Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.
Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.
What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.
On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."
There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.
In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.
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Today I want to do a shout-out for the just-released report of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk. I was privileged to participate in this council this year, and the report is the product of three days' deliberation and discussion back in November and subsequent discussion and redrafting afterwards. (Kudos to Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group for ably chairing the group).
Our task was to assess geopolitical risks in 2013. You can read the full report for some specific forecasts, but our overarching theme was the increasing vulnerability of elites in virtually every sector. In a globalized and unequal world where information flows almost instantaneously, where economic tides can shift without warning, where masses can mobilize via new media, and where the slightest transgressions can be amplified and repeated in the blogospheric echo-chamber, elites in both the public and private sector can find the ground shifting beneath their feet suddenly and without warning.
"The vulnerability of elites cuts across emerging markets and advanced economies, democracies and authoritarian states, public and private institutions, and a wide array of issues. This is the challenge: as their legitimacy gets called into question, political actors struggle to react to instability, crises and opportunities in the most effective manner. Whether it is the growing disparity of wealth or the evolving flow information, several factors are facilitating pushback against existing policies and institutions and making both governments and some private actors across the globe look increasingly fragile."
Examples? Think of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and (one hopes) Bashar al-Assad. Look at what happened to CIA director David Petraeus or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Consider how Rupert Murdoch's reputation and clout were tarnished by the phone hacking scandal, and ask yourself where his former editor Rebekah Brooks is now. Similarly, the Jimmy Savile scandal brought down the head of the BBC, showing that the leaders of a powerful and sophisticated news organization cannot control the news cycle.
Given that the annual WEF meeting at Davos is a confab of global elites, I wonder if our report will make any of them feel a bit ... well ... nervous. Some of them should.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
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.
A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Several accounts highlighted Brubeck's role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists -- including luminaries like Louis Armstrong -- were featured in these tours, which were intended to show off the appealing sides of American culture in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. This was a Bambi-meets-Godzilla competition, btw, with the Soviets in the role of Bambi. I like Shostakovich and respect the Bolshoi, but Soviet mass culture was outmatched when pitted against the likes of Satchmo.
But here's my question: why isn't the United States doing similar things today? The State Department still sponsors tours by U.S. artists -- go here for a bit more information -- but you hardly ever hear about them and it's not like we're sending "A-list" musicians out to display the vibrancy of American cultural life. Celebrities and musicians are more likely to do good will tours to entertain U.S. troops in places like Iraq, but the sort of tours that Brubeck and others did in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have become a minor endeavor at best.
The problem, I suspect, isn't a lack of interest in cultural diplomacy or even lack of funding. Instead, I think this is an consequence of globalization. Today, someone in Senegal or Indonesia who wants to hear American jazz (or hip-hop, or blues, or whatever) just needs an internet connection. The same is true in reverse, of course; I can download an extraordinary array of world music just sitting here in my study at home. And that goes for videos of performances too, whether we're talking music or dance or in some cases even theatre. Plus, top artists tour the world on their own in order to make money; they don't need to go as part of some official U.S. government sponsored tour. And given the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy in some parts of the world, official sponsorship is probably the last thing some artists would want.
But there may some exceptions to that rule, in the sense that are a few countries where artistic exchanges might open things up in ways that diplomats cannot. Iran isn't likely to welcome Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, perhaps, but have we thought about an artistic exchange with some slightly less edgy U.S. performers? If table tennis could help thaw relations with Mao's China, maybe jazz, acoustic blues, or even classical music could begin to break the ice with Tehran. Iran's has a large under-thirty population that is by all accounts hungry for greater access to world culture, so this sort of exchange would build good will with the populations that will be rising to positions of influence in the future. Plus, Iran has plenty of gifted performers who might find a ready audience here. And you can send a delegation of American musicians without violating UN sanctions or having to answer a lot of thorny questions about nuclear enrichment.
Update: In response to this post, Hishaam Aidi of Columbia University and the Open Society Institute sent me this piece, which takes a critical view of the State Department's more recent efforts to use hip-hop artists as a form of cultural outreach. Well worth reading, and my thanks to Hishaam for sending it to me.
The California Museum via Getty Images
I've been too busy to blog much this week, but I thought I"d mention that I've taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter (@StephenWalt). I'll probably use it sparingly, but who knows? Please bear with me until I get the hang of it. Brevity has never been my long suit, so this may take awhile.
I'm in Dubai for meetings of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, which provide some of the background information and agenda setting for Davos and other WEF activities. I've been assigned to the group assessing "geopolitical risks" for 2013, so I'll be spending the next two days trying to figure out where dire things might happen in the next year (and where they won't).
Dubai itself is sort of like Disneyland-on-steroids, and I won't try to embellish on all the other descriptions of the place. But as I rode in my taxi to the hotel last night, I was also struck by the thought that the UAE (of which Dubai is a part) and other states like Qatar and Brunei, might be something of a realist anomaly. The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven't rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn't Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves? Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain's imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with "dual containment" in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else's expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country's government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq's "19th province" in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
Finally, small countries like Dubai enhance their security by making themselves more valuable to others as independent entities than they would be as colonies. Dubai has established itself is a financial center, entrepot, cultural oasis, and diplomatic hub, which is precisely why the WEF is here this week. It has close ties with the West, but still has formal and informal dealings with others, including states such as Iran. In the broadest sense, the global community is probably better off with a few countries occupying this sort of niche, just as Switzerland did for decades, and that means that most countries would rather have it be independent than out of business.
Which is not to say that security in the Gulf is guaranteed, or that realism can't account for these states' survival (see #s 1 and 2 above). Given the diplomatic stalemate with Iran, in fact, it's easy to imagine scenarios where the present Gulf order would come under significant strain. But I'm betting it won't, if only because hardly anybody really has much interest in that happening. Now if only one could be confident that sensible self-interest would always prevail....
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Is modern media -- the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, and all that other stuff -- making realism obsolete? More specifically, if the essence of realism is the hard-headed pursuit of national interests, and especially the cool and dispassionate weighing of the costs and benefits of different policy choices, then is that approach undermined when policymakers are buffeted by viral videos of tyrannical outrages (e.g., Libya in 2011, Syria today) and well-crafted online campaigns to mobilize support for benevolent intervention? If ordinary citizens can watch carnage unfold wherever it might occur, how can national leaders remain aloof and conduct statecraft in the careful and prudent way that realism recommends?
Pretty easily, I'd say, although there will obviously be a few cases where presidents and prime ministers are pushed to take action by public outcry fueled by greater access to information. But on balance, I doubt the greater ease with which information now flows around the world will have a powerful systematic effect on what leaders ultimately decide to do.
In fact, this issue is just the latest incarnation of a rather old debate. Walter Lippmann famously argued that public opinion was too fickle to be a reliable guide to policy, and that better-informed elites would have to "manufacture consent" in order to lead effectively. Realists like George Kennan used to worry that democracies were no good at statecraft because public passions would warp the conduct of foreign policy, although other scholars have argued that democracies often out-perform authoritarian states because they are better at correcting their mistakes. Social scientists have long debated whether media coverage has any systematic effect on wartime behavior, military intervention, or other foreign policy elements. Check out the seminal works of Dan Hallin, Lance Bennett, or my colleague Matt Baum for more detailed coverage of this broad issue.
Meanwhile, what about the infamous "CNN effect" (or its modern cousin, the "YouTube Effect")? This is the idea that media coverage or internet avalanches can force policymakers to act when they would rather not. Scholarly research on this question suggests that the effect is pretty modest and highly conditional: Media coverage can affect decisions when policymakers are undecided, but it rarely sways them when they have firm views on the proper course of action. And that's just another way of saying that when it is obvious that one should stay out of an ongoing conflict, a lot of lurid media footage and YouTube videos of carnage aren't going to convince national leaders to do something really stupid.
There's another reason why the greater transparency that modern media provides does not produce a systematic shift towards intervention and away from realpolitik. Although seeing horrible events live-and-in-person triggers our sympathies and may mobilize activists, it also creates a powerful and vivid impression of just how much of a mess a given society might be. While reinforcing our sense of outrage, in short, such images also highlight the costs and dangers of getting involved. On balance, therefore, the greater availability of images and other unmediated information might even make ill-founded interventions less likely.
Furthermore, political leaders of all kinds still prefer to conduct a lot of their business in the dark, especially when the use of force is concerned. Iran and China have tried to make it hard for outsiders to hear about domestic crackdowns, and North Korea remains the poster child for a society that does its best to prevent outside scrutiny. But let's not forget that democratic leaders sometimes prefer to do the nation's business in the dark. Dick Cheney never did tell us who was on that energy task force of his, and the Obama administration still refuses to talk candidly about drone strikes and special forces operations. And remember that infamous Wikileaks video of an Apache helicopter killing a Reuters journalist in Iraq? Those images didn't do anything to encourage public support for the war effort, which is perhaps one reason why the U.S. government launched an all-out assault on Wikileaks itself.
Bottom line: The ubiquity of information and the growing ability to see far-flung events for ourselves is undoubtedly having some impact on what we (think we) know about the world, and in some cases may push undecided policymakers in surprising directions. And as I've noted before, the leaders of powerful countries like the United States may be particular vulnerable to such pressures, in part because they've convinced themselves that they have a responsibility to "lead" and in part because the U.S. is so powerful that it is sometimes hard to remember that we can't do everything. But on the whole, the globalization of information doesn't free national leaders from the need to think first and foremost about what is in their own country's interests, and thus to weigh costs, risks, and benefits carefully. In short, realism is not dead.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
I was watching some of the America's Cup World Series races going on out in San Francisco, and it occurred to me that the evolution of the Cup is a perfect illustration of globalization at work.
Back in the day, the America's Cup was both a nationalistic and gentlemanly endeavor. The New York Yacht Club controlled the Deed of Gift that governed the competition, and it entertained periodic challengers. For decades the challengers were all from Britain until the Australians got into the act (and eventually won it). The competition took place in several formats, including big J boats and classic 12 meters. A certain mercantilism prevailed, insofar as the rules stipulated that challengers had to be built and equipped entirely in the country from which the challenge originated.
