You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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I'm in Beijing, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. Lots of interesting comments so far, but what has been most striking (to me, at least), is the willingness of the American participants to tell our Chinese hosts what their foreign policy ought to be. I think the Chinese government has made a number of foreign policy mistakes in recent years -- mostly by throwing their weight around prematurely -- but it's not like American foreign and national security policy has been an untrammeled success for the past decade or so. In our case, a bit of humility would be so unexpected that it would leave our counterparts completely baffled.
This trip is the third time I've circumnavigated the globe (Boston-Newark-Singapore-Beijing-Chicago-Boston). That's no great achievement in this day and age, but I mention it because I've been reading a fascinating book: Joyce E. Chaplin's Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit. I'm only up through the voyages of James Cook, and the central lesson of the early attempts at circumnavigation is that it was fatal to most everyone who tried it. Magellan, as you probably know, led the first circumnavigation but didn't survive the trip, and survival rates were typically less than 20 percent. Today we feel bad if we have to fly economy.
The book also reminds me how recent our awareness and understanding of the globe really is. Homo Sapiens has been around for maybe 50,000 years, but knowledge of the full expanse of the globe and the ability to traverse it in its entirely has only been known since the 16th century. In other words, humans have been aware of the full extent of our shared planetary home for only about 20 generations, or less than 1 percent of the human experience. Small wonder that all these far-flung peoples still have trouble getting along.
Here's a puzzle for you to ponder. For more than a decade, Americans have been repeatedly told that Iran is a Grave, Imminent, Deadly Serious Threat to us, our allies, and the security of the whole world. Why? Because it is enriching uranium, which it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. intelligence services still maintain that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. Even if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon someday, it couldn't do anything with it without courting its own destruction at the hands of the United States, Israel, or possibly some other countries. Possession of a few bombs wouldn't give Tehran any more leverage than the United States gets from having a vast nuclear arsenal, and we get hardly any. Yet in response to this vastly inflated danger, the U.S. has organized an extensive program of multilateral sanctions, conducted aggressive covert action programs, and repeatedly hinted that it might launch a preventive war if Iran crossed some ill-specified "red line."
Meanwhile, the government of Laos has announced that it has broken ground for a giant dam on the Lower Mekong River, a step that many experts believe will permanently harm the ecology of the Mekong Delta and affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. What Laos is openly doing poses a more immediate and pressing danger to human well-being than the hypothetical possibility that Iran might someday acquire a small nuclear deterrent. So my question is: Why isn't the United States organizing "crippling" sanctions against Laos, conducting cyberattacks on the civil engineering firms who are planning the dam, and threatening to bomb the construction sites if Laos continues the work?
Of course, I don't think the United States should do any of these things. I'm not in favor of war with Iran either. But why do some hypothetical possibilities get enormous (and counterproductive) attention, while some real and tangible problems remain on the backpages?
What's the most powerful political force in the world? Some of you might say it's the bond market. Others might nominate the resurgence of religion or the advance of democracy or human rights. Or maybe it's digital technology, as symbolized by the Internet and all that comes with it. Or perhaps you think it's nuclear weapons and the manifold effects they have had on how states think about security and the use of force.
Those are all worthy nominees (no doubt readers here will have their own favorites), but my personal choice for the Strongest Force in the World would be nationalism. The belief that humanity is comprised of many different cultures -- i.e., groups that share a common language, symbols, and a narrative about their past (invariably self-serving and full of myths) -- and that those groups ought to have their own state has been an overwhelmingly powerful force in the world over the past two centuries.
It was nationalism that cemented most of the European powers in the modern era, turning them from dynastic states into nation-states, and it was the spread of nationalist ideology that helped destroy the British, French, Ottoman, Dutch, Portuguese, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian/Soviet empires. Nationalism is the main reason the United Nations had fifty-one members immediately after its founding in 1945 and has nearly 200 members today. It is why the Zionists wanted a state for the Jewish people and why Palestinians want a state of their own today. It is what enabled the Vietnamese to defeat both the French and the American armies during the Cold War. It is also why Kurds and Chechens still aspire to statehood; why Scots have pressed for greater autonomy within the United Kingdom, and it is why we now have a Republic of South Sudan.
