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.
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On the eve of the EU Summit, Mark Sheetz offers the following commentary, which differs in some respects from mine.
In several recent blogs on the euro crisis, Stephen Walt has expressed exasperation with European leaders and pessimism on the fate of the eurozone. His reaction is understandable and consistent with virtually all journalists and economists who study the issue. They are frustrated at the slow pace of European decision-making and the fact that a solution seems obvious. In recent days, demand for action has become nearly hysterical, with analysts, columnists, and editorial writers for the New York Times suggesting that time for a solution is "running short," that "the endgame is fast approaching," that the eurozone is facing a "meltdown," and that a collapse is "perhaps inevitable."
So, what is the solution? Conventional economic wisdom insists that either Germany acquiesce to some sort of bailout or the eurozone is finished. Germany must consent either (a) to the issuance of joint and severally liable Eurobonds or (b) to a policy of monetary easing by the European Central Bank (ECB). The problem is being treated as a technocratic economic matter. Hence, technocrats have come to power in Greece and Italy. But the matter is essentially political and the crisis turns on central problems of international relations theory, like anarchy, sovereignty, and power.
Economists believe that the basic problem of the eurozone is economic: that national economic imbalances can no longer be restored through the traditional method of currency devaluation. But the problems of the eurozone are fundamentally political: (a) it expanded too fast, wider won out over deeper, (b) there is no commitment to common budgetary policies, and (c) there is no mechanism to enforce agreements.
The debate is congealing around two poles, a pessimistic pole predicting the breaking apart of the eurozone versus an optimistic pole of closer integration. The solution includes both. On the one hand, wide economic disparity among members of the eurozone will force weaker members to leave. Greece, as well as those countries that use the euro but cannot afford it (PIGS), will be cast off from the eurozone by a mounting centrifugal force.
On the other hand, the remaining members will converge on tighter economic policy along the German model. As a corollary to more restricted membership, those countries remaining in the eurozone will harmonize their policies regarding deficits and government pensions and achieve some sort of convergence in the major items affecting budget deficits. This will have the effect of bringing Europe closer together, or at least those countries that can achieve convergence. It may also create a more politically coherent Europe, with those remaining in the eurozone leading the European Union economically and politically. Such a situation might even give a common foreign policy the chance to develop and cohere around a small group of stronger European countries.
Some believe that a Greek expulsion from the eurozone will be catastrophic. They assume that a Greek default within the eurozone is manageable, while a Greek exit would make contagion worse. My own feeling is that contagion -- and the accompanying collapse of the European project -- would be the result of Greece staying in the euro, not the result of Greece getting out. The recent evidence of market contagion to Italy and Spain appears to support this claim. A referendum in Greece would have cleared the air. It would have restored a stark reality that European leaders would not be able to evade. If Greeks had voted "no" on the referendum, Greece would have had little choice but to return to the drachma. That would have been a lesson to others. They would have recognized that they have only two choices: (a) converge fiscal and monetary policies or (b) press the "eject" button. The problem now is that European leaders may still think they can muddle through by patching up a country here and there. That will destroy the clarity exposed by a Greek default.
The divide, as usual, is between France and Germany over monetary policy. The French, along with their southern European allies in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, favor easy money, while the Germans, along with northern Europeans in the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland, insist on a tight money policy. Any hint of German capitulation to French demands of easier money will be the end of the euro. The first sign of wavering, the first inkling that a compromise is afoot, will signal to the markets that the floodgates for a river of euros are open, that fiscal and monetary discipline are history, that inflation will be rampant, and that the euro will be worthless.
