Archive for category International Relations

Defeating ISIS

ISIS fighters in the Nineveh province of Iraq

ISIS fighters in the Nineveh province of Iraq

The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining.   To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast.   However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS.  Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.

When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world.   President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy.  So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.

Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path.   President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012.  President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.

Despite their efficacy in Iraq, ISIS is not an invincible military force - concerted action can defeat them.

Despite their efficacy in Iraq, ISIS is not an invincible military force – concerted action can defeat them.

When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely.   It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control.  The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government.  Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning.  Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force.   Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.

Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad.  But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.

The US cannot defeat ISIS alone.   The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power.   But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem.  The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.

Yazidis fleeing ISIS, which slaughters, rapes and tortures minorities they see as not being true Muslims

Yazidis fleeing ISIS, which slaughters, rapes and tortures minorities they see as not being true Muslims

The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court.   The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.

NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around.   Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki.   Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.

The Justices on the International Criminal Court - the court was created to deal with cases like this.

The Justices on the International Criminal Court – the court was created to deal with cases like this, and can now prove its value.

The rest of the world needs to step up too.   Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS.  This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe.   Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense.  This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.

With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization.  Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism.   ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.

So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West.   That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered.   But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.

In the future when I think of ISIS, I wanted to think of Archer!

In the future when I think of ISIS, I wanted to think of Archer!

1 Comment

Time To Seriously Consider a Divided Ukraine

Crimea's location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

Crimea’s location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh.   The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down.   However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.

Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.   Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late.   The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office.   Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.

Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position.   While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time.    When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow.   Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin.   That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it's criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president."

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it’s criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president.”

Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive,  shallow and objectively wrong.   The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right.   Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”

Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached.  That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country.   We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one.  Consider:

1.  What options does the US have?  In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea.   Neither are the Europeans.  Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.”  This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action.   This cannot be unilateral.  Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced.  That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and "the charge of the light brigade"

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and “the charge of the light brigade”

2.  Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory?   Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core.   The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state.   Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled?  Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia?   Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?

3.  If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out?  The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power.   Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.

The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability.   Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered.  If isolated, domestic oppression would grow.   The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed.   Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU's equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.

I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine.  Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case.   But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable.  Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say.  That kind of thinking is obsolete.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division.  The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division. The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.

 

4 Comments

An Iran Breakthrough?

Iranian President Rouhani

Iranian President Rouhani

Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran?   From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches.   President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach.  If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria.   Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.

Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran.  A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform.   Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad.   No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms.   This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.

Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran's Supreme Leader, still holds most of the power

Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, still holds most of the power

That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy.  Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round.  If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting.   Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority.   From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.

In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency.   It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory.   In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq.   As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.

So what next?

Unmeet

With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion.   That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south.   Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.

If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast.   He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic.   The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran.  The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.

The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important.  Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.   This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.

Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself.  The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern.   The youth are demanding change.   The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population.   It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.

In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane.    Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy.   A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.

We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident.   He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.

38 Comments

Occupy Wall Street and Globalization

Global protests show OWS to be more than a national event

There is immense confusion over the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.   The left embraces it, though they’re not sure where it came from or what it means.   The right ridicules it, though efforts to say it’s a bunch of “lazy losers” who “envy the rich” are laughable.  Those involved don’t make things easier because they tell multiple stories, ranging from professional anti-globalization demonstrators along for the ride and Ron Paul supporting libertarians who want to break the big money big government nexus.

37% have positive reactions to the movement in the US, only 18% actually oppose them.   People are frustrated and the taste of corporate bailouts and shady financial instruments leaves Wall Street one of the least popular set of institutions in the US.    The fragility of the global financial system which over leveraged itself and seemed oblivious to the danger it was creating for the entire system has shocked people from Frankfurt to Beijing.   There is a sense that something has gone wrong and leaders are clueless on how to respond.

Given the surprising rise of this movement and its capacity for quick expansion, I believe that we are not seeing a moment of rage that will pass when the weather gets cold in winter, but the start of a global movement to critique the power of big money and the lack of voice so many people have in an era of globalization.   It will not be a movement of socialism, but of democracy.   It will not have a clear ideological focus but an evolving agenda.  It will persist even after Zuccotti park empties and Manhattan returns to normal.