Understanding the power of nationalism also tells you a lot about what is happening today in the European Union. During the Cold War, European integration flourished because it took place inside the hot-house bubble provided by American protection. Today, however, the United States is losing interest in European security, the Europeans themselves face few external threats, and the EU project itself has expanded too far and badly overreached by creating an ill-advised monetary union. What we are seeing today, therefore, is a gradual renationalization of European foreign policy, fueled in part by incompatible economic preferences and in part by recurring fears that local (i.e., national) identities are being threatened. When Danes worry about Islam, Catalans demand autonomy, Flemish and Walloons contend in Belgium, Germans refuse to bail out Greeks, and nobody wants to let Turkey into the EU, you are watching nationalism at work.
The power of nationalism is easy for realists to appreciate and understand, as my sometime collaborator John Mearsheimer makes clear in an important new paper. Nations -- because they operate in a competitive and sometimes dangerous world -- seek to preserve their identities and cultural values. In many cases, the best way for them to do that is to have their own state, because ethnic or national groups that lack their own state are usually more vulnerable to conquest, absorption, and assimilation.
Similarly, modern states also have a powerful incentive to promote national unity -- in other words, to foster nationalism -- because having a loyal and united population that is willing to sacrifice (and in extreme cases, to fight and die) for the state increases its power and thus its ability to deal with external threats. In the competitive world of international politics, in short, nations have incentives to obtain their own state and states have incentives to foster a common national identity in their populations. Taken together, these twin dynamics create a long-term trend in the direction of more and more independent nation-states.
Obviously, nations and states don't always reach the goal of a unified "nation-state." Some nations never succeed in gaining independence, and some states never succeed in creating a unified national identity for themselves. And not every cultural or ethnic group thinks of itself as a nation or aspires to independence (though one can never be sure when some group might begin to acquire "national consciousness" and head in that direction). Nonetheless, the past hundred years has seen a steady rise in the number of states and the emergence of strong national movements in many of them, and I see no reason to expect this trend to be reversed.
Once established, a nation-state is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Nation-states are hard to conquer and subdue, because the local population will usually resist outside invasion and continue to struggle against a foreign occupier. Successful national movements tend to spawn imitators, leading to further demands for statehood. Despite its occasional shortcomings (and the obvious examples of "failed states" like Somalia, Yemen, or Afghanistan), the national state is likely to remain the most important political entity in world politics for the foreseeable future.
Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist) U.S. leaders routinely underestimate the power of local affinities and the strength of cultural, tribal, or territorial loyalties. During the Cold War, we persistently exaggerated the strength of transnational ideologies like Communism, and underestimated the degree to which national identities and interests would eventually generate intense conflicts within the Marxist world. Osama bin Laden made the same mistake when he thought that terrorist attacks and video-taped fulminations would ignite a mass movement to re-establish a transnational Islamic caliphate. And anyone who thinks that a rising China is going to tamely submit to U.S. or Western notions of the proper world order fails to appreciate the degree to which nationalism is also a central part of the Chinese worldview, and far more important than any lingering "communist" ideals.
Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.
Like most residents of New England, I've spent the past day digging out from a major snowstorm. Unlike most of my neighbors, I've also spent many hours grading the take-home final from my course. It occurred to me that some of you might like to know what we asked our students, and what some of them had to say about it.
The exam was in two parts, and the first part consisted of the following hypothetical question:
Q1: "Due to an unexpected movement of tectonic plates, the United States and China have switched geographic locations. The United States is now located in East Asia; sharing borders with Russia, North Korea, India, Mongolia, Vietnam, etc., and is much closer to Japan, while China is now located in North America, in-between Canada and Mexico. Assume that all other features of the two societies are unchanged (i.e., each state faces this new situation with the same populations they have today, along with the same natural resource endowments, military capabilities, economic systems, political institutions, etc.).