As in any competitive sport, there was gradual but steady progress in yacht design and technique, with occasional breakthroughs, like Intrepid's trim tab design in 1967 and Australia II's revolutionary winged keel in 1983. But it was still a pretty sedate and mostly amateur affair up to the late 1980s.
What has happened since then? Here's where the America's Cup becomes a symptom of globalization. First off, it's no longer really the "America's Cup" in any literal sense, and it isn't being conducted according to some fixed and traditional set of rules. The America's Cup has instead become a brand name for a series of global yachting competitions, with lots of different competitors and formats.
Second, as competition has intensified, the pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically. Today, the winner is likely to be the team that spent the most on a radical design or came up with a clever innovation that gave them a distinct advantage over the others. And that costs money. It used to be said that if you had to ask how much it cost to own a racing yacht, you couldn't afford it, and that much hasn't really changed. The Cup is still a hobby for mega-wealthy people like Oracle's Larry Ellison, but it's also become a big corporate endeavor. All of the boats now have corporate sponsors and their sails and hulls are plastered with more logos than a NASCAR automobile.
Third, it's not really a national endeavor anymore. Like an iPhone, the component parts of the different boats come from all over the world. And like any modern multinational corporation, so do the crews and skippers. Some of the teams still sport "national" names, but they all try to recruit the best talent from all over the world. Like other professional sports, in short, it's a globalized market where "labor" mobility is extremely high.
Fourth, let's not forget the rule of law. Globalization depends on a lot of things, including the emergence of at least a rudimentary system of rules to govern trade investment and other global transactions. Similarly, the America's Cup has been beset with litigation ever since New Zealander Michael Fay sued the San Diego Yacht Club over the terms of competition in 1988. So in addition to hiring clever designers and talented crews, a successful Cup competitor may need a talented legal team that can take advantage of legal technicalities. And just as corporations have become adept at moving quickly to countries where production costs are lower, so have America's Cup competitors. When Oracle's Larry Ellison couldn't get the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco to run the competition the way he wanted, he joined the neighboring Golden Gate Yacht Club and used it as the sponsoring body instead.
Is this a good trend or not? The traditionalist in me mourns to passing of the 12 meter era, in much the same way that I feel nostalgic for the touch game that characterized the wooden racket era in tennis. But the new formats, which now feature large, very fast, unstable and fragile catamarans, have undoubtedly increased the audience appeal of the event. The ways things are going, the next step will be to equip the boats with rams and replay the battle of Lepanto. I'll bet even more people would watch.
In any case, trying to halt the march of "progress" is probably impossible, which is probably true of globalization too. Sail ho!
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
I saw the documentary film "Searching for Sugarman" over the weekend, and it got me thinking again about the dearth of popular, mass-market political protest music these days. In case you haven't seen it (and you should!), the film is about a Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded a couple of albums in the early 1970s. His songs (which are featured on the soundtrack) are pretty interesting, but the albums flopped. He dropped out of the music business after that, but in one of those cosmic bounces that no one can foresee, ended up becoming a cult figure in apartheid-era South Africa. Progressive musicians there saw his music as revolutionary, and it helped inspire their own anti-apartheid artistry. I won't spoil the various revelations of this wonderful film, except to say that it does capture how music can transcend boundaries and have unexpected political repercussions. It's also a fascinating human story.
Meanwhile, over in Moscow, the punk band Pussy Riot got sentenced to two years in jail for "hooliganism," all because they had the temerity to poke some harmless fun at Vladimir Putin and made the mistake of doing it inside a Russian Orthodox Church. Now there's a real threat to public order! And the government's lame response is revealing: throwing young female musicians in jail is like taking out a full page ad in the world's leading newspapers announcing "We are afraid of independent thinking and have absolutely no sense of humor." In a world where success increasingly depends on tapping into the energy, imagination, and initiative of the citizenry, Putin is telling young Russians to be dull and conformist. I think he's also betraying a profound sense of insecurity: when a three-person punk band is a threat to society, you know that the government has lost all perspective. He's got Madonna ticked off too, although I'm not sure that matters all that much.
But as I've written about before, I'm still struck by the apolitical nature of modern popular music. Plenty of artists continue to record songs with serious political content, but none of them seem to have much popular resonance. Protest songs get recorded, but they don't make it to the top of the charts and they don't inspire much political action by their listeners. A mega-star like Bruce Springsteen can record an entire album like "Wrecking Ball" -- clearly inspired by the financial crisis and the declining fortunes of the middle-to-lower class -- but I'll bet most of the people attending his concerts jump out of their seats for "Thunder Road" and "Prove It All Night."
But I'm not sure why that's the case, especially given the contemporary context of two lost wars, persistent economic problems, and widespread contempt for politicians of all kinds. You'd think this would be a moment where at least one or two artists would be writing political songs and attracting a huge audience, and maybe even using their art to inspire political change. But I get little sense that contemporary musicians are shaping political attitudes or behavior as they might have in earlier eras.
It might be because there's no draft, and so anti-war songs don't hit home with a population of young people who don't have to serve if they don't want to. It might be because the digital/internet revolution has carved the listening audience into smaller and smaller niches, so that it's harder for any artist to write something with broad appeal and a political message. You get political messages inside each genre (i.e., in hip-hop, alt-country, folk, etc.) but nobody commands a platform as large as Dylan, the Beatles, or even Creedence Clearwater did back in the days of AM and FM radio saturation. It could be that other art forms have superseded music; younger people are too busy playing Wii or downloading Jon Stewart reruns to pay any attention to the lyrics of the songs on their iPhones. Maybe it's just simple demographics: the counterculture movement of the 1960s was fueled by the sheer size of the baby boomer bulge. Or perhaps it's because there is no real Left anymore -- which is where the good songs came from-and because the Right thinks Mike Huckabee is cutting edge.
Sadly, I'm not expecting this to change in 2012. A bland suit like Mitt Romney isn't going to inspire noteworthy songs of protest or praise, and groups like Rage against the Machine have already complained about Paul Ryan's transparent attempt to give himself a hip patina by saying he likes their music. As Rage guitarist Tom Morello explained:
Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the
embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two
decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor
Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul
Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine."
"Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage."
Barack Obama has revealed a certain tame affection for blues and soul music (and even an unexpected singing ability), and his 2008 campaign got a boost from a number of sympathetic artists. But I'll be surprised if will.i.am decides to record a follow-up to "Yes We Can," this time around, unless he's willing to focus the lyrics on drone strikes and the raid that got bin Laden.
The remainder of my trip to Turkey sparked some further thoughts, including some qualifications to my last post. To wit:
1. I previously described the conference I attended -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- as an illustration of Turkey's emphasis on "soft power." By creating a Davos-like annual meeting oriented towards issues central to emerging economies, the organizers sought to display Turkey's growing importance as a political player. I still think that's right, but my conversations with other attendees suggest that the IWPF will need to raise its game in the years ahead if they want to reap the full benefits. The panels were interesting and well-attended, and there were a number of informative speakers, but I also heard a lot of complaints about the overall level of organization of the operation. Some speakers didn't know which panels they would appear on until the last minute, and the format of some sessions wasn't clear until you showed up. I also heard complaints about haphazard travel arrangements, although in my own case the bookings worked well after some initial glitches. Putting on an event like this isn't easy, but if the Turkish government and the other sponsors hope to use these forums as a way of demonstrating their efficiency, competence, and managerial ability, they've got a ways to go.
2. One of the more vivid impressions I took from the conference was the prevailing wariness -- if not outright suspicion -- with which the United States was viewed by many of the attendees. Virtually any statement that cast even mild doubt about U.S. policy (on Iran, Middle East peace, past interventions, Iraq, etc.) drew spontaneous approval from the audience, even if the statements weren't especially provocative, penetrating, or anti-American. For example, in the panel on a possible war with Iran, I suggested that if the U.S. wanted to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, it might make sense to stop threatening Tehran with regime change. The audience immediately burst into loud applause. Similar statements by journalist and professor Stephen Kinzer and Juergen Chrobog of the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt elicited much the same response. And most of the questions (or diatribes) from the audience were either explicitly or implicitly critical of the U.S. position. I had a similar experience in my other panel as well.
I wish some U.S. government officials had been there to observe this phenomenon, because it drove home to me the degree to which U.S. policy is regarded by many is inherently myopic, selfish, and illegitimate. (And the positive bump produced by Obama's election in 2008 is long gone). It's not a deep hatred of Americans themselves, but rather a simmering resentment of America's global role. And I think many Americans just don't get this, especially when they spend all their time talking to their counterparts (i.e., the global 1 percent) in other countries.
3. The trip also highlighted for me the ambiguities of Turkey's internal politics under the AKP. I've been trying to figure out where Turkey is headed for a number of years now, and I still don't consider myself anything like an expert on political developments there. But several incidents on this trip underscored the deep tensions that still persist and may be getting worse.
On the one hand, the AKP has done an impressive job of stimulating economic growth, reforming ordinary criminal justice practice, encouraging some forms of democratic participation, and emphasizing higher education. I would also give them high marks for their overall handling of foreign policy. The much-ballyhooed "zero problems" strategy trumpeted by Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davatoglu has hit some rough spots in the past couple of years (most visibly over Syria), but it's still a smart aspiration, even if it has proven more difficult to implement in practice. And I still think the U.S. has an important interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey going forward; to see this, just imagine how much more difficult our dealings with this region would be if Ankara and Washington were really at odds.
But on the other hand, AKP rule has been heavy-handed in a variety of disturbing ways, most notably in the protracted detention of the so-called Ergenekon suspects and in its various efforts to manipulate or intimidate the Turkish press. The AKP hasn't been anywhere near as brutal as some previous military governments (among other things, Turkey's overall human rights record is vastly better than in some earlier eras, but there are still a lot of disturbing elements. While I was at the conference, three different people came up to tell me privately that "things were really bad here," and that the United States had to do more to pressure the AKP. It was clear after a few minutes of conversation that these speakers were secularists from the old order (i.e., they are part of a class that has been losing power), but it was nonetheless striking to hear their concerns. At a minimum, it suggested to me that that AKP has done a much better job of clipping the wings of the old guard than it has of reconciling them to the realities of the new Turkey.