Globalization is the name that was given to “complex interdepedence” in the late eighties as it became clear that the growing links between economies noted by scholars of international relations in the seventies (most notably Keohane and Nye in their 1976 work Power and Interdependence) were expanding beyond what anyone had anticipated.    The two most important aspects of this was: a) the technology/information revolution; and b) the internationalization of capital.

Up until the 80s most investors were national.   To invest outside ones’ own borders was risky and difficult, and often faced legal obstacles at home.   Between 1980 and 1990 that changed completely.   In 1980 foreign direct investment in the developed world totaled $390 billion, while $302 billion went to the third world.  By 2008 developed world FDI was over $10 trillion, while in the developing world it topped $4 trillion.  Portfolio investment also grew rapidly.

Investors no longer had any reason to be loyal to their home state, corporations expanded to use whatever advantage they could to minimize cost and maximize profit.    In many ways these are good developments, naturally reflecting the way in which the instantaneous exchange of information can allow greater flexibility.   Toyotas now can be made in the US rather than having to be shipped from Japan, consumers can enjoy the fruits of inexpensive goods from countries with low labor costs, and with linkages between states growing, the chance for major war declines.

Yet there is a clear loser: the state.   States no longer have as much control over their economies, have less capacity to create strong social welfare systems and find it harder to create regulations they believe necessary to protect their publics or the environment.   Whether or not one agrees with those policies, the fact of the matter is the state is not as powerful as it used to be.   And, as political leaders become both dependent on financial and business institutions and vulnerable, they listen very closely to what Wall Street or Frankfurt or Tokyo insiders say.   Whether in the World Trade Organization, IMF or US Congress, the influence of big business and big finance has never been greater.

This also means that democracy is weaker in states with democratic traditions.    Law makers no longer have the power to give people what they want if what they want flies in the face of economic realities of the new globalized political economy.    We can’t save the paper mills in rural Maine if foreign competition leads those investors elsewhere; to try we have to make wages low and avoid even almost all regulations.    That’s economic reality.

Beyond that, if politicians listen more to big money in a world where political campaigns are often just marketing campaigns with slogans and focus group tested themes, elections become almost meaningless.   No matter what the candidate says, once in Washington (or Berlin, Paris, etc.) the candidate is limited to a rather constrained set of options.   Thus emotional rhetoric painting the other side as horrid and ignorant hides the real problem.   There isn’t a lot the politicians can do.

As long as the economy was growing, people didn’t care.   They had jobs and their retirement accounts were healthy. Even those middle class who had to have two incomes rather than one and whose high paying factory job was replaced by low wage work at a call center at least had cheaper than ever goods from Walmart.   As wealth inequity grew rapidly to its peak since the 1800s, the rush of new technology and economic bubbles hid the reality:  both the public and even the politicians were not really in control of where this ride was heading.

Meanwhile the financial sector, over leveraged and under regulated, set up the perfect storm that hit in 2008, turning what should have been a normal recession into near economic collapse and a long term slow down as de-leveraging spread.    This crisis came from the same folk who brought us cheap clothes and global connection – the global financial and business elite.

It’s not that they are bad people.   They are doing what they are supposed to do, trying to maximize profit, innovate, and make money.   It’s just that markets are not magic, and without regulation from the state, insiders are able to rig the game and hide the risks, altering what capitalist theory says markets should do.    Moreover, public values that may be different from raw market outcomes become irrelevant – democracy becomes weak and impotent.