The question: how would this development affect contemporary international relations? Your answer should draw upon the theoretical material covered in this course (e.g., realism, liberalism, constructivism, etc.) but feel free to add your own ideas as well."
Students were given 1250 words (5-6 pages) to address this question, and most of them did pretty well with it. The question is obviously designed to get them to think through what different theories tell you about how geography would affect relations between states. For instance: would US relations with India and Japan deteriorate if the US were located nearby, or would shared democratic values dampen potential rivalries? Would China try to establish regional hegemony in the Western hemisphere, and would states like Canada, Mexico or Brazil try to contain it? Or would they "bandwagon" with China as they have done with the United States? Would the United States have to curtail its global ambitions in order to deal with security problems closer to home -- such as Pakistan, North Korea, Burma, or Russia -- or would it feel compelled to use force against a threatening neighbor like North Korea? There's no single "right answer" to this sort of question; what I'm looking for is a clear, logically consistent, and well-argued set of predictions.
Not surprisingly, many of the papers argued that switching places would be a tremendous benefit to China. In particular, students clearly recognized that the United States enjoys some enormous geographic advantages. In addition to being wealthier and more powerful than any of the other major powers, the United States is protected by two enormous oceanic moats and has no great powers in its immediate neighborhood. Moving from East Asia to the Western hemisphere would put China in this same favorable position, and place the United States in a much more problematic location in East Asia.
But what was really interesting was an implication that some (though hardly all) students drew from this line of argument. A number of them argued that China would be so secure in the Western hemisphere that it could focus even more attention on economic development, and not worry very much about military or security developments elsewhere. It would want to defend its own territory, and it would worry about securing energy supplies from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, and elsewhere, but otherwise it would be sitting pretty and could remain aloof from lots of other security issues. The United States, by contrast, would be facing all sorts of challenges over in Asia and would have to try to deal with all of them.
An obvious question, therefore, is: why doesn't this same logic apply to the United States today? Instead of devoting trillions of dollars to transforming the Middle East, trying to bring Afghanistan into the 20th century (or is it the 19th?) and generally interfering all over the world, the United States could almost certainly do a lot less on the world stage and devote some of those resources to balancing budgets and fixing things here at home. It's called nation-building, but we'd be building our nation and our future, not somebody else's.
What some of our students have intuitively grasped (and not because we told them), is that there is in fact a very powerful case for a much more limited U.S. military posture overseas. Indeed, given the existence of nuclear weapons, there is even a cogent case to be made for something approaching isolationism, as laid out by people like the late Eric Nordlinger, by the CATO Institute's Chris Preble, or the team of Gholz, Press, and Sapolsky. I don't go quite that far myself (i.e., I'm an offshore balancer, not an isolationist), but I recognize that there is a serious case for the latter position. And because this view does have a certain appeal, the current foreign-policy establishment has to do a lot of threat-mongering and engage in a lot of ideological oversell in order to get Americans to keep paying for foreign wars and sending their sons and daughters out to garrison the globe. It also helps to portray anybody who advocates doing less as some sort of idealistic pacifist or naive appeaser.
But this debate is beginning to open up. When states and local governments are facing bankruptcy, when military adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan yield not victory but at best only prolonged and costly draws, and when there is in fact no ideologically motivated great power adversary out there trying to "bury us," then continuing to try to manage the whole goddamn planet isn't just foolish, it's unconscionable. It will probably take another decade for this reality to work its way through our hidebound national-security establishment, but the winds of change are already apparent. And not a moment too soon.
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There are plenty of depressing stories in this week's news-lethal ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan, gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the usual mishigas in the Middle East, etc . -- so I thought today I'd highlight a small bit of good news.