Germans will not pay for the profligacy of their neighbors. Otherwise, where would it stop? Any concession towards easy money will only reinforce the "moral hazard" of further risk-accepting behavior. It is a story as old as Aesop: the ant and the grasshopper. Germany entered into the euro under assurances that all members would conduct their economic affairs responsibly. If this is no longer the case, then Germany will reserve the right to withdraw. A former British chancellor of the exchequer agrees, insisting that Germany would sooner withdraw from the euro than see its integrity compromised. Another (not insignificant) factor is the survival of Angela Merkel as chancellor. Any suggestion of Merkel wavering at the prospect of easy money is tantamount to political suicide. So all the speculation that the ECB or the EFSF will "stabilize" (rescue) the euro is so much folderol.
The power calculus, then, favors Germany. France will be dragged along kicking and screaming, but two points suggest eventual French capitulation. One is that Germany will otherwise threaten to secede from the euro, which would put France in a nasty competitive economic position. And the second is that, without the unity embodied in a common currency, French hopes of ever again exerting influence on the world scene will have evaporated. Europeans understand that they cannot meet global challenges as individual nations because they are no longer great powers. As President Sarkozy conceded, "If Europe does not change quickly enough, global history will be written without Europe."
The original path to the common currency was through a convergence of economic policies. Nations would have budget deficits of no more than 3 percent of GDP, and total debt of no more than 60 percent of GDP. If euro members had stuck to these criteria, they would be in dandy shape now. So a return to that mechanism, with additional penalties for non-compliance, might work. The problem is to create binding agreements.
On the question of enforcement, one possibility mentioned is an automatic increase in taxes to offset a budget deficit beyond acceptable limits. Other devices to ensure compliance with EU oversight of national budgets are available for the same purpose. These sanctions would be imposed by a central authority that can override national budget decisions. The European Court of Justice and the European Commission have been suggested as ultimate arbiters, but such supranational enforcement has its limits in a union of sovereign states.
Sovereign governments may oppose such measures for domestic political reasons. As long as sovereignty remains, national governments may negate previous agreements. Even within national governments, as in the U.S. Congress, existing legislatures may negate the agreements of previous legislatures. Therefore, a more severe penalty is required.
The ultimate penalty for non-compliance is, of course, expulsion. The eurozone could expel any country that fails -- after a suitable time period -- to adhere to budgetary guidelines set forth in a new agreement. The ultima ratio of economic union is expulsion, just as the ultima ratio of politics is war. It lurks behind every decision as the final alternative.
So the demise of the euro, as a proxy for the EU itself, is not on. Neither is a consolidation on the German federal model. A big push for more Europe is not in the cards now. The loss of that much national sovereignty is unrealistic, given the immature development of a European identity. That is why convergence of fiscal and economic policies is the most likely outcome, not complete structural reform.
But convergence will not save the euro if member states refuse to comply with agreed guidelines. Both France and Germany violated the guidelines in 2003, breaking through the barriers of 3 percent budget deficits and 60 percent debt for more than a year. If the founding members of the eurozone fail to comply or to remedy violations within prescribed time periods, then the euro will well and truly collapse. In a union of sovereign powers, political will is the ultimate arbiter.
Mark S. Sheetz is an Associate in the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. He is currently writing a book on France, Germany, and the Transformation of Europe.
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Perhaps the single most remarkable development in 2011 is the wave of political protests that have occurred in widely-varying political contexts. In addition to the various upheavals that constitute the "Arab Spring," we've also seen tent cities in Israel, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and its clones here in the United States, and various imitators in both Europe and Asia. This wave of political contagion is more widespread than the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 (though not yet as significant), and perhaps the nearest analogue would be wave of youth-revolutions and upheavals that occurred back in 1968.
What is going on here? Is there a common set of causes at work, or at least a common thread to otherwise diverse phenomena? I think so, because I see these upheavals as fueled by three important global developments.
The first factor is economic globalization, which has made many states both sensitive and vulnerable to events in far-away places, and led to rising inequality both between and within countries. Yet most governments have failed to enact remedial measures to soften the consequences of economic change and to restore a more level distribution of income, thereby ensuring some degree of economic pain and political discontent.
