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Watson Experts Respond: What Are the Critical Issues for 2016?

"The nuclear deal with Iran, one of the most important accomplishments in regional and global security, was possible only because of the Obama administration's sustained commitment to diplomacy, rather than war, with Iran."

Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Jo-Anne Hart

Watson Experts Respond: What Are the Critical Issues for 2016?

Watson Institute faculty were asked to identify what they see as critical issues facing the world in 2016. The responses highlight the stability and security concerns prevalent in our national and global dialogue -- from economic and political stability in Europe and the United States to security across the Middle East.

February 16th, 2016

Partisanship and the Supreme Court

In 2016, politicization of the Supreme Court may be reaching a new high water mark.

Never before have we seen the Senate’s majority, speaking through its leadership, challenge the president’s Constitutional responsibility to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court.  It hardly seems to fall within the Senate’s role of advice and consent to prejudge and oppose a still unnamed nominee.

Yet within minutes of the news of Antonin Scalia’s death reaching Washington, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared, “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice… Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) claimed, “… it’s been standard practice over the last nearly 80 years that Supreme Court nominees are not nominated and confirmed during a presidential election year."

This assertion rests on shaky ground.  Sen. Grassley is apparently referring to President Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Justice Frank Murphy as the last time a justice was “nominated and confirmed” during a presidential election year. The Senate did confirm current Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, in 1988 (although he was nominated in 1987).  

Grassley relies on his careful use of the phrase “nominated and confirmed” to create the 80 year span. But, the claim that this constitutes “standard practice” is an effort to create a precedent where none exists.

As if to underline the partisan nature of the blanket rejection of any Obama nominee, all six of the Republican presidential candidates have taken that position. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promised to lead a filibuster in the Senate. He asserted on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, ““The Senate’s duty is to advise and consent… We’re advising that a lame-duck president in an election year is not going to be able to tip the balance of the Supreme Court.”

This not only twists the meaning of “advise and consent,” but seeks to expand the normal definition of a “lame-duck president.” A lame-duck president is one serving out his term in the White House after his successor has been elected. Front-runner Donald Trump called for “Delay, delay, delay.”

The battle over the nomination of Scalia’s successor will not only impact the on-going presidential election, as it already has, but also the battle for control of the Senate, particularly if Republicans are successful in delaying the process until January. Under those circumstances, control of the Senate and the Judiciary Committee will be crucial to the next president.

Read more analysis from Professor Arenberg on the Supreme Court vacancy

Richard Arenberg
Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs

Things Fall Apart: Will the European Union Last?

The European experiment is beginning to unravel as pressures from within and without test economic and political institutions that are even more fragile than previously thought. The Obama Administration and its successor will find that Europe will preoccupy US policymakers in 2016. 

A variety of centrifugal and centripetal forces are endangering the European Union. The weak euro is further pressured by the need for investments in security and refugee assistance as a gerry-rigged monetary system fails to stimulate southern-tier economies. Germany is challenged by slow growth and the absorption of 1.1 million refugees. France and Italy seem incapable of undertaking the major restructuring their economies require. The stronger dollar and weakened euro are thus far failing to stimulate trade with the United States, and the remedy – a new trade pact with the US – seems a remote prospect as Europeans observe the polarized American electoral scene with alarm.

In 2016 Britain will consider a "Brexit" from the Union at a time when the United Kingdom itself is threatened by Scottish and Welsh separatist movements. Spain also faces a break-up by a Catalonian independence movement; and Central and Eastern European chauvinism and Russian aggression threaten the security premise of the Organization for European Security and Cooperation: respect for borders and the rights of minorities.  

European politics is becoming as polarized as the American polity as right-wing parties threaten traditional parties and populism of both the right and left is fueled by immigration and unemployment. Some of these parties are being funded by Russia and Vladimir Putin's desire to respond to what he perceives as EU meddling in his sphere of influence. Putin's propaganda machine is ironically targeting Western "liberal democracy" by promoting "traditional values" and the principle of non-interference by foreign powers. Putin's dangerous admixture of intimidation and soft-power tactics is interference of the worst kind and it is taking its toll. 