A few weeks ago, Singapore and Malaysia reached an important agreement resolving a longstanding dispute over Malayan Railway (KTM) land in Singapore. The dispute dates back to Singapore's unilateral declaration of independence from the Malay Confederation in 1965, and involved the fate of a railway terminal and other properties owned by KTM. As Mushahid Ali and Yang Razali Kassim describe in this brief commentary, KTM has agreed to move its terminal from Tanjong Pagar (a prime real estate location in central Singapore) to a spot near the strait that separates the two countries, just across from the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru. A joint holding company (60 percent Malay ownership, 40 percent Singapore) will then develop the abandoned KTM properties (and presumably make a bundle).
This agreement seems like a small matter, but given the sometimes troubled history of the two countries, it is a significant step forward in their relationship. According to Ali and Kassim, the agreement also "opened up the possibility of a resolution of other outstanding issues," such as price of water supplied to Singapore by Malaysia.
There are three broader lessons we might draw from this relatively obscure but positive development. The first lesson is that the United States is not always the "indispensable nation" and not every diplomatic issue requires the United States to get involved. As near as I can tell, the United States played no direct role in helping resolve this issue. Instead, Singapore and Malaysia figured out for themselves that remaining at loggerheads wasn't doing anyone any good, and they've worked out a deal that will leave both better off. This sort of thing happens all the time in world politics, but we Americans tend not to hear about positive developments like this one unless some U.S. politician or diplomat is trying to claim the credit.
The second lesson is that generational change matters. Singapore's decision to withdraw from the Malay Confederation in the mid-1960s left a legacy of bitterness, and made compromise and cooperation difficult even after more-or-less cordial relations had been established between the two countries. The obstacles that the first generation of Malay and Singaporean leaders faced in resolving this sort of dispute now appear to be of much less concern to leaders on both sides. Which raises the interesting possibility that conflicts that seem intractable at present could become much easier to resolve once elites who have an interest in confrontation are gradually replaced by successors who simply don't care as much about scoring points against a former adversary. (It doesn't always work this way, of course; sometimes conflicts get worse over time and successor generations become more intransigent and extreme than their predecessors were.)
The third lesson has to do with the central role of security. Cooperation and compromise between Malaysia and Singapore were difficult during the first few decades after independence, because Singapore's long-term future was still uncertain and its relationship with Malaysia was particularly fraught. Today, by contrast, its independence is well-established and relations with its neighbors (and the United States) are positive.
Malaysia has done very well in recent years as well, despite some degree of internal political turmoil. With both sides feeling relatively secure, compromise on issues like the KTM rail properties no longer carried large political consequences and agreement became much easier to reach. The lesson, if it weren't obvious, is that mutual security is the foundation of far-reaching international cooperation. Feel free to bear that in mind whenever you think about resolving other seemingly intractable international conflicts.
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I first saw the Berlin Wall in March 1976, when I arrived for a semester's study at Stanford's overseas program there. As an international relations major interested in security affairs, I wanted to see the Cold War "up close and personal," and what better place to do it than the divided city that was the site of numerous Soviet-American confrontations?
It was an education, especially for a rather naive kid from California who had never been outside the United States. Foreigners could visit East Berlin relatively easily by then, yet crossing at Checkpoint Charlie was always a somewhat forbidding experience. The lines to cross were often long and tedious, the border guards sullen and arbitrary, and I always seemed to be the person they wanted to take into the back room for an extra search and a lot of questions.
The Wall itself was an ugly thing: a concrete scar across a once-great city, complete with barbed wire, guard towers, and checkpoints. It was both an iconic symbol of division but also something very real and tangible. It divided families, stifled dreams, and sometimes killed people. Some 5,000 people reportedly tried to get across the Wall while it stood, and a hundred or more died in the attempt.