The second development is the globalization of information, which allows events and ideas to spread much more quickly. As a result, demonstrators in Cairo can watch what's happening in Tunis and imitate it, and then other people in other countries get the idea that protest can be effective, even if their particular grievances are somewhat different. And so it spreads, as the radical idea of ordinary people taking action against the seemingly impregnable becomes increasingly contagious. Plus, each group can learn from each other and feed off the sense of being part of a larger process, instead of feeling like isolated and powerless individuals with scant hope of success. This sort of thing has happened before in world history (e.g., in 1789, 1848, 1919, 1989, etc.), but never in so many far-flung and widely different contexts.
The third reason is the increasingly-evident incompetence and/or corruption of governing elites in many countries, and the tendency of governments to do too much to protect wealthy and powerful interests and not enough to help ordinary people. In Egypt, it was the overt corruption of the Mubarak regime, whether in the form of privileged deals for military officers or for Mubarak's son. In the United States, it was the taxpayer-funded rescue of "too big to fail" financial institutions as well as the "too-well connected to fail" recycling of some of the same people who helped create the whole mess in the first place. And then there's the continued recycling of policy ideas that had been discredited by events but never discarded. People may be disappointed by Obama, but real disenchantment comes from the growing realization that replacing him wouldn't make much difference and might make things much worse. You know the line: "Meet the New Boss....Same as the Old Boss." (Turns out Pete Townshend was a prophet when he wrote "Won't Get Fooled Again," which would be a nice anthem for many of these movements.)
There is, of course, a deeper taproot to all this. As my colleague Jenny Mansbridge reminded me in a superb talk I attended last week, (and which will be published next month in PS), the present combination of economic inequality and political gridlock is fatal to the proper functioning of democratic orders. In a capitalist democracy, corporate interests tend to be wealthier than the rest of society, and the state is the only actor powerful enough to intervene to prevent corporate interests from going too far and exploiting their position. This is what happened in the Gilded Age and again in the Roaring 20s, which eventually led to the Progressive Era and later the New Deal.
But if the political system is gridlocked, then the state cannot act quickly or decisively to retard corporate power. Even worse, as corporate interests grow stronger they tend to acquire greater political power (and especially when a tame Supreme Court helps them, as it did in the Citizens United decision). Instead of just hamstringing the state, corporate interests can get it to enact laws that favor them even more. The result will be rising economic inequality and precisely the sort of irresponsible and unregulated behavior that led to the Great Recession of 2007.
Put these three things together, and you have a recipe for global protests in very different countries. Despite the many differences between conditions in the United States, in Greece, in Egypt, in Syria, in Israel, or elsewhere, what unites the 2011 wave of global protest is the shared belief that the People in Charge do not know what they are doing, care more about their own wealth and well-being than they do about the common weal, or are simply too spineless and shallow to do what at least a few of them secretly know to be right.
Ask yourself: how many contemporary political leaders do you genuinely admire? How many of them would rate a paragraph, let alone a whole chapter, in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage? How many of them seem capable of giving you a straight answer to a hard question, as opposed to offering you a lot of happy double-talk? How many of them are better at making a powerful speech than they are at taking a principled stand and sticking to it? How many of them have really got your back, as opposed to pandering to the endless parade of well-heeled lobbyists and special interest groups? Is there political leader in your country who is not for sale?
If you've been paying attention, and you can't find such leaders in your country, and you having been watching the obscenely wealthy get richer and more powerful, so that they can rig the game to make themselves richer still, then you'd probably think about painting a sign and getting out in the streets. And if I didn't already have this blog for my soap-box, maybe I would too.
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When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca Stone) is also a member of Brookline's "Town Meeting." A Town Meeting is a venerable New England institution; in our case, it is a 250-person body of elected representatives that debates and approves major town initiatives.