Like it or not, American politicians will be called upon in 2016 to relieve the pressure on the European Union, an institution that has contributed to peace, prosperity and American security for decades.

J. Brian Atwood
Senior Fellow for International and Public Affairs

Global Markets Are No Longer Obeying Economic Common Sense

“One of the oddest things about 2016, so far at least, is how economic common sense is being twisted in all sorts of ways to explain what’s going on in the global economy.

By the end of 2015 market commentators were clamouring for an interest rate rise from the Federal Reserve to restore confidence. Normally, the only reason to raise rates is if there is inflation in the economy and you want to squeeze it out.

Problem: there was no inflation in the US, or almost anywhere else, at the end of 2015.

So despite that rather obvious fact, the markets got the rise that they wanted and … it helped lower economic activity, precisely as one would expect, which has had a decidedly negative impact on confidence.

Generally speaking, when you make something more expensive – in this case, money – people buy less of it. But in this world, “the markets” were arguing that people would buy more of something if you made it more expensive, and that would produce confidence, so they would buy more, which is a bit odd, to say the least.”
Read more on The Guardian

Mark Blyth

Eastman Professor of Political Economy

Tax Reform While We’re Looking the Other Way

2016 will be a critical year for tax reform in this country. "You're crazy," most people would say, "major reforms never happen in election years!" And that is certainly true. But new tax systems are not conjured from thin air; they are immensely complex laws that result from hundreds of thousands of hours of expert focus, private interest lobbying, and hard-fought compromises (most of which you will never hear about). The famous 1986 tax reform took three years to accomplish, and our tax code has grown far more complex since then. If we have any chance of actually passing a reform under a new president, then key experts from Treasury and Capitol Hill must spend this year hashing out many of the details so that reform is in reach in 2017. Counterintuitively, the election actually gives them cover, since most of the media will be off chasing the presidential candidates around the country. So you may not hear much about it now, but if we see major tax in 2017, then you have 2016 to thank.

John Friedman
Associate Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs

Diplomacy in the Middle East Essential … but Unlikely

The US remains hugely significant in what does and doesn't happen in the Middle East, and there is much more that could go wrong as oil prices continue downward while war and instability continue upward. I fear a worsening global perception of US policy over the course of the presidential election campaign this year. The candidates’ competition for extreme views has already resulted in irresponsible and incendiary anti-Muslim statements, threats, and campaign “promises.” Such electioneering, reprehensible on multiple levels, also threatens prospects for good policy-making. Whoever takes the White House in 2017 could well be hindered by their campaign claims and by global responses to their rhetoric.

The nuclear deal with Iran, one of the most important accomplishments in regional and global security, was possible only because of the Obama administration's sustained commitment to diplomacy, rather than war, with Iran. In contrast, the 2004 Republican candidate for president sang a catchy ditty about bombing Iran that went viral. Meanwhile, then-candidate Obama was pilloried for saying he would welcome talks with Iran without preconditions. 

It should be obvious to even the casual observer of US intervention in the Middle East that we are better off averting war than waging it. Yet the problems from this region confronting the world in 2016 regrettably have grown more complex. There are no quick or simple military solutions against ISIS, the civil wars in Syria or Yemen, or in the post-US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Fanning Islamophobia in the American presidential campaign under the guise of fighting terrorism certainly adds to our problems. It is disturbing that more of the American electorate who are active in the primary season so far don’t appear to reward what could better be bipartisan shared goals: diplomatic, collaborative, and peace-seeking approaches to international conflict.

Jo-Anne Hart
Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs

Posturing on the Campaign Trail

The central foreign policy issue of 2016 will be the same one the United States has faced in every year of this century: intervention. When, where, and how should the United States intervene abroad? This debate will sharpen as the presidential campaign intensifies.

In such a highly politicized environment, there is little incentive for candidates to urge prudent restraint. Many may presume that to win votes, they must promise to be more aggressive and confrontational than their rivals. This will lead to a spiral of chest-thumping.