Like other barriers that divide human beings, the Wall was also a confession of failure. Had the communist vision been a success, there would have been no need for Wall to keep people in. It was an education in itself to live in West Berlin and to visit the East; whatever the failings of liberal capitalism might be, it was palpably superior to life on the Other Side. West Berlin seemed a bit like Oz -- a vibrant, lively, and decidedly materialistic city, filled with cafes, stores, students, dogs (and a lot of elderly people too), but East Berlin was a bit like Dorothy's black-and-white Kansas: drab, monochromatic, and obviously much poorer. And by most accounts, East Germany worked better than the rest of the Soviet empire did.
What lessons do I draw from the Wall, its history, and its eventual destruction? Here are five.
First, although the Wall was an affront to human freedom, it also made a signal contribution to global stability. Berlin had been a flash point for international politics in 1948, 1958, and again in 1961, largely because Germany's fate remained uncertain so long as the DDR continued to lose people to the economic miracle in the West. As Marc Trachtenberg pointed out some years ago, the erection of the Wall completed the Cold War division of Europe and dampened security competition there significantly.
The second lesson is that containment worked. The Wall eventually came down because the Soviet Union collapsed without a superpower war, and Eastern Europe was liberated peacefully. As Kennan had foreseen, the Western system was in fact superior to the communist order on numerous dimensions, which meant that patient forbearance made more sense than a strategy of "rollback" or preventive war. We might have brought the wall down sooner by starting a big war, but fortunately leaders on both sides understood how foolish that would have been. There's a lesson there for those trigger-happy folks who think preventive action is the best way to deal with threats, even dangers that far less ominous than the Soviet Union was.
Third, if containment worked, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a vivid reminder that empires don't. The history of the 20th century is littered with the corpses of the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, Dutch, and Soviet empires -- none of whom could withstand the corrosive solvent of modern nationalism. Once the desire for national self-determination had the opportunity to express itself, the Soviet empire collapsed with remarkable swiftness.
Fourth, the destruction of the Wall-and indeed, the collapse of the entire Soviet order-teaches that revolutionary upheavals are nearly impossible to forecast with any precision. As Timur Kuran and others have shown, an individual's willingness to rebel is a form of private information that cannot be reliably known in advance, especially in an authoritarian society where repression is a real possibility. As a result, seemingly minor events can suddenly induce rapid contagion effects that even the participants themselves did not anticipate. Although a few observers recognized that the Soviet order was in trouble, hardly anyone believed it could collapse as quickly as it did or that Germany would reunify in a few years. The real lesson, however, is that although dramatic political change does occur from time to time, it rarely does so accordingly to anyone's timetable. The moral: Don't base your policy towards an adversary on the assumption that its rulers are on their last legs. Maybe they are, but maybe not, and nobody really knows.
Fifth and last, the fall of the Wall highlights the critical role of the individual in history. I'm a big believer in the importance of large structural forces -- the changing distribution of power, economic growth rates, demographic trends, and even evolving normative understandings -- but history sometimes turns on an individuals's ideas and initiatives. As I see it, it wasn't Reagan's saying "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" that led to it being broken into a million pieces (and then sold off, in a wonderful symbol of capitalist triumph), it was the fact that Gorbachev listened and was already thinking along similar lines. Had Andropov or Chernenko been younger or in better health, the Wall would have remained standing well into the 1990s, and we would not be celebrating anything today.
So as we congratulate ourselves for winning the Cold War and congratulate Germans on the destruction of a hated symbol of division, let us also reserve a word of thanks for those on the other side who also helped make that destruction possible.
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I watched the Men's final at the French Open tennis tournament yesterday, and I was struck by the dominance of: 1) Roger Federer, who won his 14th Grand Slam tournament handily, and 2) the English language. The announcer at *Roland Garros* Stadium reported the scores en francais and French TV apparently got the first courtside interview with Federer after the match (while NBC took a commercial break), but Federer and Swedish runner-up Robin Soderling gave their acceptance speeches in English (with a French translation for the crowd). One imagines the spirit of Charles de Gaulle whirring rapidly in his tomb, not to mention the "Immortals" in L'Academie francaise.