That’s the motivation for OWS.   It’s a public effort to stand up and say there has to be a counter balance to big money and its ability to shape the system.    Except for a few on the fringe it’s not an attempt to demonize or destroy big money; for all the faults of the system, globalization is both a good and an inevitable thing.   Rather, it’s a demand that democracy not be sacrificed, since if it is, the only voice that matters will be those with the resources to shape the market.   And while there are market romantics who believe that somehow markets magically gives us what is best, such faith does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

Don’t expect OWS or the core demand for more transparency and democracy to go away.   Now that we’ve seen the damage big finance can do to the economy and the need for regulation, as well as concern for human rights and a sense of justice, these efforts will persist and grow as part of the global civil society.   They may push governments to reach agreements allowing for more political control, they may create local responses to the standardizing influence of globalization.   We don’t yet know where this will lead, or how the emerging global order will function.   We’re living at the dawn of a new era, and OWS reflects a logical response to the weakening of traditional state-centric democracy.

One can’t understand OWS or the changing global order through the lens of twentieth Century perspectives.

19 Comments

Love and Fear

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
– Yoda, Jedi Knight

Being asked to participate in a panel discussion about 9-11 Monday has caused me to reflect on what that event means ten years on.  There are many directions I could take in analyzing the impact of 9-11.  What does security mean in an age where technology allows a small group armed with only box cutters to alter the course of the world’s greatest power?   Did Bin Laden succeed in causing us to react in ways that harmed our country and the world economy?   Is there such a thing as a ‘war on terror,’ and if so, is anyone winning?

But as I reflect, it strikes me that the real lesson is more basic, it’s in the emotions that the events of 9-11 evoked in the public.   The strongest were love and fear.  I have a theory that most people’s personalities can be explained by the way they handle love and fear.  Those with the most fear are distrustful of others, angry at life, and often feel that they are victims of some kind of conspiracy.   Those with the most love are helpful, giving and open.   Too much love without fear opens one up to being abused and taken advantage of; too much fear and one lives a life of depression and bitterness.

By love I don’t mean romantic love, or even the love one has for family and friends.   Love at its purest is the sense that links us as humans.   It is what caused New Yorkers to help each other out and comfort each other on that horrific day.   It is the connection two people felt on that day when their eyes met and they realized they were sharing the same shock and grief.  It is what brought the country together to celebrate American values, it is what caused us to cry at the stories of tragedy and heroism, and feel for those who lost loved ones.    That sense of love also created a hole in our hearts as we looked at Manhattan burning.   Even if we had never been there, we connected.   Similar emotions were felt around the globe as they always are in times of tragedy — love is the core instinct that brings us to want to help and identify with others in times of trouble.  It is real and the most pure of human emotions.   It cuts through the fog of diverse perspectives, ideologies, politics and religion — it is the recognition that as humans we are linked.

Fear emerges when one believes that the very things that bring stability and order to life are under threat.    Fear is important to survival. Our cat has a fear of brooms.  Get a broom out and he goes into hiding.  No matter what treats are offered or if the broom gets put away, that fear lingers for awhile, until he’s convinced things are safe.   For humans fear is similar but due to our complex societies the base reaction to a sense of danger (such as an attack by a sabre tooth tiger) gets applied to social conditions that are more abstract and symbolic.

Shortly after the attacks I heard of how Arabs, Sri Lankans, and people from India were being beat up or intimidated by Americans who thought them a threat.   At that point I realized that fear was unleashing the worst of what we are capable of doing.   When President Bush called Islam a “religion of peace,” I was shocked to hear countless pundits attack the President and defame a great world religion, trying to associate its one billion adherents to that small pocket of radical extremists represented by Bin Laden.  Fear causes one to imagine dangers far greater than they are, and abstract them to whole groups of people, nations, ideologies or religions.   Fear allows bizarre rationalizations of what otherwise would be unthinkable.  Genocide, war crimes and cruelty are driven by fear.

9-11-01 brought out fear as well as love.   Suddenly people felt vulnerable, the images were intense, the perpetrators both strange and yet inconspicuous.    Would they strike again?  Where and how?   We didn’t know.   Anthrax, small pox, poisoning of water supplies and chemical warfare dominated discussion.   Fear reigns in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.

Shortly after 9-11 students contacted me saying that they were impressing family and friends with their knowledge of Bin Laden, chemical and biological weapons and Islamic extremism — all from my World Politics class, where these themes were touched on years before 9-11-01.   The fact I’d been worried about these issues, and on visiting cities like New York and Washington always thought about the possibility of terrorism just as one thinks of earth quakes in California, made 9-11 less of a shock.   For people who thought all was secure and safe, the shock evoked a stronger sense of danger.   What other unexpected threats are out there?