Given Turkey's turbulent past, this lingering animosity is not that surprising. But it does not bode well for the future, especially if the economic prosperity on which the AKP's popularity rests begins to flag. And as I said on one panel, the continued deterioration of domestic freedoms in Turkey is bound to be exploited by groups who are worried about Turkey's foreign policy direction, thereby damaging U.S.-Turkish relations in ways that both countries would soon regret.
4. Adding it all up, I'd argue that we are witnessing an important shift in world politics whose broader implications are worrisome for the United States. Political participation is broadening and deepening in more and more countries, and even if the results fall far short of some ideal vision of democracy (let alone the imperfect U.S. version of that ideal), these states are going to be increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards many parts of the world has depended more on cushy deals with oligarchs, dictators, and plutocrats, and past U.S. actions (most of them undertaken for various Cold War/anti-communist reasons) have left a toxic legacy that most Americans do not fully appreciate. Add to that our frequent resort to military force since the Cold War ended, our enthusiastic use of sanctions despite the human costs to ordinary citizens, and our insistence that there are really two sets of rules in world politics (the U.S. can violate other states' sovereignty whenever we want, but weaker states who object to this get demonized and/or threatened with more of the same). The result is a world where many people would like to take us down several pegs, and where it can be costly for political leaders to be openly supportive of U.S. initiatives (see under: Pakistan).
America is still very powerful, and plenty of governments still understand that some of our strategic interests overlap. But we're entering a world were fewer and fewer governments are going to be reflexively deferential to the United States, for the simple reason that they pay attention to popular sentiment and their own national interests aren't in fact identical to ours. If we expect governments in these countries to be as supine as some of their predecessors, we had better get used to disappointment. What will be needed is a lot more nuance, flexibility, and diplomatic skill, as well as a greater sense of humility and restraint. I only hope that we are better at displaying these qualities in the future than we've been in the recent past.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
I have no idea if Dartmouth president (and public health expert) Jim Yong Kim is a good choice to head the World Bank or not. I'm not an expert on economic development, and I've heard both good and bad things about him from a number of friends and colleagues since his nomination was announced. But I am pretty sure that the Obama administration blew an opportunity to score some diplomatic points when they decided to push him for the job.
Here's the key issue: Because voting shares in the World Bank are determined by each member nation's contributions, the United States has a de facto veto over who gets to be Bank president. It's the old Golden Rule of International Organization: Those with the gold make the rules. By long-standing custom, the president of the World Bank has always been an American, while a European gets to lead the International Monetary Fund.
Surprise, surprise: Other countries find this situation objectionable. And especially when the U.S. uses its prerogative to foist candidates with dubious qualifications on the institution, such as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who helped lead the U.S. to disaster in Vietnam) or former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (who did the same for us in Iraq).
Of course, realists expect powerful states to use international institutions to advance their own interests, which is why they want to make sure that the people in charge are reliable. If I were president, I would want the World Bank to be led by a highly competent individual who wasn't about to harm U.S. interests. But a smart realist would also recognize that imposing the U.S. choice on others every single time is bound to trigger resentment, and encourage rising powers like China, Brazil, India, and others to redouble efforts to break Washington's stranglehold. And every time the United States has to twist arms or use its privileged position to get its way, other states quietly seethe and anti-American forces are handed another nice talking point to use to undermine the U.S. image around the world.
Which is why I think the Obama administration missed a golden opportunity when it failed to embrace the nomination of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian Minister of Finance minister and former World Bank Managing Director. I can't speak with authority about her qualifications, although she does have a B.A. from Harvard (magna cum laude) and a Ph.D. in regional economic development from MIT. I'm also struck by the endorsement she received from renowned trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati in a letter to the Financial Times, where he said that his own personal experience had convinced him that "she can outwit and outsmart almost any policy economist I know."
To be clear, I'm not arguing that Okonjo-Iweala is axiomatically a better choice than Kim, although she certainly appears to be equally (and maybe better) qualified. My point is about the diplomatic repercussions of this decision and the broader approach that the United States ought to be taking in world affairs. Given how powerful the United States still is, a primary goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to make America's privileged position as palatable to others as possible. One way to do that is to make symbolic concessions on minor issues on occasion, in order to build good will and to convey a certain regard for others's sensitivities. You know: a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind." So when Washington gets lucky and the African Union endorses a Nigerian economist with a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT, who also has ample experience at the World Bank, and who is a woman of color to boot, the smart thing to do is get behind it immediately. This course is such an obvious no-brainer that I'm amazed the Obama administration didn't leap at the opportunity.
And by the way, having a non-American as president of the World Bank wouldn't set an unfortunate precedent. The United States would still have the voting rules in its favor, and it could still veto future candidates that it deemed unacceptable. But in this case the United States missed an opportunity to build some good will at little or no cost, and it's going to come back to haunt us down the road. And woe unto us if Kim gets the job and turns out to be a dud.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Here's a question for you: does it make sense for the United States to open its best universities to students from China (or any other potential long-term rival) and to help them to acquire advanced scientific and technical knowledge?
On the plus side, you could argue that all universities ought to admit the best and brightest applicants no matter where they come from, because that will help these universities do better work. Having smart students is a powerful spur to continued progress, no matter where they come from. Moreover, this practice might help the United States cream off some of the best foreign talent by convincing them to remain here after they graduate, where they will be of great benefit to the U.S. economy. And even if some of the best foreign students get trained here and then go back home, they can help their own societies develop, generate economic growth, and create bigger markets for everyone, so that the whole global economy grows and we all benefit.
But the downside is obvious too: if more and more of these well-trained people head back home, then U.S. universities will be transferring knowledge that might reduce America's comparative advantage. Even worse, we might be making it easier for other states to catch up or eventually surpass us in areas of advanced technology that have military implications (including cyber-security). So maybe we ought to be limiting foreign access to U.S. higher education, in order to preserve our own advantages for as long as we can.
There, in a nutshell, is a key difference between realists and liberals. Although the latter concede that there is a competitive element to world politics, they tend to downplay it and to focus primarily on the gains to be had from mutual cooperation. This tendency is evident in the emphasis placed on "engaging" China, which has been a hallmark of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. This view stresses the need for cooperation and the benefits that the United States (and others) will gain as China becomes wealthier, and one dimension of that would be opening up U.S. institutions of higher education and collaborating with Chinese universities.
By contrast, realists tend to worry more about long-term shifts in the relative balance of power between the two sides, and warned that enabling Chinese growth could eventually place the United States in a position where its own influence is reduced. If you believe that Sino-American rivalry will be hard to avoid and potentially costly, then you'd want to start think hard about ways to slow China's rise. But nothing is cost-free: taking steps like that could reinforce Chinese suspicions-- duh! -- and at a minimum means consigning millions of Chinese citizens to lower standards of living. And guess what? It would probably also reduce U.S. standards of living too, although perhaps not by as much.
Here's one way to think about these starkly contrasting worldviews. For liberals, world politics is like playing music, and states are just like members of a band or orchestra. Making good music requires teamwork and cooperation, and the quality of the music generally improves the more highly skilled the musicians are. Among other things, this means that helping your fellow players improve is good for the group as a whole; if your bass player or drummer gets better, then the overall group sound gets better too. So members of a band or an orchestra should help each other out, and not worry about whether one player is improving faster than the others are. And while there can be elements of rivalry or jealousy within a band (or between different groups), it's usually not a zero-sum activity. If La Scala improves and makes opera more popular, that's good for the Met; just as the Beatles and other English groups kicked the door open for lots of other bands too. Similarly, if Wynton Marsalis becomes famous and reignites interest in jazz, then other jazz musicians benefit too.
Musicians obviously have to agree on what piece of music to play, and it helps to have rules to guide them, whether it's fully orchestrated score, a lead sheet, or even just a loose arrangement with a list of solos. Even more abstract forms of improvised jazz depend on hours of training and a shared understanding of musical language. Such norms or rules or tacit understandings facilitate cooperation, and make it possible for lots of individuals to play together without a lot of prior rehearsal.
Thus, music is a pretty good metaphor for the liberal view of world politics, which is why liberals emphasize the importance of international law, institutions, and hegemonic leadership. And that's why most American liberals like to talk about the indispensability of the United States: in their view, the world orchestra needs a conductor, and who is better positioned to play that role than Washington DC? But the underlying image is still one where all will be better off if they work together; and where everyone has a common interest in helping others improve. No wonder E.H. Carr famously characterized idealist (i.e., liberal) approaches as emphasizing the "harmony of interests."
By contrast, realists see international politics as less like music and more like sports. We're not talking about exquisite harmonies and seamless group dynamics; we're talking NFL football or World Cup Rugby. There are clear winners and losers, the competitors sometimes cheat, and athletes are fools if they spend any time helping rivals improve. Players have an interest in helping teammates get better, but you wouldn't expect Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals to be giving hitting tips to a member of the Texas Rangers right now, and you wouldn't expect Roger Federer to call up Andy Murray and offer him some advice on how to improve his serve.
Unlike music, the essence of sports is inherently competitive, and the winners normally get a lot more benefits than the also-rans do. Rules exist to define the nature of the competition, but everyone understands that some people might cheat. By comparison, it's not even clear what it would mean to "cheat" when you're trying to play music, or how "cheating" would be of any benefit.
So which view provides a better metaphor for world politics? Although both metaphors can offer some revealing insights, it won't surprise you to learn that I think foreign policy is a lot more like sports than it is like music-making. Even if states can gain from collaboration, the benefits of collaboration are not evenly distributed and relative power still matters. More importantly, the occasional periods of close cooperation are occasionally disrupted by all-out struggles that redistribute power and leave the winners better off and the losers licking their wounds. When that occurs, of course, the rules tend to fall by the wayside. Imagine an NFL game played for high stakes, and with no referees on the field.
And because states now that such struggles can occur at any time, the possibility casts a grim shadow over much of their behavior.