Candidates will compete to promise the most sweeping campaign against ISIS; the biggest buildup of troops around Russia’s borders; the most provocative naval maneuvers near Chinese waters; and the harshest measures to counter Iran. They will ignore inconvenient facts that they presume voters do not want to hear. Among them are: we cannot defeat ISIS until we and our allies agree that this should be our first priority in Syria and Iraq; pushing our hostile power onto Russia’s borders provokes militarism in Russia and sharpens tension in Europe; recognizing China’s place in the world is wiser than trying to intimidate or defeat China; and Iran’s interests are closer to our own than those of many of our longtime partners in the Middle East.

Fantasy, myth-making and the desire to look “tough” will push politicians toward dangerously irresponsible threats. With luck, the arrival of one of those candidates in the White House will calm him or her down, and perhaps lead to a more rational 2017.

Stephen Kinzer
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs

Will Congress Do Right by Puerto Ricans?

Puerto Rico, the oldest colony in the world, is facing a serious socioeconomic crisis. Anemic economic growth has plagued the island for almost a decade. Since 2006 the local economy has contracted by more than 13 percent in real terms, domestic investment has declined by almost twice that amount, and net job losses exceed 270,000. Seeing few options in a rapidly deteriorating environment, those who can are “voting with their feet.” In 2014 alone, 84,000 persons took advantage of their US citizenship and migrated to such states as Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, and Georgia.

To address this protracted cycle of decline, disinvestment, and departure, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico ran substantial primary deficits, which were covered with long-term debt. So much was borrowed while the economy languished that the current $69 billion debt burden is equal to the country’s gross national product (GNP).

What this means for everyday citizens is truly worrisome. In fiscal year 2016, debt service on bonds issued or guaranteed by the Commonwealth or payable from the General Fund amounts to almost $2 billion, or approximately 20 percent of the General Fund budget. To put that into perspective, consider that the Commonwealth budget for fiscal year 2015 allocated $3.4 billion for the Department of Education, $2.2 billion for the public health program, $1.5 billion for the University of Puerto Rico, and $848 million for the state police.

Most countries caught in a similar bind would engage in an orderly restructuring of their debts, and devote public funds to jumpstart economic growth. But because Puerto Rico is a colony, it cannot avail itself of such protections. Only the US Congress, which has plenary powers over the island, can extend that right. So far, it has failed to do right by millions of islanders who continue to suffer under their watch. 

On Wednesday, March 2nd, Deepak Lamba-Nieves will moderate a panel discussion on a Fiscal Responsibility Law for Puerto Rico. Learn more.

Deepak Lamba-Nieves

Postdoctoral Fellow in International and Public Affairs

The New Hampshire Earthquake: Trump and Sanders vs. the Laws of Political Probability

"The Republican establishment searches for a non-Trump with increasing desperation. Coming out of Iowa it was Marco Rubio. Until he quite incredibly embraced the negative rap his rivals were trying to pin on him – scripted, inauthentic, not ready for prime time—by repeating the same line four times in one debate. The great question for Republicans after New Hampshire: Can anyone stop Trump?

Over on the Democratic side, authenticity is giving the party elites heartburn. Bernie Sanders won all nine New Hampshire counties by margins ranging from 15 percent to a whopping 41 percent. Populism on the left matches populism on the right.

Many Democratic leaders like Sanders’ message about economic inequality. What they don’t like is the memory of defeat. Between 1968 and 1992 (skipping the anomalous Watergate election) the Democrats managed to win Electoral College votes of 191, 17, 48, 13, 111 (it takes 270). Bernie Sanders reminds the gray hairs of those years in the wilderness. They believe – incorrectly, but that’s a story for another day — that voters punished the Democrats for zigging too far leftward.

Can Sanders win the nomination? He still faces two formidable barriers: the skeptical non-white voters who comprise 40 percent of the party. And the 712 unelected party “super delegates” – who were empowered precisely to avoid quixotic candidates. The only way to win them over is to, well, keep winning big."
Read more on Salon

James A. Morone
John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Political Science and Urban Studies