After 9-11-01 I started studying Islamic religion and history, since it was clear that many were defining the attack as the opening act of a war between Islam and the West.   The more I learned about Islam, the clearer it became that like almost all religions it was focused on good, but had portions that could be used to arose anger and violence.    It is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly Islamic culture can’t be seen as more violent than that of the West — a culture that has given us colonialism, nuclear weapons and world wars.  Over time as a society we went from knee jerk fear to perspectives tempered with more knowledge and understanding.

Consider: Since 3000 people were killed on 9-11, only 33 people have been killed in the US by Islamic extremists.  During that same time there were 150,000 murders and 350,000 traffic fatalities.  By any rational measure one should fear their car more than Islam!   But uncertainty still intervenes — there are Islamic extremists out there, and they can strike again.

So ten years after I’d say that the biggest lesson from that horrific attack is the power of love to unify us, and the danger of fear to get us to act against our values.   We showed both.   In the time just after the attack I think at times fear trumped love — the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, the journalist Chris Hedges being booed off the stage when he gave a commencement address critical of US policy in Iraq, and admonishings to “watch what you say.”    That’s declined as we’ve learned more and worked through the wars and controversies of the last ten years.

But the love that brought us together has also declined.    The politics have become more petty and personal, with emotion and demonization replacing a sense of trying to come together to solve problems.

Societies may be like individuals.  Too much fear and they become aggressive, afraid of self-criticism, arrogant and unable to cooperate with others.   Learning from the strengths and weaknesses learned from 9-11 and its aftermath will help us keep a proper balance as we face future crises and threats.  The best way to limit fear to its rational and protective functions is to avoid ignorance and try to limit uncertainty.  Fearmongers probably driven by their internal demons, feed on ignorance, emotion and uncertainty to try to push people to embrace hatred and violence.

Clearly there are threats.   There are evil doers like Bin Laden, so blinded by fear and hate that they can rationalize mass destruction.   The power of love — us recognizing our common humanity and coming together to be more than what we could be separately is the best protection against folk like that.   Fear tempered by knowledge and understanding will help us measure how to respond to threats.

2 Comments

Europe’s Bright Future?

Old myths die hard, and for a long time after the fall of Communism many thought that the US with low taxes, small social welfare system and de-regulated economy was a vision for a better future.   Europe with high taxes and expensive social welfare systems was seen as being out of touch with economic reality.   The argument that seduced both the left and right was that the market gets it right, and that the state should stay out as much as possible.

Though the economic crash of 2008 has shown glaring holes in that argument, many people still criticize President Obama for allegedly trying to bring “European socialism” to the US.   The term socialism is used their loosely — fiercely anti-socialist European conservatives tend to get called “socialist” by some Americans, simply because they believe in having a national health care system and a strong social safety net.   But while Europe-bashing remains popular for many on the right, the reality is that Europe is in the midst of a transformation that suggests a very bright future.

Consider:  since 1999 Europe has created 14 million jobs.   The US has created 8 million.   Europe has gotten ahead of the US in many innovative technologies, including green technologies Europeans forced themselves to produce when they vowed to meet (and did meet) the Kyoto accord goals.   I’ve even seen people claim that the Kyoto agreement was a European effort to slow down the US economy by stifling it with regulations.   The reality is that the US neither signed nor met the Kyoto goals, Europe did meet them, and Europe has produced more jobs.    Kyoto has turned out to be a net plus for the European economy.   That myth — that action to fight global warming will hurt the economy — has been debunked.

Europe also leads in the regulation of toxic chemicals in food, skin products and packaging.   In the US an ideology of deregulation alongside the power of the chemical industry has made it extremely difficult to limit the use of toxins in all aspects of our life.    If you want to read a sobering analysis of what this all means, click here and order this book by McKay Jenkins.   My wife and I read it and have started a massive project of changing how we care for our lawn, clean our house, and feed our family.    It’s not that there is proof all of this will harm us, but a lot of evidence suggesting the likelihood that problems such as cancer and increased autism rates can be linked to the chemicals that have become a daily part of our lives.