Finally, let's not forget that relative power matters in the supposedly collaborative world of music. Conductors and bandleaders (and sometimes financial backers) get to decide what pieces to feature, and minor players just play what they are told. It was Duke Ellington's orchestra, not Johnny Hodges', and there's a reason why most of the songs on the Beatles' albums are by Lennon or McCartney and not George Harrison or Ringo. Over time, changes in the distribution of power world-wide will determine who gets to call the tune, and we might want to think about that before the set list changes in ways we might not like.
Scott Heavey/Getty Images
My previous post on the future of the Euro has attracted some critical comments from various parts of the IR/IPE community, see here and here. My critics make some interesting points (though I found them a bit hard to follow), but their central argument is that these broad paradigms don't make sharply differing predictions about this issue. In other words, what happens to the Euro (or the EU itself) would be consistent with any of these paradigms, and so my original question was misplaced.
What's perhaps most interesting about the comments is that none of respondents seem to have gone and looked at the realist work that is most germane to this issue, and to which I alluded in one of my links. I refer to the work of Sebastian Rosato of the University of Notre Dame, who has recently published an important book entitled Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community. (Full disclosure: Rosato took a course from me at the University of Chicago over a decade ago, but I left Chicago before he wrote his thesis. His book was published in the book series that I co-edit, but I wasn't the editor who handled his manuscript)
In any case, Europe United is a decidedly realist account of the EU's formation and evolution. Rosato is also a pessimist about the fate of the Euro, on both purely economic but also what might be termed "power-political" grounds. Critics of my original post are correct that I don't have a "realist" theory on this issue, but Rosato does. (He also has a forthcoming article in International Security that lays out his arguments regarding the euro in more detail).
Without presuming to speak for him, I'd just make two points. First, as I made clear in my original post, I don't think the evolution of the euro or the EU will decide the validity of rival theoretical approaches to international relations. Despite my realist proclivities, I actually see some virtue in most approaches to international relations, and the trick is determining what weight to give each one and how to adjust the weights in different circumstances. In short, I stand by the views I expressed here.
Second, I still believe these rival perspectives do lead to different expectations about Europe's future course. Realism, liberalism, and constructivism all agree that states will cooperate in some circumstances, but realists are more skeptical about the scope and extent of cooperation and tend to see underlying power distributions and security concerns as central to the process, especially between major powers. Accordingly, a realist account of the EU would stress that these states agreed to constrain their own autonomy and sovereignty largely in response to an unusual power configuration (i.e., the Cold War), and as much for security reasons as for purely economic ones. The end of the Cold War removed that power configuration, and we have seen the EU both expand and fray ever since. Germany's unwillingness to keep subsidizing profligate countries and European concerns about the implications of Germany's increasingly dominant role (as highlighted in this NYT article) are consistent with that view.
By contrast, liberal accounts of the EU emphasize the role of economic interdependence and welfare concerns as the main driving factor. In this view, so long as high interdependence obtains, the EU has little choice but to find a way to stagger forward. Constructivist approaches offer a third alternative: the EU will survive because it has led to the emergence of a nascent "European" identity that is gradually trumping national loyalties, and so distributions of power and other traditional realist concerns aren't really relevant anymore.
So we do have three contrasting views-one of them generally pessimistic about the EU and the euro, and two of them generally optimistic-and we can now wait for the passage of time to reveal which prediction is correct.
Bottom line: I don't think my original question was silly, but I am glad to have stimulated a bit of discussion.
I'm just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China's Rise and America's Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.
My impressions? First, there's clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I'd be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn't been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).
Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I'm hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.
Which was another theme of my visit. The Vietnamese don't appear to have any hard feelings toward the United States (I didn't catch the slightest hint of any lingering resentments from the war), and it's probably noteworthy that virtually all the visitors at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City were Westerners. This lack of resentment isn't all that surprising; as they see it, they beat us fair and square. Instead, the audiences at my talks (which included a fair number of students and intellectuals) and the officials with whom I met all sounded eager for closer ties with the United States. As I noted earlier, they were mostly concerned that the United States might cut some deal with China that would leave them isolated.
And China is a major long-term concern. That's hardly surprising either; all you have to do is look at a map and know a little bit about Sino-Vietnamese history. They have no desire for an open confrontation with Beijing, and Vietnam has a lot of important economic ties with China that could give the Chinese leverage in the future. But they are also under no illusions about the dangers of Chinese dominance (Vietnam was ruled by China for several hundred years), and I didn't sense much danger that Vietnam will bandwagon with Beijing. In that regard, the people with whom I spoke were clearly reassured and pleased by the tougher line the United States has taken regarding territorial issues in places like the South China Sea. So if Sino-American rivalry intensifies (as I expect it will), Vietnam will be an important U.S. ally.
All in all, it was a fascinating trip, and I'll be digesting my impressions for some time to come. And now it's time to catch up on what's been happening in the rest of the world; but first, I have to dig out the driveway.
I'm back in Singapore for the first time in nearly two years, and what a difference two years can make. Back in 2009, Singapore was reeling from the after-effects of the global recession, which hit its trade-dependent economy particularly hard.
The island nation has regrouped quickly, however, and its economy reportedly grew by an astonishing 17.9 percent in the first half of 2010. The harbor is chock-full of ships again, construction is proceeding apace, and the government expects robust growth to continue.
I don't want to go all "Asian values" on you, and comparing Singapore's economy with that of the United States is risky at best. But I've been reading a few books and articles on the endemic corruption (or if you prefer, criminality), embedded within the United States political/economic system (and watching documentaries about it too). And it made me wonder how much this feature might have to do with the varying trajectories of the two countries.
Case in point: today's Herald Tribune reports that Goldman Sachs has concluded that there's nothing really wrong with how it does business. To quote the print version (not the online edition) Goldman decided "its operations need only a fine-tuning, not a complete overhaul." Hmmmm. I don't know about you, but when a major investment bank has to get bailed out by the American taxpayer, and just paid a $550 million fine to settle civil fraud charges (not the first time Goldman has had to do something like this, by the way), one might reasonably conclude that there were more fundamental problems involved. Not from the point of view of Goldman's present profits, perhaps, but from the point of view of what is good for the society as a whole. And the problem seems to be that maximizing political influence is as much a part of Goldman's business model as the pursuit of economic gain itself.
Mind you, I'm not an economist, and I'm sure there are legions of people out there who would be quick to leap to Goldman's defense. And I'm not really picking on Goldman, because the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 suggested that the rot was far more widespread. Instead what troubles a layperson like me -- and maybe ought to worry you, too -- is that we've just lived through the most significant global recession since the 1930s but don't seem to have learned much in the process. That recession was triggered by malfeasance in mortgage and financial markets, and yet not much seems to have been done to create new arrangements that would prevent something similar from happening again. And the main reason isn't conceptual or economic but political: financial interests give a ton of money to politicians, and -- surprise, surprise -- those same politicians tend not to take actions that these donors oppose, like significantly tighter financial regulations.
Singapore is far from a perfect society, and as I said at the outset, direct comparisons between its situation and that of the United States are somewhat dubious. But I can't help but wonder if maybe we could learn a few things about political economy from them. Like not letting private money play an enormous role in politics, and paying civil servants enough so that more of our best brains choose public service over Wall Street.
This is the time of year when pundits (and party-goers) get asked to offer predictions for the New Year. I'm going to resist the temptation, because as Yogi Berra warned, "prediction is really hard, especially about the future." He was right.
In 1849, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "war is on its last legs, and universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism." In 1911, British scholar G.P. Gooch wrote that "even a successful conflict between states can bring no material gain. We can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel, and when the peacemakers shall be called the children of God." And we all know about the famous forecast that humanity had reached the "end of history," or the claim that globalization would eventually force other states to copy America's farsighted combination of markets, financial innovation, and "rule of law" if they wanted to enjoy economic prosperity. Yeah, right.
But it's not just these optimistic forecasts that turn out to be off-base; fortunately, some pretty pessimistic predictions did not pan out either. In 1950, a smart guy named Albert Einstein warned that "unless we are able, in the near future, to abolish the mutual fear of military aggression, we are doomed." In 1961, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow predicted that "The nuclear arms race is accelerating: within at the most ten years, some of these bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can. That is the certainty." The late Herman Kahn, another physicist and self-proclaimed futurologist, offered a similar forecast at about the same time, declaring that "unless we have more serious and sober thought we are not going to reach the year 2000 -- or even 1965 -- without a cataclysm."
These failed forecasts might lead you to conclude that you simply shouldn't listen to predictions by physicists, but even a good realist like Hans Morgenthau got it badly wrong at times. In 1979, Morgenthau predicted that "the world is moving ineluctably toward a third world war -- a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long." All I can say is that I'm glad he was wrong.
For a longer list of failed predictions about war and peace, check out the appendix to John Mueller's Quiet Cataclysm, which was my source for the quotations offered above. I'm not saying that scholars, pundits, and prognosticators don't get it right from time to time, but trying to offer specific predictions for the next year or so strikes me as a harmless but not very serious exercise. Social scientists can forecast certain broad trends, and our theories can certainly identify recurring tendencies that can help us anticipate broad features of the emerging strategic landscape. But the combination of human imagination, agency, contingency, and unanticipated consequences generally plays havoc with efforts at crystal ball-gazing.
Case in point: at a New Year's Eve party two years ago, I predicted that at least one country would leave the eurozone within the next year. I was clearly wrong about the specifics, but not about the general problems that the euro would face. Which merely goes to show that you can be broadly right but still be precisely wrong.
In any case, I'm not going to offer any predictions this year (at least not until I've had a glass or two of champagne). Instead, I'm taking the social scientist's normal cop-out and will look in the rearview mirror instead. And instead of just gazing back at 2010, here's my Top Ten Global Events of the past decade, in no particular order of importance:
1. January 2001: The inauguration of President Gore (oops, I mean Bush). The contested U.S. presidential election in 2000 proved even more momentous than we realized at the time, because it brought George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a gaggle of neoconservatives to power. I'm not saying Al Gore would have made a great foreign-policy president, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than Bush and Co. All in all, a hell of a way to start a decade.
2. 9/11. No surprise here, of course. 9/11 altered the course of U.S. foreign policy as dramatically as Pearl Harbor in 1941, and mostly for the worse, and because the United States is so powerful, its response to 9/11 had far-reaching implications all over the world. As horrific as that day was, the real damage came in the form of self-inflicted wounds (such as the invasion of Iraq) that proved even more costly than al Qaeda's original attack.