But sometimes our concerns overlap. A month or so ago, when the Park 51 controversy was stoking the growing fires of xenophobia and nativist prejudice, my response was to write a few blog posts about the issue. Big deal. But she decided to do something more concrete. Specifically, she drafted and sponsored a "warrant article" to be considered and voted upon at the next Town Meeting. Her proposal would amend the town's by-laws and give permanent legal residents ("green card holders") the right to vote in local (i.e., town-wide) elections.
You can read all about it here.
Notice that this proposal is not about giving the right to vote to undocumented aliens, tourists, or temporary visa holders. Nor would it permit green card holders to vote in state-wide or national elections or to run for office. Rather, it is about a single town giving people who are permanent legal residents (the vast majority of whom are taxpayers, including property taxes), the opportunity to participate in local elections only. Most permanent legal residents eventually become naturalized citizens after the requisite waiting period, and permitting them to vote in local elections is also a way to encourage greater civic participation.
Equally important, it is a way to signal that America remains a country that welcomes people from overseas. It reminds us that we are a country whose very existence, past achievements, and future prospects rest on attracting and integrating future citizens from all over the world. Money quotation:
"A number of legal immigrants pay property taxes and send their children to public schools in Brookline, Stone said, and she believes allowing them to vote in local elections is a way to honor their commitment to the community.
"It may sound schmaltzy, but that's why I did it,'' said Stone, who is also an elected Town Meeting member. "I just got tired of complaining about what everybody else was saying. I figured it's a small thing to do. It's a small gesture. But it's a step in the right direction.''
There are also ample historical precedents for this arrangement. The Constitution is silent on this issue, but the Federal government has long given states and local communities the right to determine suffrage over state and local elections, and over forty different states permitted various forms of local non-citizen voting between 1776 and 1926. Both New York and Chicago have allowed permanent legal residents to vote in local elections as well, as have many other communities.
Massachusetts is a "home rule" state, which means that if the warrant article passes, then the town must petition the State legislature for final approval. Previous petitions from other communities have not been acted upon (if you know anything about the legislature here, that won't surprise you), but a number of other communities are considering similar measures and we may be seeing a turn of the tide.
In any case, the next time you hear about Newt Gingrich or some other fear-mongering blowhard trying to makes us more suspicious of anyone born elsewhere, be aware that there are other Americans working, in their own communities, to counter such poisonous attitudes. And needless to say, I couldn't be prouder.
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The following is a guest post by Professor James Ron of Carleton University. I should say that I'm not fully persuaded by Ron's suggestion that foreign funders of NGOs in Israel and elsewhere should spend less money in order to encourage a more robust and indigenously-funded civil society, although I agree that helping such organizations develop more robust funding strategies makes eminently good sense. As long as the settlement enterprise continues, and especially as long as tax-exempt monies of various sorts keep flowing into the settlement enterprise-then foreign governments, foundations, and individuals have a legitimate interest in supporting various civil society groups in Israel (and elsewhere) -- including human rights groups and other law-abiding organizations that seek to document or oppose these policies. One could make similar arguments about other countries whose behavior is contrary to accepted human rights principles. That said, Ron's argument does raise some interesting issues and I thought FP readers might find it intriguing and useful.
Guest Post by James Ron
In the 1990s, American experts heralded the global spread of liberal civil society, arguing that political power had fundamentally shifted in favor of an organized citizenry. States were no longer in charge, and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, coupled with thousands of smaller NGOs worldwide, were spreading liberal ideas such as democracy, human rights, and environmentalism.
Boosted by scholarly evidence and policymaker enthusiasm, Western donors began pouring money into NGOs across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
At first, the results seemed promising. Small NGOS popped up everywhere, and in many places, developed a powerful voice. Transparency, progressive advocacy, and human rights seemed destined to carry the day.
That tide has now turned, and the wave of Western-funded, liberal NGOs has produced a backlash from conservatives everywhere, from Canada to Russia. Increasingly, legislators, backlash activists and government officials are attacking NGOs where it hurts most: their foreign-funded wallets.
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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?
