Immediately below the report card itself is the heart of the matter—our justification for each of the grades Blinken received. (If you want to read a subject-by-subject explanation of the grading criteria—which doubles as a short introduction to progressive realism—that’s here.) In the coming weeks we’ll issue report cards to other prospective Biden foreign policy advisers—some of whom, we’re happy to report, will get higher grades than Blinken.

Grading Biden’s Foreign Policy Team: Tony Blinken

Background: Blinken is a liberal interventionist with an emphatic idealism about the virtues of “American leadership.” His relationship to Biden goes back decades, and he is considered a favorite for national security adviser or secretary of state. 

For our grading criteria, click here.

Readings

In Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson argues that the time to start worrying about Trump's post-presidential resurgence is now. (And, yes, as the piece’s epigraph reminds us, the New York Times actually did run a “Hitler Virtually Eliminated” headline—albeit a small one—on the front page in 1923.)  

After the terrorist beheading of a French teacher who showed students cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a more French, secularized version of Islam and was greeted by criticism and protests in numerous Muslim-majority countries. In Bloomberg Opinion, Pankaj Mishra contends that Macron’s discourse about the “right to offend” Muslim people hurts prospects for harmony between his country’s “secular” (historically Christian) majority and its Muslim minority. “It is one thing to defend freedom of expression—an obligation of all democratic leaders,” Mishra writes. “It is quite another to deploy a whole nation behind a particular expression of that freedom.”

Elixir for tribalism: America is divided in many ways, but in every state where the legalization or decriminalization of drugs was on the ballot, it won, notes Vox.

In Responsible Statecraft, Anatol Lieven argues that a lack of (cognitive) empathy has led American foreign policy astray. He laments our failure to understand Russian interests, even when they parallel our own. In Syria, for example, Russia has supported a dictator in order to avoid a power vacuum—much as we once did in Algeria and currently do in Egypt. Lieven leaves us with advice on how to deal with Washington’s new bogeyman: “We had better hope that in dealing with the vastly more formidable challenge of China our policy elites will engage in real study, eschew self-righteousness, and identify and not attack the vital interests of China, as long as Beijing does not seek to attack our own.”

A video on the philosophy of Thomas Metzinger offers reasons to think that the “self” may not exist. (I interviewed Metzinger in 2018 on my podcast, The Wright Show.) 

In Vox, Umair Irfan assesses Pfizer's Covid vaccine, explaining what 90 percent efficacy actually means, how the drug company's approach to developing the vaccine works, and why it may take a while for the vaccine to get to market. 

In Commonweal, Jesuit Scholastic Fernando C. Saldivar makes the case that the U.S. should join the E.U. and China in ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, which bans the export of weapons that could be used to commit atrocities. The priest-in-training condemns the current, unregulated system, which gives arms dealers “a highly lucrative freedom to look the other way while the Saudis target noncombatants” in Yemen. “We can no longer pretend not to know—or appear not to care—what is being done with bombs and missiles made in America,” Saldivar writes.

A thought experiment about utilitarianism raises the oft-overlooked question of whether maybe you should let an AI eat you.

How to stay sane until the election’s over

My struggle to preserve some semblance of equanimity amid the most emotionally destabilizing presidential campaign of my life has led to extreme measures: I’ve been delving into the literature on both Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Turns out the two schools of thought have something in common: a therapeutic technique that the ancient Stoics called premeditatio malorum—which, loosely translated, means imagining bad things that might happen. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d be good at! Here’s how it works:

Suppose you’ve spent the last couple of months worrying that a presidential candidate you detest, though behind in the polls, might stage a comeback. Suppose you’ve already taken the obvious measures to insulate yourself from the vicissitudes of online engagement—like, say, reducing the number of times you check for updated poll results from 20 or so times a day to 18 or so times a day. And suppose you still haven’t found peace of mind. It’s time to harness the power of premeditatio malorum: you just imagine that it’s the morning of November 4 and the candidate whose victory you dread has won.

When cognitive behavioral therapists guide you through this exercise, they ask questions like “So, if the worst happens, how bad will that actually be?” or “Would what you’re worried about happening really be the end of the world?” If the therapy works as planned, you realize, on reflection, that the answers are “Less than catastrophic” and “No.” In my case, the answers, on reflection, were: “Really, really bad, like super-bad, like beyond catastrophic” and “Quite possibly, yes.”

So my premeditatio malorum was off to an inauspicious start. Though the technique is supposed to have an effect that Albert Ellis, one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s founding figures, called “de-catastrophizing,” it was instead having an effect that I call “scaring the shit out of me.”