3. The Beijing Olympics. I pick this as a symbol of China's emergence as a major player in global politics, which is of course precisely what the Chinese government intended. One could also argue that it marked the end of China's self-effacing strategy of a "peaceful rise," and the beginning of a more self-assertive approach to advancing Chinese national interests. In other words, they're starting to act a lot like the great powers of the past, which implies increased great-power security competition in the decades ahead.
4. The Crash Heard 'Round the World. When the history of the 21st century is written, the financial meltdown that began in 2007 is bound to receive plenty of scrutiny. Unless, the same institutions whose greedy machinations helped produce it -- and who are still largely in place -- manage to generate something even worse in the years to come.
Jet travel still strikes me as slightly miraculous, and despite having visited over forty countries, I still get a certain gee-whiz feeling whenever I'm headed for the international terminal at Logan airport (even though the terminal itself is nothing for Boston to boast about).
As you've probably noticed, however, the Powers That Be are doing their best to destroy that pleasant tingle of anticipation. Just when you thought they couldn't find another way to make air travel more annoying and degrading, somebody comes up with a new method to drive us crazy. So having just flown twelve-plus hours from Boston to Kuwait (via London), I'm going to indulge in a short rant: the Top Five Things that Make Air Travel Infuriating.
1. The Whole Irrational Transportation Security Nightmare.
I have no objection to certain reasonable precautions about jet travel, but we've gone way, way, overboard in our effort to eliminate any and all risks. I'm with Yglesias here: The amount of time being wasted in TSA lines is unconscionable and is probably not making us significantly safer. Not only is an enormous amount of valuable time being wasted, but there's also the sheer indignity of being herded like cattle, forced to partially disrobe, and then poked or patted to make sure we don't have a box cutter or a lump of plastique hidden in our shorts.
And what about the creepy symbolism of the latest scanner machines? You enter the booth and are told to assume the classic "hands-up" position. It's a nice way of making the entire traveling population feel like suspects, thereby feeding our collective paranoia and giving al Qaeda and its ilk another symbolic victory. Osama may be hiding in a cave somewhere, but he's still got us trembling in our socks, clutching our beltless pants, as we go through the checkpoints. And you just know that it's going to get worse: no bureaucrat or elected official will ever relax the current procedures (for fear that a terrorist plot might succeed and make them look really, really, stupid). Instead, we'll just keep adding layers and restrictions in response both to future attempts and to new dangers that we just dream up for ourselves.
But I'm a reasonable guy, and I understand that others have different cost-benefit calculations than I do. I'd be willing to walk through naked if they could just get us all through in a reasonable amount of time. At Logan yesterday, it took nearly 20 minutes to get through the TSA checkpoint, and this was at 6:45 in the morning and the line wasn't even that long. And none of this is preventing a repeat of 9/11, because locking the cockpit doors has eliminated the danger that a terrorist will commander the aircraft and fly it into a building. It's mostly our elected officials covering their tails: they don't want to get blamed if one day a plane does go down due to terrorist action. But making it nearly impossible to attack an airplane isn't going to stop terrorism, it will just lead them to go after other, softer targets.
2. Marginal Pricing
I'm hardly the first person to complain about this, but airlines have become masters at charging us for everything while doing less and less themselves. We check ourselves in at "self-serve" kiosks; we carry our own bags on and off the plane, and most of the time we bring our own food too. Having cut services to the bone, airlines do more "upselling" than a sleazy car salesman. I checked in at a self-service kiosk a few months ago, and was given three options for "upgrading" my flight (each for a different fee). If I had been willing to pay enough, those generous folks at the airline would have moved me to first class, let me check my bag for free, and zipped me through the VIP express line at the security checkpoint. This is another reason why the situation is only get worse: make air travel unpleasant enough, and some people will pay extra to reduce the irritation back to a bearable level. We are in effect being asked to trade money for sanity.
And then there's my personal favorite: charging you a hefty chunk of change to go on an earlier flight. You show up early for your flight, and there's an empty seat on an earlier departure. Nobody is going to use that seat if you don't take it. It's in the airline's interest to put you on the earlier flight, because that will open up a seat on the later flight and maybe somebody else will want it (i.e., they had to make an unexpected trip, or they missed a connection and need a later flight). So everybody wins if they just put you on the earlier plane, except the airline will going to charge you at least $50 bucks for doing something that is already in their interest. Of course, they do have to cover the cost of printing another boarding pass, which means the net profit on this transaction is probably about $49.99. And yet still they keep losing money. And don't get me started about the impenetrability (from the consumer's point of view) of the whole ticket pricing policy...
3. The Nanny State
Rules the Air.
Has anyone done a study of the number of fatalities that have been produced by someone landing with their seat backs reclined, or with their tray tables not in the "fully closed and locked position?" I doubt it, yet airlines keep going to enormous lengths to protect us from the most unlikely contingencies. Airlines have long insisted that you can't use PDAs during takeoff, landing, or in flight, based on the unverified idea that this might somehow affect the operation of the aircraft. Except that some carriers now want to equip airliners to allow people to talk on cell phones doing the flight, which I predict will eventually lead to fisticuffs at forty thousand feet.
And the latest indignity is the demand that you remove earbuds or headphones before takeoff or twenty minutes before landing. Presumably this is so you can hear the crew shout instructions in the event of a crash. Plus, the flight attendants now insist that you turn off your Kindle, presumably so that you're not so engrossed reading when the plane goes down that you fail to heed the crew's instructions. I don't blame the flight crew; they are just doing their jobs and enforcing the rules. But can they just meet me halfway? If the plane crashes, I promise that I'll drop what I'm reading, take off my headphones, and do whatever you tell me. Really.
4. You DON'T Control
the Channel; You DON'T control the volume.
One feature that makes airports less and less appealing are those ubiquitous video monitors, usually set to either CNN or Fox. Instead of being allowed to read or converse in peace, you get bombarded by loud and grating announcers instead. There's no escape unless you can go to a business class lounge, although sometimes you'll find a TV on their too. Last week I was forced to sit through an entire episode of CNN's "Parker/Spitzer," because that's what was on the set above my seat in the waiting lounge. Moving does no good, because there are monitors everywhere. At least it wasn't O'Reilly or Wolf Blitzer.....
The Brits, by the way, have a much better idea. At Heathrow's Terminal 5, there are big video screens reporting the latest BBC news, with a video crawl providing text along with the images. You can watch if you want, but your eardrums don't get pummeled while you're either catching a nap or trying to concentrate on your book.
5. Forty pounds of
Carry-On in a Twenty-Pound Overhead Compartment.
Now that airlines are charging us to check bags, it naturally makes more sense for people to use carry-on bags and avoid the fee. You also miss waiting around for your luggage and eliminate the chance that you end up in Seoul while your bag enjoys an unscheduled visit to Stockholm. But the size of the overhead bins didn't change along with this new pricing policy, and despite some half-hearted efforts to regulate the size of carry-on bags, every flight I'm on these days seems to feature a bunch of unhappy passengers trying to cram duffle bags the size of Madagascar into the overhead bin. Tempers flare, nerves fray, and it takes twice as long to get on and off the aircraft as it should.
Granted, none of these complaints are as significant as issues of war, peace, national prosperity, and the like, and I'm sure I'll be less grumpy when my jet lag wears off. I fully realize that it's a hell of lot easier and safer to visit far-flung places now than it was a few decades ago, to say nothing of a few centuries ago. So I'm genuinely thankful for what transportation technology has wrought. But now I'd like some geniuses to get to work on making the whole experience a little less corrosive to the human spirit. Like I said, I still like to travel, and even like to fly. But I have the distinct fear that by the time I retire, getting on an airplane will involve more preparations than open-heart surgery, and recovery will take about as long.
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
It's Election Day, and I'm about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week's event?
First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda's deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.
Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP's main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America's unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.
Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn't eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that's the case, then what are we doing there?
Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.
One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don't deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.
Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won't eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.
In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.
I'm just back from a quick lecture trip in Paris, and offer here a few quick and unscientific observations.
1. You know all those clichés about how unfriendly Parisians are to Americans? In my experience, totally false. I had a nasty encounter with an ill-tempered concierge in a cheap hotel in 1976, and that's it. Virtually everyone I've ever dealt with there has been friendly and welcoming, and even tolerant of my French, which I daresay is tres imparfait.
2. Contrary to modern mythology, not all Parisians are thin.
4. There are lots of bicyclists in Paris. As a confirmed bike commuter myself, I can only applaud. I didn't see a single one wearing a helmet. Pourquoi?
5. As I've noted before, Europe is far more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural than it was when I first visited, a trend especially evident in Paris. It leads to certain incongruous moments, to say the least. On the Metro one evening, an older man entered the car with an accordion and began serenading the passengers (almost all of whom were non-white) with traditional French songs (think Aznavour or Piaf). The passengers sat there stone-faced and completely unresponsive, and I didn't see him earn any tips. Weird.
6. Lastly, a culinary puzzle I've pondered before: Why is that you can go into just about any modest establishment in any city or town or village in France and be assured of finding wonderful bread? Similarly, you can go into any non-descript café in a tiny Italian village and get an espresso that Starbucks would kill to duplicate. Or wander into any anonymous pizza joint in Manhattan and you can get a slice of thin-crust pizza that is ineffably superior to versions of the same thing found elsewhere.
The point is not that the foods themselves are unique; globalization has spread falafel, sushi, pad thai, rogan josh, borscht, and countless other foods to many corners of the world. (Although, as a fan of the perenakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine of Singapore, I keep waiting for someone to open a perenakan restaurant here in Boston). Instead, the puzzle is why the imitations tend to be inferior to the originals, unless you are dealing with very high-end purveyors. It's not like making a decent baguette or a good thin-crust pizza is a classified secret like stealth technology. Is this simply because consumers of the globalized imitation have lower standards (i.e., they're just happy to have such foods available, even if they're not made particularly well), or is it because some foods require specialized techniques and local ingredients (i.e., the right kind of flour or water) that aren't as widely available or as easily duplicated as we think?
el gran flaco/flickr
The last thing I want to do is write anything that might spook the markets, but I don’t think anybody will take my views on finance or economics so seriously as to spark a run on Wall Street.