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I'm still swamped with grading papers and with preparations for our annual New Year's Eve potluck (about which more in a day or two), but I hope everyone takes a look at the Times piece on China's commercial activities in Afghanistan. While we've been running around playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and "investing" billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government," China has been investing in things that might actually be of some value, like a big copper mine.
As the article suggest, it's not like U.S. troops are "guarding" China's investments. Rather, there's a tacit division of labor going on, where "American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment."
The rest of the article makes depressing reading, however. Here's what one Afghan contractor had to say:
"The Chinese are much wiser. When we went to talk to the local people, they wore civilian clothing, and they were very friendly," he said recently during a long chat in his Kabul apartment. "The Americans - not as good. When they come there, they have their uniforms, their rifles and such, and they are not as friendly."
The result? According to the Times:
"the Chinese have already positioned themselves as generous, eager partners of the Afghan government and long-term players in the country's future. All without firing a shot."
The point is not that somehow those wily Chinese have fooled us into squandering a lot of money and lives and annoying lots of people in Central Asia, while they make profitable investments. Rather, the broader lesson is that the entire thrust of U.S. policy towards a large part of the world has been fundamentally misplaced for a long time. If we think we are somehow trapped in an endless cycle of intervention in the Muslim world-Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, now Yemen-it is because our policies towards the entire region have generated enormous animosity and to little good purpose. And when that animosity leads to direct attacks on the United States, we respond in ways that guarantee such attacks will be repeated.
To be sure, some of this situation is due to America's position as the sole superpower, which means that it gets blamed for things that aren't always its fault. Plus, a dominant power does tend to end up with a disproportionate role in providing certain collective goods while others free-ride. (If China ever does supplant the U.S as the dominant world power, the same thing will undoubtedly happen to them.) But it also reflects specific decisions that we've been taking for a long time, in the mistaken belief that they would never blow back and affect us here at home. That's why we ought to thinking very strategically about our overseas involvements, and trying to shift those burdens onto locals whenever we can. Unfortunately, the predominant view in Washington still favors an "America First" approach to solving most global problems, even when it's not clear we have any idea how to do that.
Don't forget: we are fighting in Afghanistan because a radical anti-American terrorist movement-Al Qaeda-located there in the 1990s and then attacked us on September 11. Al Qaeda attacked the United States for a number of different reasons, including its support for various Arab monarchies and dictatorships, its military presence in the Persian Gulf, and its "special relationship" with Israel (which is oppressing millions of Palestinians and consolidating control of Jerusalem). Al Qaeda also wanted to strike at the world's strongest power, in the vain hope that a dramatic act like that would win them lots of new supporters. They also hoped that they could goad us into doing a lot of stupid things in response, and that achievement may be their only real success to date. We are also bogged down in Central Asia because our earlier support for anti-Soviet mujaheddin there helped create a bunch of well-armed warlords and religious extremists who proved impossible to control later on.
But the key lesson is that the current situation is not immutable. We don't have to keep implementing the same policies that led us to this situation; instead, we need to start working on strategic approaches that will minimize our involvement in these regions without sacrificing our vital interests (mostly oil) or endangering the security of key allies. One step would be to do what President Obama promised to do in his Cairo speech and then abandoned: namely, get serious about a two-state solution. A second step would be to stop trying to reorganize vast chunks of the Arab and Islamic world, and focus our efforts solely on helping local governments capture or neutralizing violent anti-American terrorists. A related step is to move back to an "offshore balancing" strategy in the region, and rely more on naval and air forces and less on on-shore intervention.
And maybe a fourth element of a new approach would be to remember that the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world's biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries. For the most part, we also kept our fiscal house in order, which gave us the resources to maintain and expand productive infrastructure here at home and made it possible to act overseas when we really had to. This isn't the 19th century and we can't just rewind the clock, but there's still a lot of wisdom in much more selective approach to the use of American power. You know, sorta the way that Beijing seems to doing it.