It’s possible that Robin Soderling (the Swedish runner-up) spoke to the crowd in English because he doesn't speak French. But Federer reportedly speaks fluent French, German, and Swiss-German, as well as English, so why wasn’t he addressing the local crowd in their native tongue?
My guess is that this was dictated by the global TV market, and by the growing position of English as the lingua franca of contemporary globalization. The tournament was being watched all over the world, and English is the language that would be understood by the greatest number of potential viewers world-wide.
Americans sometimes view the dominant position of English as another component of America's "soft power," but that view is simplistic chauvinism. With English becoming a "universal" language, no single country will own it or be able to regulate its content. Instead, it will continue to evolve as most languages do, incorporating new words, spellings, and grammatical practices from an wide variety of sources. If they haven't started already, American xenophobes are going to start complaining soon about the corruption of "standard English" by all these foreign influences. For an interesting collection of views on this topic, check out the "Freakonomics" discussion here.
Of course, this whole discussion may be moot, given the damage that email, text-messaging, and Twitter feeds are already doing to civilized discourse. Or does that comment make me sound like a technophobe?
*P.S.: Bonus points for anyone who knows who Roland Garros was without looking up the link. Answer: Garros was a French aeronautical pioneer, who developed an armored propeller that allowed the use of a forward-firing machine gun for aerial combat during World War I. His system predated the more effective synchronization device later perfected by the Dutch/German Anthony Fokker. Garros was captured by the Germans in 1915, later escaped, and eventually shot down and killed in 1918. The stadium for which he is named occupies the site of a tennis academy that he attended.
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"Empathy" has been in the news lately, mostly in the context of President Obama's Supreme Court nominee. It's a quality that's often in short supply in the conduct of foreign policy, where leaders (and sometimes whole nations) often have a fixed view of certain events and find it hard to believe that anyone might legitimately see things differently. As Condi Rice commented when some European governments didn't support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, "I'll just put it very bluntly. We simply didn’t understand it."
One reason for this absence of empathy is the human tendency to filter current situations through the prism of the past. One of the more enduring findings in political psychology is that people place more weight on their own experiences than on the experiences of others, even when their own experiences are in fact atypical. According to Robert Jervis's classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics: "if people do not learn enough from what happens to others, they learn too much from what happens to themselves." The salience of first-hand experience in shaping subsequent beliefs is increased if the event happens early in one’s life or career, and if it has important consequences for the individual (or the nation). In other words, we overlearn from big and important events, especially when they happen to us early.
This tendency might explain why different generations tend to have very different views on how the world works. For Americans born and raised during the Cold War (i.e., like me) images of conflict are also accompanied by a certain sense of stability and order. The Cold War begins in the late 1940s, the United States forms a set of alliances to wage it, and then bipolar stability kicks in. There are crises and confrontations and even some peripheral wars in Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, but the central strategic balance doesn't change very much and the Soviet Union eventually expires rather quietly. The period 1950-1990 is a monument to the virtues of deterrence, containment, and multilateralism, and a timely warning about the dangers of getting involved in costly quagmires. It is perhaps no accident that people like me tend to see the world as a competitive but ultimately fairly stable and predictable place.
But what if you were born in the early 20th century, and came of age in the turbulent decades after World War I? You would have seen a world where a nation’s fortunes could shift in a matter of weeks or months, and sometimes with swift and terrible effect. You might have seen the Roaring Twenties, followed by the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. You would have seen a prostrate and disarmed Germany rearm itself in less than a decade, defeat France in a few weeks in 1940, and then conquer almost all of Europe and drive deep inside Russia, only to witness this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut be occupied and divided in half a mere three years later. You would also have seen Imperial Japan sweep across the Pacific, only to be occupied and disarmed by 1945. And having watched the Iron Curtain descend and seen Mao's triumph in China, you'd have a healthy respect for how quickly fortunes could shift and you’d be less inclined to take a complacent view of anything. Had I lived through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, I might have been much more hawkish than I turned out to be.