I say this because I just got back from Athens and I spent much of my travel time reading Liaquat Ahamed's terrific book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. Taken together, the trip and the book have reinforced my pessimism about Greece's prospects of reversing its economic slide, and my concern that this situation will have significant negative repercussions elsewhere. The problem, as others know far better than I do, is that it will be very difficult for Greece to rescue its position despite the recent EU/IMF rescue package.
In order to stave off default, Greece needs to trim its budget drastically (which means throwing people out of work or at reducng their incomes), while at the same time stimulating economic growth. The problem is that it’s hard to do both at the same time, because cutting the budget (or collecting taxes more efficiently) reduces domestic demand and thus chokes off economic growth. And because Greece is part of the Eurozone, it can’t stimulate export-led growth by the normal expedient of devaluing its currency. (The sinking Euro helps globally, but not within the Eurozone itself.) Greece’s prospects for economic growth are further handicapped by conditions elsewhere in Europe: It will be hard for Greece to grow if the rest of Europe is stagnant. And if the government’s efforts at restructuring lead to widespread political unrest, then chances of robust growth are even slimmer.
And once the financial markets begin to realize all this, bond spreads will increase again and we will be back in the same soup we were in a few weeks ago. All of which leads me to conclude that Europe as a whole is going to be in difficult shape for quite some time, unless EU officials figure out a way to do a lot more than they have done so far. And a double-dip European recession could trigger a double-dip recession here in the United States, which would have profound economic and political consequences (e.g., goodbye to Barack’s second term?).
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and maybe even about the future. The overall level of global violence is at historic lows (despite some tragic conflicts that still defy solution), the world economy has done very well over the past half-century (despite its recent problems) and life expectancy, public health, and education levels have risen dramatically in many parts of the world (though conditions in a few places have deteriorated badly).
So Cassandra-like pessimism may not be appropriate, even for a realist. Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if our ability to deal with various global problems is decreasing, mostly due to the deterioration of political institutions at both the global and domestic level. Here are some tentative thoughts in that direction.
One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall "problem-solving capacity." When the ratio of "emerging problems" to "problem-solving capacity" rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others. Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.
Human society is not static, which means that new challenges are an inevitable part of the human condition. New problems arise from the growth of societies, from new ideas, from our interactions with the natural world, and even from the unintended consequences of past successes. As a result, policymakers are always going to face new problems, even when the old ones remain unresolved.
Moreover, a key feature of contemporary globalization is that today's problems tend to be more complex and more far-reaching, and tend to spread with greater speed. A volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel in Europe. A failed state in Afghanistan nurtures a terrorist network that eventually strikes on several continents. The Internet doesn't even exist in 1990, but now it empowers democratic forces, facilitates commerce and intellectual exchange, and enable extremists to recruit supporters and transmit tactical advice all around the world. The HIV virus emerges in Africa and eventually infects millions of human beings on every continent. Bankers in America's mortgage industry makes foolish and venal decisions, and a global financial collapse wipes out trillions of dollars of wealth and affects the lives of billions of people, some of them dramatically. Human beings in the developed world burn carbon fuels for a couple of centuries and now poor countries on the other side of the world face the risk of widespread coastal flooding (or worse) in the decades ahead. In short, the numerator of our critical ratio -- i.e., the rate at which big problems are emerging-seems to be rising.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
No profound thoughts to offer today;
instead, ten rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip impressions -- some of them snarky -- from
my current road trip. Readers who want to discount what follows can chalk
it up to some serious jet lag.
1. British Airways has mastered the art of predatory pricing. First, they canceled my initial flight to London, which meant I couldn't make my connection to Paris in time for my first commitment. So I had to buy a separate one way ticket on Air France to preserve my schedule. But did BA offer to refund the unused portion of my itinerary (which was unused because they canceled the flight)? But nooooooooo! If I wanted a refund, I had to cancel my entire itinerary (which involved four more flights) and then rebook all four of the remaining legs under a new reservation number, but at a new, higher price that cost more than the original ticket. Heads they win, tails you lose. Resolved: avoid BA whenever possible in the future.
2. Alas, Air France is not an appealing alternative; it's no longer a great airline but instead is merely adequate. I still have vivid and glowing memories of flying first class to Paris on my honeymoon (a gift from my mother-in-law, who had a gazillion frequent flyer miles back then). I wasn't in first class this time, but even taking that into account, it was a pretty mediocre experience. And the "tournedos" they served for dinner would have made Escoffier tear his hair. Some poor vache died for no good reason.
3. Public transportation. On the other hand, there were a few experience on the road that put les États-Unis to shame. In Paris, there's a direct train from the airport into Paris, or you can take an Air France bus that leaves frequently, is cheap, and gets you to one of several convenient Metro stops. In London, the "Heathrow Express" rail line is equally convenient, and a virtually seamless way to get from the airport to central London. As you leave customs, there's a guy standing there with a credit card swiper. Thirty seconds later, you have your ticket, the trains leave every 15 mins., and they get you to Paddington in about 20 mins.. Consider that you can't take a train to Dulles or JFK and it reminds how bad most public transport and infrastructure is in the Land of the Free(way).
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
Writing earlier this week in the Financial Times, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made "The Case for Messy Multilateralism." Haass is almost always sensible, and this piece was too. His basic argument is that many global issues are increasingly complex, and trying to negotiate big global treaties or pacts (like Kyoto or the Doha Round) are probably beyond anyone's capacity, due to the enormous number of players involved and their widely diverging interests and capacities. Better to go with more limited agreements (i.e. involving the most powerful or engaged stakeholders), or various "coalitions of the willing." With luck, this flexible and opportunistic approach will produce a gradual evolution in the world's institutional structure (e.g., from G8 to G20, etc.), and allow us to make progress on issues that might otherwise defy solution. You know, the best is the enemy of the good, and all that.
Of course, FP readers will recognize that this idea bears a lot of resemblance to Moisés Naím's earlier argument for "minilateralism," and my minor reservations about that concept apply here too. But one passage in Haass' piece leapt out at me, where he says:
"In many cases it will prove impossible to negotiate international accords that will be approved by national parliaments. Instead, governments would sign up to implementing, as best they can, a series of measures consistent with agreed-upon international norms."
I haven't thought about this notion for very long, but at first read this sounds like a retreat from our usual ideas about democratic accountability, or at least the form that it normally takes here in the United States (i.e., where the Senate has to approve treaties). In essence, Haass seems to be saying that executives need to make an end-run around constitutional limits, by negotiating informal or tacit measures that don't need to be ratified by legislatures. I can see the appeal of that idea, I suppose, but despite my concerns about excessive congressional oversight (read: gridlock), I'm at least as worried by the damage that unconstrained executives can do.
Bottom line: this proposal ought to be read in conjunction with James Fallows' Atlantic cover story (which I'm still digesting) on the need for institutional reform here at home. I've been thinking similar thoughts myself, and I'll share them when they've gelled a bit more. The Burkean conservative in me says: "don't go there," but I have occasional Jacobin moments too.
P.S. I'll be traveling over the next week, so posting will be limited by my schedule and by internet availability. I'm counting on all of you to keep things quiet, ok?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
There is an old saying among military experts that "amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics." I was reminded of that while reading a recent commentary from my friends at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The somewhat arcane subject was the "carrying capacity" of the Straits of Malacca/Singapore, a vital maritime artery in South East Asia, and it reminded me that there are a host of issues in our globalized world that rarely get much elite or public attention, yet are absolutely vital to "business as usual." As this example suggests, a lot of them have to do with the principles, procedures and infrastructure that enable people and things to move from place to place cheaply and relatively efficiently.
At its narrowest point, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are about 2.2 kilometers wide. Nearly 100,000 vessels transit the Straits each year -- carrying about a quarter of the world's traded goods -- and several recent studies project that as many as 150,000 vessels could be moving through the Straits by 2020. That many ships would exceed the Straits’ current "carrying capacity" (i.e., the number of ships that could move safely through it).
The key takeaway, however, is that "carrying capacity" is not a fixed number: The number of ships that can safely transit the Straits can be increased by timely government action to remove shipwrecks, improve navigation aids, tidal monitoring, and meteorological information, increase towing capacity, and other rather straightforward measures.
The good news, according to the RSIS commentary from which I gleaned this information, is that the three littoral states (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) have adopted a proactive policy on this issue. As a result, "projects are already underway, or are being proposed, to address the safety of navigation issues in order to improve sea lane conditions, with the participation of all interested stakeholders." If only the negotiations in Copenhagen were this easy.
The broader lesson here has to do with the importance of maintaining public infrastructure -- roads, bridges, air terminals, electrical grids, maritime waterways, rail lines, etc. -- the sinews upon which global commerce depends. These policies aren't exactly sexy, but they aren’t frivolous luxuries either. Indeed, they are essential ingredients that make the modern world work. It wouldn't be such a bad thing if world leaders got asked more questions about what they were doing to improve national and global infrastructure, at least as often as they get asked about where they are planning to send troops or what they think about the latest celebrity scandal.
I've posted on Valentine's, Father's Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and Halloween, so at this point I assume a few readers are expecting me to offer up some thoughts on Thanksgiving. I'm happy to oblige, because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not only do I enjoy helping produce a feast and welcoming friends and family, but I like the idea of a day to reflect on whatever blessings we may have received. In my own case, I've been blessed with a wonderful family and a lot of undeserved good luck, and I probably ought to be even more grateful than I am.
So in that spirit, here are the Top Ten things I'm thankful for this year. (For the "official" FP version, check out Josh Keating's list here). I've limited myself to items that relate in some way to foreign policy or international affairs.
1. The Foreign Policy team. First off, I'm grateful for the invitation to write this blog, and especially for the terrific backup we get from the editorial and production team at FP. Special thanks to Rebecca Frankel (who finds all those great photos), to Susan Glasser, who keeps the whole operation running, and of course, the boundlessly inventive and fearless Moises Naim.