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What's the biggest problem facing the world today? Most people would probably say the downward spiral of the global economy. Over at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Steve Schwartzman, chairman of the Blackstone private equity group, said "Forty percent of the world's wealth was destroyed in last five quarters. It is an almost incomprehensible number." NewsCorp chief Rupert Murdoch warned "the crisis is getting worse” and said that fixing it "will take a long time."
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose Likud Party is leading the current polls in Israel -- begs to differ. According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu told the Davos crowd that Iran's nuclear program "ranks far above the global economy as a challenge facing world leaders."
Why? According to Netanyahu, it's because the financial meltdown is reversible if governments and business make the right decisions. But "what is not reversible is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a fanatical radical regime," he said, adding that "we have never had, since the dawn of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons in hands of such a fanatical regime."
There are plenty of good reasons to try to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and it is easy to understand why Israelis are especially concerned about Iran's nuclear program. But Netanyahu's assessment of the relative importance of these two problems is just plain wrong, for at least five reasons.
First, let's be clear about the current state of play. Iran has no nuclear weapons today, and we still don't know for sure if they will ever get them. By contrast, the economic crisis is a reality now. Iran cannot build a bomb today because it has no plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Its centrifuges are producing low-enriched uranium (LEU), but you can’t build a bomb with that. In theory it could enrich its LEU to weapons grade, but its LEU stockpile is under IAEA surveillance and the diversion would be detected (this turns out to be something the IAEA is very good at doing). As William Luers, Thomas Pickering, and Jim Walsh note in a sensible article in the latest New York Review of Books, if Iran wants a bomb, its choices "are to cheat and get caught or to kick the inspectors out." Unless Iran has a secret clandestine enrichment program up and running somewhere (which we’ve found no sign of up till now), it’s hard to see the current situation as anywhere near as serious as our economic problems today.
Second, Netayanhu is wrong to say that the world have never seen such a "fanatical regime" with nuclear weapons. Iran's government has many unsavoury qualities, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said some stupid and offensive things about the Holocaust and about Israel. But "fanatical?" By historic standards Iran's government isn't even in the top rank, and its foreign policy behavior is hardly irrational. Joseph Stalin was an even greater mass murderer than Adolf Hitler, and his successors were ruthless, ideologically-driven men with scant regard for human life. They had a large nuclear arsenal, and yet we managed to wage and win the Cold War against them anyway. Similarly, Mao Zedong was directly responsible for millions of deaths, and he also made a number of shockingly cavalier remarks about nuclear war. Indeed, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once told a Congressional committee that "a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding and hostile as that of Communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal." Yet Mao had the bomb and never used it; indeed, Chinese nuclear weapons policy has been quite circumspect for over forty years.
Third, it is remarkably self-centered for Netanyahu to declare Iran's program to be a greater challenge than the global recession. The economic crisis is already harming many millions of people around the world, and it is likely to have an enduring impact on how millions of people -- even billions -- live their lives. It will lower life expectancy, alter life-opportunities, change demographic patterns, and affect the tenor of politics in many places, probably for the worse. Just look at all the social and political ills spawned by the Great Depression and you get some idea what a protracted global recession might do today. Even if Iran did get nuclear weapons someday, that is mostly a regional problem rather than a global one. Iran's neighbors would have legitimate concerns, but does Netanyahu really think that this is a bigger issue than the world economy for the leaders of Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Norway, Japan, China, Chile, South Africa, or New Zealand?
Fourth, let's not forget that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own, and Israel's American ally has several thousand of them. If Iran were to acquire a few nuclear weapons someday, it could not use them without triggering its own destruction. Iran's government may support terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad that employ suicide bombers, but Iran's leaders show no signs of being suicidal themselves.
Finally, the more panicked people sound about the prospect of an Iranian arsenal, the more that Iranians might falsely conclude that getting a few bombs might actually give them a lot of leverage. This sort of overheated rhetoric may also convince some Israelis that an Iranian bomb would be an existential threat and convince them to leave, which in turn might give some Iranians an additional reason to pursue that option. Ironically, by portraying a legitimate security concern as an imminent peril, Netanyahu and others of his ilk may in fact be undermining Israel's long-term future.