Readings

Maybe America’s great tribal divide is being overstated, or at least misunderstood. In the New York Times, political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan argue that the biggest cleavage in American politics isn’t the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans but the “attention divide” between political junkies in both parties and the less politically engaged masses. In both parties, for example, the masses consider low hourly wages a much bigger problem than do the people (15 to 20 percent of each party) who qualify as “deeply involved” in politics. And the deeply involved tend to have obsessions not shared by the less engaged members of their party—such as the influence of wealthy donors in the case of Democrats and drug abuse in the case of Republicans. Also, in both parties the deeply involved are much less open to their children marrying across party lines. The gap between “the politically indifferent and hard, loud partisans exacerbates the perception of a hopeless division in American politics because it is the partisans who define what it means to engage in politics,” Krupnikov and Ryan write.

In Aeon, neuroscientist Laura Crucianelli reflects on the psychological importance of physical contact among humans and the consequences of its becoming a scarce resource amid the pandemic.

In the American Conservative, Gil Barndollar assesses the foreign policy stakes of Tuesday’s election. Biden promises a return to the pre-2016 normal, while Trump offers policies that are closer to that normal than Biden might like to admit. “Whether possessing four or 40 years of foreign policy experience, neither septuagenarian is apt to reorient America’s role in the world, regardless of what the voters want.”

A Pew Research Center study finds that the average American is much more worried about various threats to America—terrorism, Russia, China—than the average international relations scholar. (The one big role reversal: climate change.) What I’d like to see is a comparison between such scholars and the foreign policy experts who populate DC think tanks and presidential administrations. On balance, I’d guess, DC experts find America more vulnerable to foreign threats than experts who spend their time on college campuses. In which case the question would be whether that’s because DC experts have a closer, clearer view of the situation or because their social status and job prospects are correlated with how scary the world seems… or some other factor.

In the Intercept, Murtaza Hussain argues that many crusaders against cancel culture aren’t equal-opportunity crusaders. They tend to ignore, in particular, the plight of pro-Palestinian activists who run afoul of such influential pro-Israel speech police as Canary Mission (when these activists support, for example, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies toward Palestinians). Discussion of cancel culture “among journalists and intellectuals has mostly focused on their own discomfort as a class,” Hussain writes. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian activists may face fates more dire than the dreaded “de-platforming.” Namely: “threats to immigration status, personal lives, careers, restrictions on foreign travel, and more.” (I made a related critique of the Intellectual Dark Web last year.)

Tips for avoiding a civil war

Last Thursday—two days after two Trump opponents were shot to death at a protest in Wisconsin, and two days before a Trump supporter was shot to death at a protest in Portland—the Washington Post ran a piece about the rising tide of civil conflict in America:  

In a spate of exchanges that have spanned from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Bloomington, Ind., to Chicago and Portland, Ore., people on both sides of the United States’ political and cultural divide have been filmed exchanging punches, beating one another with sticks and flagpoles, or standing face-to-face with weapons, often with police appearing to be little more than observers.

Note the phrase “have been filmed.” Lots of forces—political, economic, cultural—have gotten us to this point, but one of the strongest is technological: the fact that so much of life is now captured on video. Nothing has so intensified tribal animus on both sides of the divide as the fact that every day the worst things done by members of either tribe are injected into the social media feeds of the other tribe. 

Which wouldn’t be such a regrettable form of entertainment if everyone kept reminding themselves that these viral spectacles are by their nature aberrant. The reason you’re watching (say) a Trump supporter throw a fit over having to wear a mask in a supermarket isn’t because that’s typical of Trump supporters but, on the contrary, because that’s the most obnoxious thing any Trump supporter in the entire country was seen doing that day. 

Or, to take a more timely example: the reason the social media feeds of Trump supporters recently featured a left-wing protester celebrating the killing of that Trump supporter in Portland (“I am not sad that a fucking fascist died,” she said to scattered cheers on the streets of Portland) is because that was the most reprehensible thing a left-wing protester was seen doing that day. 

Agnes Callard on acting against your interests

The first thing I ever heard about the philosopher Agnes Callard is that she had once lain down in the middle of a road at night as part of her philosophical explorations. This intrigued me, so I arranged to talk with her on The Wright Show last year. I’m glad I did, both because it was a fairly wild conversation (as conversations with philosophers go) and because it made me see such common words as unruliness and aspiration in a new light. In Part I of the interview, below, Alice and I talk about unruliness (and the related concept of “akrasia”). In Part II, which will appear in a future issue of NZN, we talk about aspiration, the subject of her book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.