The problem with this sort of generational interpretation is that it can’t account for differences between people who lived through the same events, although it might lead us to ask whether their own personal experiences with key events were different. But even there I suspect there's more to it than just personal experience.
But the real lesson is that the same "events" look very different to different people and to different countries. The U.S-backed contra war in Nicaragua killed some 35,000 Nicaraguans (about 1 percent of the population) but hardly any Americans; is it any wonder Nicaraguans remember it differently than Americans do? Similarly, 9/11 means one thing to U.S. citizens, but something different to Europeans, Central Asians, or people in different parts of the Middle East. The current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is experienced differently by an Al Qaeda leader facing a Predator attack, by the CIA "pilot" operating the drone from a remote location, by a Pakistani or Afghan civilian who is attacked by mistake, by refugees now fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley, and by the politicians in the United States, Afghanistan, or Pakistan who have to deal with the consequences. And not only do different individuals and different societies experience the same events in radically different ways, they then conduct their own discourse about these events (occasionally fertilized by ideas and commentary from outside) and eventually generate unique narratives about them.
Understanding how things look to others doesn't necessarily eliminate conflict -- especially when basic interests are fundamentally at odds -- but it makes us much less likely to misinterpret another's position and makes spirals of exaggerated or mistaken hostility less likely.
To take an obvious example, many Americans think of Iran as an aggressive, unpredictable country led by a set of aggressive, fanatically religious clerics. That tendency probably increases if you watch a lot of FOX News or listen to talk radio. From this perspective, Iran's nuclear program and its support for extremist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah is evidence of aggressive ambitions, perhaps of the very worst sort.
But ask yourself how this situation might look to an ordinary Iranian, or even to a member of its ruling elite. To many Iranians, their interest in nuclear technology (and possibly nuclear weapons) is entirely rational and essentially defensive: they have two nuclear neighbors (India and Pakistan), a third nuclear weapons state nearby (Israel), and the world’s most powerful country (the United States) has troops on either side of Iran and has been seeking to overthrow the Iranian government for a number of years now. Plus, various American politicians keep saying that "all options ought to be on the table," and Obama's special envoy to Iran, Dennis Ross, participated in a study group last year that advocated a hardline approach. It doesn't take a lot of imagination or empathy to figure out why Iran might want a nuclear deterrent: wouldn’t we want the same thing if we were in their position? Similarly, supporting radicals elsewhere in the Middle East keeps the U.S. off-balance and complicates efforts to unite various Arab states against Iran itself. A bit of empathy won't resolve these issues, of course, but it might help us reject the fervent threat-mongering that drove us to launch a foolish war in Iraq and has led others to favor a similar approach to Iran.
So can we train ourselves to “see things as others do?” Here the internet and the blogosphere are potentially transformative tools: you don't have to rely on the New York Times or the Washington Post or your own local newspaper (even if your "local paper" is Le Monde, Die Zeit, or the Daily Star). I can sit here in my office and read the English edition of Ha’aretz, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the online edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun. Or I can read the Guardian, Asia Times, or the Jerusalem Post, and then go to the online Reuters.com and BBC News websites too. (And don’t forget http://foreignpolicy.com, of course). Americans would be well served to spend part of each week perusing WatchingAmerica.com, a website that collects and translates media reports from around the world and a variety of political perspectives. When you travel, don’t just watch CNN -- check out the BBC or Al Jazeera, too. Spend some time reading knowledgeable non-Americans like Ahmed Rashid, C. Raja Mohan, Kishore Mahbbubani, or Therese Delpeche. Don't rely just on reports from inside-the-Beltway think tanks in the United States; take a look at the websites of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the International Crisis Group, or the growing number of think tanks in the developing world.
To repeat: developing a greater capacity for empathy won't eliminate conflicts of interest between states, and won't always make it possible to resolve the differences that will inevitably arise. But an inability to understand an adversary's perspective (or an ally's, for that matter) is a crippling liability, and there's less excuse for it in our increasingly interconnected age.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.