Netanyahu's remarks may help him win more votes back in Israel, but my guess is that didn't win him much sympathy in Davos. To a sophisticated crowd with a global perspective, I'll bet it sounded like special pleading, which is precisely what it was.
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In his best-selling book Soft Power, my friend and colleague Joseph Nye famously defined "soft power" as a state's ability to attract others to a set of "shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to those values."
Among other things, he saw the American system of higher education as a key source of this sort of attraction. Encouraging tens of thousands of foreign students to attend U.S. universities was an effective way to familiarize them with the core values of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and free markets, and Nye argued that future elites educated here would be more inclined to share U.S. policy preferences. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, "I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here."
I find this argument persuasive. Indeed, I once wrote: "the American university system remains a potent mechanism for socializing foreign elites. Students studying in the United States become familiar with U.S. mores while simultaneously absorbing mainstream U.S. views on politics and economics." (Full disclosure: over forty percent of the students at the Kennedy School of Government are from overseas, and I firmly convinced that helping to educate them is good for the world and good for America, too.)
From a parochial American perspective, however, this aspect of "soft power" has at least one downside. In addition to learning about American values and in most cases acquiring a more accurate and favorable impression of American society, some foreign students who study here also acquire an in-depth knowledge of how the American system of government works. They also learn how to talk to Americans in ways that we will find persuasive. In short, they gain a greater ability to manipulate our political system to their advantage.
For example, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has a law degree from Columbia and also took courses at Georgetown. He has been something of a darling in hardline circles in Washington, and he was savvy enough to hire one of John McCain's foreign policy advisors (Randy Scheunemann) to lobby on Georgia's behalf. According to Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations, these efforts gained Georgia a "broad base of support" in Washington. This is partly a testimony to Saakashvili’s own political skills, but his effectiveness inside-the-Beltway suggests that he learned a lot about what makes America tick while he was a student here.
A second example might be Ahmad Chalabi, the former head of the Iraqi National Congress and one of the key promoters of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Chalabi received a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago and proved to be unusually good at cultivating powerful friends in Washington. Indeed, his ability to sell bogus ideas about Iraq to gullible American neoconservatives suggests that he knew more about American than he did about politics in Iraq.
Then there's former (and possibly future) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went to high school outside Philadelphia and to college and graduate school at MIT. His fluid command of English and obvious familiarity with the American politics and culture have made him an effective media performer and a popular figure on Capitol Hill, where he testified in 2002 in favor of the invasion of Iraq. And let's not forget Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who received an M.A. in public policy from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and served as Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005.
The United States is more susceptible to this sort of influence than most other countries for three reasons. First, the United States is a global superpower with commitments all over the world, and its leaders don't have time to master all the details of different regional situations. So when a smooth-talking foreign representative with lots of local knowledge shows up and tells us what he or she knows we'd like to hear, we are more inclined to buy it.
Second, foreign countries know that whatever the United States does will have a big impact on them, so they devote a lot of effort to shaping our perceptions in ways that will benefit them. If they are smart, they send their A-Team over here, and people who know how our system works and what buttons to press will be especially valuable. By contrast, we don’t have the time, energy, personnel or incentive to do that for the other 190-plus countries out there. Here it's also worth noting that the number of foreign students studying here significantly exceeds the number of American studying abroad. According to the Institute of International Education, there were over 600,000 foreigners studying here in 2008, compared with about 250,000 Americans studying overseas.
Third, the United States has a uniquely permeable political system. If a foreign diplomat can't persuade the State Department, Treasury, or Defense, there are 435 Congressmen and 100 different Senators for them to go to work on. As Ken Silverstein shows in his fascinating and funny book Turkmeniscam, there are also a host of lobbying and PR firms who are happy to help foreign governments sell their story here too. And someone who has studied here for a few years is bound to know a lot about how to do that more effectively than someone who has never lived here before.