Unruliness, or a rebellion for its own sake

WRIGHT: You’ve written about something called “akrasia.” As I understand it, it’s doing something even though you think it's the wrong thing to do in one sense or another—morally wrong, unwise—and you know that, but you do it anyway. But before we talk about that, I want to talk about “Unruliness,” which is the name of an essay you wrote. 

The way you first came to my attention was by virtue of your having at one point in your life laid down in the middle of a road at night on the yellow line, which struck me as—yeah, “unruly” would be a fair way to put it.

I was very struck by that and I thought I should get this person who allegedly did this to explain to me why she did it. 

So this was what, 20 years ago or something?

CALLARD: Yeah, just about. I was a grad student at Berkeley studying classics at the time. 

I guess I would describe unruliness more generally as when you see that there's a certain structure of how people tend to respond or act in a situation; and then you see another possibility of just a thing that people don't do. 

Another example I gave in that essay is eating flowers. I used to be really tempted to eat flowers. I'm like, they're so pretty. I just want to eat them.

Did you ever do it?

Yes. They don't taste good. But I would keep trying. It was like, but that's not what you do. You don't eat flowers.

One does not eat flowers.

Exactly. And so there's this line in the road, and it's like, here's what you don't do: lie down on that line. And then once I get that thought, I'm like, but what would it be like if you did it? 

Readings

In ProPublica, Alec MacGillis looks at “police pullback.” Amid recent protests, some cities have seen rising crime rates, apparently a result of less strenuous law enforcement by police who feel “aggrieved by the charges against their fellow officers, public criticism of their department as a whole or growing calls to greatly reduce their powers and resources.” An episode of police pullback in Baltimore in 2015, after protests over the killing of Freddie Gray, “combined with other problems to create a breakdown of civil order in the city,” MacGillis writes. “The rise of violence there has yet to abate, five years later.” 

This week Elon Musk, in promoting his brain-machine interface company Neuralink, trotted out a pig with a brain implant that can sense and relay nerve signals emanating from the pig’s snout. In Technology Review, Antonio Regalado notes that this feat is “nothing new” and explains why some of Musk’s awe-inspiring claims about future Neuralink products should be greeted skeptically. Meanwhile, Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, suggests that Musk should “behave like a pioneer and implant the Neuralink chip in his own brain rather than exploiting smart, sensitive pigs who didn’t volunteer for surgery, don’t appreciate that he provides pats and a straw cell, and should be left out of pie-in-the-sky projects.” (Last month I interviewed Newkirk about her new book Animalkind.)

In Inkstick, Annelle Sheline, a fellow at the Quincy Institute, argues that self-inflicted calamities in the Middle East (such as the recent immolation of Lebanon’s main port) shouldn’t distract us from “the United States’ own role in creating the instability and poor governance that plagues the region.” 

The Washington Post takes a brief look at the life of Rusten Sheskey, the policeman who shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, touching off the latest iteration of civil unrest. The New York Times takes a longer look at the life of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by police in her Louisville apartment in March.

In Quillette, Philippe Lemoine takes a very, very, very deep dive into how the SARS-CoV-2 virus arose in China and spread. His three pieces (a fourth is yet to come) undermine the harsher critiques of the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, as well as claims that the virus originated in a laboratory and was the product of genetic engineering (though the conventional theory that it arose in a “wet market” is also lacking in evidence, he writes). Some promulgators of those critiques come out looking not so great; Lemoine says the reporting of Jim Geraghty of National Review was on more than one occasion “highly misleading”.

In Aeon, a short TED Ed video nicely illustrates the “Mary’s room” thought experiment, conceived by the philosopher Frank Jackson. Takes on it differ, but for my money it illustrates a sense in which human consciousness is beyond the reach of science (which doesn’t mean science can’t tell us anything about consciousness at all). Years ago Jackson spoke about his famous thought experiment on the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Trump’s global war on TikTok

As you may have heard, President Trump is waging thermonuclear war against a smartphone app. Last week he declared, in an executive order, that the famously zany video app TikTok represents a national emergency and will be crippled by new legal restrictions come late September—unless, he has said, it’s sold to an American company by the Chinese company that owns it.  

You may have also heard that Chinese political and corporate leaders aren’t happy about this. But you probably haven’t heard that lots and lots of regular Chinese people aren’t happy about it. This is something that, so far as I can tell, the American media isn’t reporting.  