2. Free Speech. Every writer lucky enough to live in a country that protects free speech ought to give thanks for that good fortune every single day. Compared to the millions of people who risk persecution (or worse) if they dare to express their own ideas, intellectuals in the United States have it pretty soft. We should never take that luxury for granted.
3. Great Power Peace: Throughout history, wars between great powers have been one of the most potent causes of human misery. Just think about World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, which together killed over 85 million people and impoverished millions more. Yet today, great power rivalries are quite muted and the danger of a true great power war seems remote. There are plenty of other problems still remaining, of course, but I'm grateful that one of the big ones isn't troubling us right now. Let's try to keep it that way, ok?
4. Nuclear Deterrence. Unlike some writers whose work I nonetheless admire, I think nuclear weapons did contribute to peace during the Cold War and remain a stabilizing force today. As Churchill put it, safety has become the "sturdy child of terror." So despite some lingering reservations, I'm glad that nuclear weapons exist. But I'm not giving thanks for the number that we have, which is far in excess of what is needed for deterrence.
5. Critics. Some of my recent work attracted a lot of criticism, and I'm genuinely grateful for it. First of all, my co-author and I have been fortunate that our most vehement critics chose to misrepresent our work and to smear us with various baseless charges, thereby confirming some of our central arguments and helping us win over a lot of readers. At the same time, scholars who have challenged my various writings over the years in more serious ways helped me refine my ideas and gain a fuller understanding of numerous topics. And I'm always thankful for students who don't accept ideas at face value and push back, because we need more independent thinkers and vigorous discussion helps us all learn.
6. Supporters. The controversy over The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy also brought me a legion of new friends, some of whom I would never have met otherwise. My thanks to inspired writers and activists like Phil Weiss, Tony Judt, M.J. Rosenberg, Jerome Slater, Avi Shlaim, Uri Avnery, Sydney Levy, and many, many more. I'm also grateful to the various people who faced pressure to cancel speaking engagements and didn't succumb to it, as well as the many friends who offered their support privately, in countless small ways. You know who you are, and I won't forget.
7. The Fruits of Globalization. I don't know about you, but I'm grateful to live in a world that is increasingly interconnected. Indeed, this aspect of the modern world still strikes me as nearly miraculous, and I feel enormously lucky to be able to enjoy it. I've eaten hummus in Tel Aviv, camel in Abu Dhabi, fish head curry in Singapore, and tapas in Barcelona. My iPod contains music from all over the world, and the last two novels I read were by Orhan Parmuk (Turkey) and Haruki Murakami (Japan). My children attend a public high school where students speak over fifty different languages at home, and there are students from over 80 different countries where I teach. Cultural differences often create awkward tensions (or worse), but I'd feel terribly impoverished if I lived in an isolated mono-culture.
8. Bullets Dodged. I am also thankful that we have thus far avoided some even more dire events in recent years. The world economy may have tanked in 2007-08, but we seem -- knock wood -- to have avoided a complete replay of the Great Depression. Swine flu has been a serious problem but is not a true global pandemic. Terrorists still conspire and sometimes succeed, but another 9/11 (or worse) has not occurred And we have not been so foolish as to attack Iran (at least so far). We should not forget that many are suffering in today's economy, roughly 5000 people have died from H1N1, both soldiers and civilians are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are still influential voices clamoring for more war. But things could be much worse and for that we should all be grateful.
9. The Internet. Boy, am I glad that Al Gore invented this! After all, this blog wouldn't exist without it. Not only has it revolutionized how many of us do research (and in a good way), but it is becoming the main engine of accountability in a world where it is often lacking. Bloggers are exposing the flabby fatuousness of mainstream media and politicians everywhere live in fear of their own "YouTube moment." And whether it is a brutal crackdown in Tehran, torture at Abu Ghraib, or possible war crimes in Gaza, the Internet is helping bring misconduct to light in ways that governments cannot easily suppress. I say: let the sunshine in!
10. Readers. Finally, a heartfelt thanks to all of you who've been reading this blog since its inception, and especially those who've taken the time to offer words of support. I've learned a lot in the process-including some of the more constructive comments that readers provide -- and I intend to keep going until the tank is empty. Tomorrow is a holiday, however, and I'm going to take the day off. You should too, and don't forget to give thanks.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
I don't know how many people subscribe to both Foreign Policy and Sports Illustrated, but I do know lots of people who take athletics seriously. Human beings seem to be hard-wired into making "in-group/out-group" distinctions, so it's not surprising that the loyalty that sports fans show for their favorite teams looks a lot like the broader phenomenon of nationalism. And I'm not saying that just because I'm a proud member of Red Sox Nation.
Success in sports can be the first step toward a successful political career (e.g., Bill Bradley, Sebastian Coe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Kemp, etc.) and athletes like Pele, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods have become genuine global icons. Of course, using sports to demonstrate national prowess or as a source of national pride is a common practice. The revival of the Olympic games in the 1890s was at least partly intended to promote international cooperation and understanding, but as a good realist would expect, the Games eventually became yet another arena where states could try to demonstrate the superiority of their own system and enhance their global influence.
Anyway, as summer winds down and the fall term looms, I found myself wondering about various episodes where sporting events actually had an effect on world politics, or told us something about how the world was changing. Here's my list of ten key moments, in no particular order.
1. The Berlin Olympics, 1936.
Adolf Hitler uses the Olympic Games to highlight the superiority of the Nazi regime, but his efforts are at least partly undermined when a black American, Jesse Owens, wins four gold medals.
2. La Guerra de futbol (aka “Soccer War”): El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969.
Here’s a case where sports may have helped cause a war: a hard-fought match between El Salvador and Honduras in a preliminary round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup exacerbated the existing tensions between the two states and helped spark a brief four-day war in which over 1000 people died. The war ended inconclusively and El Salvador eventually won the actual match, but was ousted in a subsequent round and did not make the finals.
3. "Ping Pong Diplomacy:" U.S. Table Tennis Team Visits China, 1971.
During the world championships in Japan, the U.S. table tennis team received an unexpected invitation to visit China, and shortly thereafter became the first group of Americans to visit China since the communist takeover in 1949. The "ping heard 'round the world" was the first tangible sign of normalization between the United States and China (even though the Chinese teams reportedly had to throw a few matches to the Americans). The visit was obviously not the cause of the subsequent rapprochement, but it shows how sporting events can be an effective diplomatic tool.
4. U.S. Women Win Soccer World Cup, 1999.
I see this as significant for two main reasons. First, it underscores the growing importance and legitimacy of women’s sports, which has been an important element in modern feminism. Second, it shows the United States finally demonstrating real prowess in the world's most popular sport. Plus, the final game was against China, which makes it a nice harbinger of 21st century geopolitics.
5. Black September at the Munich Olympics, 1972:
Palestinian terrorists seized and eventually killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. The heinous act sets back Palestinian national aspirations and triggers a protracted Israeli reprisal campaign that assassinated a number of Palestinian leaders and at least one innocent victim.
6. South Africa Wins Rugby World Cup, 1995.
South African teams were barred from most international competitions during the apartheid era, a step that highlighted the regime’s pariah status and helped undermine popular support for the policy. The post-apartheid team’s victory in 1995 was a vivid symbol of South Africa’s new beginning, symbolized when President Nelson Mandela awarded the victor’s trophy to team captain Francois Pinear, a white Afrikaner.
7. Australia II Wins America’s Cup, 1983.
The Aussie victory broke what was probably the longest winning streak in the history of sports -- 132 years of dominance that began when the schooner America outpaced a British flotilla in a race around the Isle of Wight in 1851. (When she asked who had finished second, Queen Victoria was reportedly told "Your Majesty, there is no second.”). In retrospect, one could see the Australian victory as a symptom of globalization: cutting-edge yacht design wasn’t an American monopoly any longer. Since then, alas, the competition has been driven by another American export: gamesmanship and ceaseless litigation over the rules of the competition.
8. The "Miracle on Ice": the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team Defeats the Soviet National Team, 1980.
Labeled the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the improbable defeat of a heavily-favored Soviet team by a group of U.S. college players arrived at a moment when many Americans mistakenly felt the Soviet Union was pulling ahead. In fact, the USSR was on its last legs, though its hockey establishment remained a powerhouse and eventually sent a lot of players to the NHL.
9. “Das Wunder von Berne:” Germany Wins World Cup, 1954.
An underdog German team defeated Hungary in the final in Berne, a win that set off a wave of euphoria in Germany and is seen by some historians as a key event that restored a sense of national pride after the shame of the Nazi era and helped signal Germany’s re-integration in the world community.
10. Pentathlete Boris Onischenko Disqualified at Montreal Olympics, 1976.
I was on the fencing team in college, so I can’t resist adding this to my list. Onischenko was a member of the Soviet modern pentathlon team who was disqualified after referees discovered that his sword had been modified to enable him to register “hits” on the electronic scoring machine by pressing a switch concealed in his grip. Together with the East German steroid scandal, such episodes helped undermine the image of the Soviet empire. Plenty of other athletes have cheated, of course -- think of sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, bicyclist Floyd Landis, and subway-riding “marathoner” Rosie Ruiz -- but their transgressions had less impact absent the Cold War atmosphere.
There are other examples one might add: Budge versus von Cramm at Wimbledon, the controversial Soviet "defeat" of the U.S. men's basketball team at Munich, or the notorious Soviet-Hungary water polo match at the 1956 Olympics (played in the shadow of the Hungarian Revolution, the game was so violent the water reportedly turned pink). So please feel free to contribute your own suggestions.
IOC Olympic Museum /Allsport
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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In my last post, I argued that the U.S. policy of "don't ask don't tell" is contrary to a realist view of world politics, because it excludes qualified people from military service and thus makes it harder for the United States to field the most effective forces in a competitive international environment. I think there are other objections to the policy as well, but I was primarily concerned in that post with the strategic implications. The policy obviously doesn't prevent the United States from producing highly capable fighting forces, but restricting the talent pool in this way means our forces will cost more than they have to and/or be less effective than they could be.