This is not -- repeat not -- an argument for raising the drawbridge and keeping foreign students out. Knowing how our system works doesn’t enable foreign diplomats or government officials to dictate what the U.S. government does, and sometimes an all-out effort to bamboozle us will get nowhere, or even backfire. On balance, therefore, keeping our ivory towers open is almost certainly a net plus for the United States. And there's undoubtedly a positive-sum benefit when students from a variety of cultures come together to wrestle with common problems -- I see this every day in my courses. But let's not be naive: there are certain costs too, unless one wrongly assumes that foreign leaders will never, ever, try to get us to do something that might be in their interest but not in ours. And in those cases, an intimate knowledge of how American politics operates will give some foreign representatives an edge.
International politics is a competitive business, and it’s hardly surprising that other countries use their knowledge of the United States and its political system to try to advance their own interests. Instead of keeping foreign students out, however, perhaps the answer is to get more Americans to study abroad, so that we're as good at manipulating them as they sometimes are at manipulating us.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Warning: this is not a realist post. It's not even all that serious. But it's Friday, and some of you may appreciate a brief diversion from the more depressing events of the week.
Here's my question: has there ever been a great European rock-and-roll band?
You would think that there would be by now, given the cross-fertilization of musical cultures that has taken place over the past few decades. We've been allied with Europe for a long time, and true rock bands have been touring the place for decades. The Armed Forces radio network used to broadcast lots of rock music too, so it was available to anyone with a radio. If we believe Tom Stoppard, rock music was a powerful cultural force on the continent (including Eastern Europe), just as it was in the United States.
Yet I can't think of a single European band or artist that would be regarded as a major force in the history of rock-and-roll. Obviously I am drawing a sharp distinction here between the United Kingdom and continental Europe. The UK has produced any number of world-class rock bands and artists: the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, U-2, Sex Pistols, Van Morrison, Cream, Elvis Costello, Eurythmics, David Bowie, etc., so my generalization obviously doesn't apply there. And this list appears to confirm that point.
But what about France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Denmark, Sweden? These cultures have produced a number of important jazz musicians (Django Reinhardt, Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen) and world-class popular music artists (Edith Piaf) plus a few one-hit wonders (e.g. Golden Earring's "Radar Love") but continental Europe has never produced a rock and roll band of any global significance. And I hope nobody counters by mentioning Abba -- whatever you might think of their music, it ain't rock.
I'm no musicologist, and I know there are other people out there who know more about the music scene than I do (paging Eric Alterman!). And I admit I haven't been keeping up with the scene as much in recent years. (My teenaged son was into some weird Japanese metal bands last year, but none of them seem to have broken out to a larger global following).
So I could be dead wrong about this, and I invite readers to chime in. Am I way off-base here? If there have been some major rock artists from continental Europe, who are they? (Note: I am not saying that there are no good rock bands in Europe; I'm just saying that they don't seem to be emerging as major artists in a global sense).
And if I'm right about the gap, what's the explanation? Is it network theory (i.e., lack of connections to key tastemakers, like the folks at Rolling Stone)? A function of trade patterns? The lingering influence of too much classical music training? American chauvinism?
My own theory, based on absolutely no research whatsoever, is that you can't have rock music without a blues and R & B foundation. Blues and R & B and early American rock and roll spread to England in the 1950s and helped ignite the British rock scene. Result: the British invasion of the 1960s. But blues and R and B were never a large influence on the continent, and it has therefore remained focused on (or to be unkind, mired in) an irretrievably "pop" sensibility.
On a more serious note: does this phenomenon tell us something about the limits of globalization? We can send digital music anywhere now, but that doesn't mean it sprouts and grows everywhere it lands, and national and regional cultures continue to retain a lot of individuality, even in the face of the Internet and the iPod.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.