In fact, to confirm my suspicion about this grassroots blowback, I had to go beyond googling and email a Chinese-American friend who for years lived in China and now follows China closely as part of his job back here in the States. He emailed back, “There's certainly a lot of popular resentment at the Trump Administration for the TikTok ban.” Many Chinese people are “livid,” he continued, “that Trump has tried to kneecap the one Chinese app to finally break through globally.” 

In other words: Trump’s latest move has strengthened nationalist sentiment in China. And you know who likes to keep nationalist sentiment strong in China? Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, whose popularity is directly proportional to it. 

Kind of ironic! After all, a professed purpose of Trump’s increasingly hostile stance toward China is to weaken its authoritarian leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a landmark speech delivered last month at the Richard Nixon library, said the U.S. must “engage and empower the Chinese people” to that end. (He “stopped shy of explicitly calling for regime change,” the Wall Street Journal noted.) Yet Trump, rather than engage the Chinese people, is alienating them—and in the process has empowered the regime.

Paul Bloom: The case for rational compassion

Paul Bloom is not a monster! I don’t normally begin my introductions of people with those kinds of reassurances, but Paul, a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author of a book called Against Empathy—and that title has led to some misunderstandings. Paul would like you to know that he isn’t entirely against empathy; he’s just against its counterproductive application—which he thinks is pretty common. After his book came out in 2016, I had a conversation with him on The Wright Show. I always have fun talking to Paul, and I think this extended excerpt shows why.

BLOOM: ...I actually suffer from an abundance of empathy. This book is, in some sense, a self-help book for myself. I tear up at things, I get really upset when I hear stories about people suffering. My charitable contributions are bizarre, based on personal prejudices and strong feelings. ...

WRIGHT: So this book is a cry for help. ...

This is definitely a cry for help. 

I would think that the temptation, if you write a book called Against Empathy, when you meet someone who has only heard the title, … is to say, "No, don't get the wrong idea." … The subtitle kind of says it: "The case for rational compassion." 

Exactly. The subtitle … is ... saying: “Look, I'm against something, but this is not one of those weird pro-psychopathy books that [says] we should be cruel to each other. It's not some sort of a plea for selfishness or brutality. It's rather: if you want to be a good person, there's a better way to do it.” ...

Some people think "empathy" is just a catch-all term for everything good: being kind, being moral, being compassionate or understanding. I have no problem if people want to use the word that way, and in that case, I'm not against empathy. I mean it in a more narrow sense: roughly, putting yourself in the shoes of other people, feeling their pain, feeling their suffering. 

And even taking that into account, I'm not against empathy for all realms of life. I think it's a wonderful source of pleasure. But the argument I make, which still remains somewhat controversial is that this narrow type of empathy is a very bad moral guide. It makes us into worse people, it makes the world worse. 

...  I think later we'll get into some of these distinctions: between empathy and compassion, and also a distinction you make between emotional empathy—you know, feeling their pain—and cognitive empathy, [which is] just understanding what the world looks like to them—that you're not railing against. ...

Readings

A piece in the newsletter BNet makes the case that, “Being skeptical of TikTok is not weird. Being skeptical of TikTok to a far larger degree than any other Big Tech company is absolutely weird.”

Wondering what kind of influence Kamala Harris might exert on foreign policy in a Biden administration? In October of last year, in the lefty periodical In These Times, Branko Marcetic profiled the Center for a New American Security, the think tank that was channeling its influence on the presidential campaign largely “through the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, who has drawn heavily from its ranks to fill her line-up of foreign policy advisors.”

In Tricycle, Ann Gleig, author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, looks at the historical relationship between Buddhists and racial justice.  

In FiveThirtyEight, Likhitha Butchireddygari recently looked at the polling on American attitudes toward China over the last fifteen years. Plot spoiler: we’re at a Sinophilic low point. But Butchireddygari explains why these sentiments may not give Trump much help in the 2020 election. 

In MIT’s Technology Review, Tanya Basu offers some advice on how to change the minds of conspiracy theory believers in your life.  

On The Wright Show, I recently had conversations with two DC foreign policy thinkers—Heather Hurlburt, a self-described “pragmatic liberal internationalist,” and Emma Ashford, a “realist”—about what paradigm should guide America’s engagement with the world. Plus, I’m now doing a weekly show with my old friend and ideological nemesis (He voted for Trump!) Mickey Kaus. Audio versions of all these conversations are available on The Wright Show podcast feed.