This got me thinking: might a similar logic be at work at a more global level? Specifically, does the competitive nature of international politics give some states an advantage because their political systems and social values make it relatively easy to attract and assimilate talented citizens from other countries, thereby enabling them to draw more-or-less selectively on the entire global talent pool? If so, then these states will be able to improve their relative position over time, and to the extent that globalization now facilitates people moving from place to place, that tendency should be increasing. By contrast, states that make assimilation difficult or that discriminate on other areas will tend to be less attractive destinations for highly educated and/or entrepreneurial individuals, and these states will for the most part have to work with the citizenry they've got or pay a very high premium to attract talent from abroad.
One can see this dynamic by comparing Japan and the United States. Japan is an ethnically homogeneous society, with small minority populations who remain objects of discrimination. It is possible for foreigners to become naturalized citizens after five years of continuous residence, but this practice is not widespread. Japan also has a rapidly aging and declining population, which will have significant long-term effects on its power and influence. Yet given Japan's current policies discourage talented foreigners from immigrating and assimilating, thereby making it harder for Japan to attract the best and brightest from around the world and reverse its demographic slide.
The United States, by contrast, is the very model of a melting-pot society. People automatically qualify for citizenship if either parent is a citizen or if they are born on American soil, and naturalization is quite common (about one million people became naturalized citizens last year). Although support for immigration has waxed and waned throughout U.S. history and remains a contested issue today (mostly due to issues pertaining to illegal immigration), the United States has had remarkable success attracting and assimilating some of the best and brightest from all over the world. All I have to do is look at my colleagues, whose ranks include an impressive number of scholars born outside the United States. Each of them was hired as a result of a global talent search, and we'd have a less distinguished faculty if we had looked only at U.S. citizens. Some of my colleagues eventually returned to their countries of origin (such as Andres Velasco, currently Minister of Finance in Chile), but others are likely to spend most if not all of their careers here in the United States.
The success of the American melting pot, as many scholars have commented, is due partly to good fortune (North America was rich in natural resources, arable land, etc.) but also to the particular nature of American civic nationalism (or what Anatol Lieven calls the American Creed): faith in liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, the rule of law, individualism, and political and cultural (but not economic) egalitarianism. Although the United States has hardly been free of racial or ethnic conflicts during its history, these features have made it possible for every new group to integrate itself as full citizens. The United States is an attractive destination not just because it is a wealthy society, but also because many different groups and individuals can become integral parts of that society instead of facing permanent second-class status.
If I'm right, then the pressures of international competition give an advantage to any society that can "cream" some of the smartest and/or hardest working people from all over the world. How? By making that society an attractive place to live and work, mostly by creating an atmosphere of equality and toleration. By contrast, societies that limit their de facto talent pool by defining citizenship narrowly, by treating minorities badly, by discriminating on the basis of race, religion, or other characteristics are placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Over time, therefore, we should expect a growing gap between "cosmopolitan" societies that develop institutions and cultures in which diversity and tolerance are prized and where potential conflicts between them are managed well, and more restrictive societies that are either attractive only to a fixed population of particular ethnic identity, or who are face recurring internal conflicts between various contending groups. My bet would be that, other things being equal, the former do better over time.
And note that this argument isn't just about ethnic assimilation. In effect, what I'm suggesting is that from a realist perspective, there is a strong case for "small-l" liberal toleration. All else equal, societies that establish strong norms and institutions that protect individual rights and freedoms (including those governing sexual preference, I might add) will become attractive destinations for a wider array of potential citizens than societies that try to maintain a high degree of uniformity. And when you can choose from a bigger talent pool, over time you're going to do better.
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I'm about to leave town for a conference on civil-military relations sponsored by the Eisenhower Project, so I won't be posting much until next week. But several thoughts occurred to me as I watched the world's nations rally to address the swine flu problem.
Potential pandemics appear to be one of those issue-areas where global cooperation works pretty well. By most accounts the response to SARS back in 2003 did a fairly good job of containing what might have been a much more serious problem. By contrast, the global response to climate change has been much more halting, and collaboration in other areas (the Doha Round, arms reductions, etc.) has been even more disappointing in recent years.
I think there are three features of the pandemic problem that encourage effective international collaboration. First, the dangers are immediate and somewhat indiscriminate, in the sense that lots of countries are likely to be affected and within a relatively short time-horizon. Mishandling a pandemic would not only impose major short term costs, it could also affect the political fortunes of incumbent politicians around the world. So nobody sits around twiddling their thumbs. Global warming, by contrast, is a long-range danger, which makes it easier for today's politicians to waste a lot of time haggling and push the problem off on future generations.
Second, pandemics are not an issue where "relative gains" loom large. States don't see this as an opportunity to improve their strategic position by getting others to bear all the costs or by trying to free-ride (or god forbid, by trying to encourage the disease to spread to one's rivals). Infectious diseases are too mobile and the world is too interconnected for that approach. If Country A responds vigorously but Country B does not, B is likely to have a more serious problem. But the worse things are for B, the bigger the problem that A might face (think Mexico and the US in this regard). This situation encourages joint efforts, and makes it more likely that each state will do all that it can to contain the danger and mitigate the effects.
Third, public health is a highly professionalized and comparatively de-politicized field, and the relevant international and national institutions (e.g., the World Health Organization) have a lot of prior experience. Many of the responses to these events are based on uncontroversial science and straightforward best practices, which means there is less debate about what measures to take and less time spent trying to devise solutions. One might contrast this with the current economic mess, where different national authorities have rather different ideas about the best way to respond and international coordination has been pretty paltry.
All this is not to say that the global response will be perfect, or that the potential pandemic will be contained as effectively as SARS ultimately was. But it does remind us that global cooperation is possible, and that some global institutions do provide valuable protection. Libertarian neo-isolationists and neoconservative institution-bashers should take note.
Last week a friend of mine sent me a link to a website for a film festival featuring over thirty movies about wine. That got me thinking: if Foreign Policy had a film festival, what movies should we show? There are some obvious candidates (see below), but rather fewer than you might think. After all, many aspects of foreign policy don't lend themselves to cinematic treatment, which is why I don't expect to see a gripping drama about the Doha Round or a lighthearted farce about the Six Party Talks on North Korea (though Kim Jong Il clearly has untapped comic potential).
There are lots of terrific war movies, of course, but most of them tell you relatively little about why the war happened or what the conflict was actually about. And spy movies have long been a popular genre, ranging from Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps to the gadgetry and glitz of most Bond flicks to the film noir seediness of The Third Man to the paranoid high-tech travelogue that is the Jason Bourne franchise.
But let's raise the bar high, and exclude pure war movies, spy capers, documentaries, and overt propaganda films like Triumph of the Will or Frank Capra's Why We Fight, and focus on movies that tells us something about international relations more broadly. Here's my personal top ten list, with apologies for my ethnocentrism (I don’t see enough foreign-language films).
10. Meeting Venus
Ostensibly a film about opera and an unlikely romance between a diva and an obscure conductor -- set in a fictitious "all-European" orchestra -- this droll sleeper actually tells you a lot about environmentalism, European labor unions, the historical legacy of the Trotsky-Stalin split, and the tangled politics of the European Union. Plus it’s got Glenn Close.
9. Independence Day
Basically a sci-fi flick the depends on you suspending disbelief throughout (e.g., how did Bill Pullman stay cockpit ready for an F-15 while serving as President, and where did Wlll Smith learn to fly a flying saucer?) It's Hollywood, so of course the United States gets to save the world. But it makes my list because it is balance-of-power theory in action: an external threat (giant alien spaceships), gets the world to join forces against the common foe.
Yes, there are a lot of spies roaming around this movie, but its much broader than that; an exciting if somewhat incoherent portrait of the interplay of oil companies, great power politics, local militias, and the tension between modernity and tradition in the Middle East. Not to be taken too seriously, but not without insights either.
Not just a gripping movie, but also a film about a watershed historical event. One could argue that this is where the modern human rights movement begins.
6. Wag the Dog
Instead of invading Grenada or firing cruise missiles at Sudan, here the White House hires a Hollywood producer to invent a wholly fictitious war. Sounds absurd, but those WMD in Iraq turned out to be fictitious too. There's a whole IR literature on "scapegoat wars" (i.e., wars fought to distract the public from other issues), and this film just takes that impulse a step further. It's a cautionary tale in this era of digital special effects, a compliant news media, and the citizens who are all too inclined to believe whatever they are told. Could this be Roger Ailes's favorite movie?
5. Fail Safe
Everything you ever wanted to know about colonialism and the unavoidable clash of cultures that it produces.
3. The Great Dictator
Chaplin's lethal lampooning of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, released in 1940 and addressing anti-Semitism at a moment when plenty of other institutions were still ignoring it. Reminds us that making fun of despots is often an effective weapon.
2. Dr. Strangelove
Granted, it is a war movie (though the war depicted here won’t last long), but so much more. Kubrick punctured the absurdity of the conventional military thinking in a nuclear age as well as any scholar could, and managed to satirize the whole Cold War mentality to hilarious effect.
No, it’s not really a war movie (there are no battle scenes, and the emphasis is on politics, resistance, and of course romance). But it’s on my list, because, well, it's Casablanca. And where would modern discourse be without phrases like "Round up the usual suspects," "Here's looking at you, kid," "I was misinformed," "I'm shocked, shocked!…" and "this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”?
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Interpreter (not that good a movie, but how many films take place at the UN?); Rollover (an old B movie about a global financial meltdown triggered by crooked corporations, venal foreign investors, and corrupt financiers. Right, as if something like that could ever happen); Local Hero (hot shot rep from a multinational oil corporation is no match for the charms of a quirky Scottish fishing village); Duck Soup (the Marx Brothers show you what could happen if Glenn Beck ran foreign policy); Missing (about the CIA's involvement in Chile); Grand Illusion (a classic antiwar movie, but didn't make my list because it is set in the middle of World War I); Hotel Rwanda (humanity in midst of the world's most recent genocide); Charlie Wilson's War (partly about the Afghan War, but mostly about how things get done -- or not -- in Washington. My CIA friends tell me a lot of it is a crock, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant and Tom Hanks ain't bad); and last but not least, Reds (the Bolshevik Revolution was a major world event, and it's an excellent movie, too).
And YOUR nominees are?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.