What does this have to do with Europe?   The Europeans have put regulations on many of these chemicals protect their citizens from possible harm.   They recognize the market can’t really handle this because information about the impact of chemicals is hard to get and most people don’t understand the science.  The US has rejected such regulation, reflecting the power big business holds in the US regulatory scheme of things.   In that sense the US looks more like a third world country, willing to expose its citizens to harm in order not to anger big money.    The good news is that most European products sold in the US follow EU guidelines so if you buy European produced skin products you too can be protected by EU regulations.

Military spending is another area where the Europeans are criticized.  Earlier this week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates chided the Europeans for continuing to cut defense spending.   European defense spending has been declining dramatically in the last decade, even as conflicts rage throughout the Mideast.   This threatens to make NATO irrelevant, as the US will see no reason to spend its resources to protect a Europe unwilling to spend theirs.    Gates may well be right — perhaps it is time to brush NATO aside and for the US to devote less emphasis on Europe.  The Obama Administration has been more overtly focused on Asia and the Mideast than on Europe, a clear shift in US priorities.

But is this bad for Europe?  If you’ve got the aspirations of French President Sarkozy, who pushed for the Libyan intervention and now is calling out for action in Syria, yes.   If you have global ambitions without the resources to follow through, then it sets up failure.    On the other hand, what exactly does Europe need to defend itself from?   War with Russia or China is virtually unthinkable, terrorism can’t be stopped by a large military force, and despite Mideast turmoil it’s not like the Arab world is going to launch an invasion of southern Europe.   Moreover, European armies are very well equipped and trained — they are far behind the US, but ahead of the rest of the world.  If a threat started to rise, they could respond and rebuild their armed forces quickly.   The danger of having too big a military is that one gets tempted to use it in cases where its not necessary.  That can be costly.

Meanwhile, despite the recession, southern Italy shows signs of economic life as they seek to shift towards new technologies and undo decades of stagnation.  East European economies have recovered from Communism and show real productive potential — a few are even in the Eurozone already.    Europe’s emphasis on alternatives to fossil fuel is making them less vulnerable to oil shocks, and deals with Russia and China connect them to new global markets.

So while Euro-bashing may be popular in some circles (often with wildly absurd claims like ‘the Muslims are taking over!’), an economic shift of power from the US back to Europe may be undereway.  While the US still maintains a kind of rivalry with China and Russia, the EU is promoting deeper connections.    Like us, they have problems to over come.   They need to reform their social welfare systems to reflect demographic change as well as find a way to help problem countries over come difficult economic conditions.   They have to cut budgets and continue to balance common EU policies with decentralization of power in terms of local affairs.

Finally, contrary to what US pundits often say, Europe isn’t dominated by leftists.   Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy all have conservative governments.   Rather, both left and right in Europe have taken pragmatic turns since the ideological clashes of the Cold War era.    This pragmatism yields public debate in Europe that is refreshingly common sensical in comparison to the ideological bombs hurled by the left and right in the US.    I think what makes me most bullish on Europe is the sense of realism that both the left and right show.    For the most part they agree about what the problems are, and want evidence based solutions.

Don’t get me wrong — I think the US can bounce back, I don’t think our best days are yet over.   But don’t buy it when the pundits dismiss or belittle Europe.

18 Comments

The End of the Osama Bin Laden Era?

In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force.  I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing.   The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written.  The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means.   That made for a lively class discussion!

I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era.   For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy.   Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust.   That is starting to fade away.

Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record.  Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world.   The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s.   They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.

In the 90s this was part of the problem.  The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies.    It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about.   This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.

But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban.   Few want to go back to 622 AD.   Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West.  The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.

It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave.    But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West.    If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change.    Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West.   To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.

With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds.  In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.    In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force.   NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.

Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism.   Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act.    Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time.   But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling.  Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.

Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan.   Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power.  In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world.   We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.

It is the end of the Bin Laden era.   Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark.   This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important.   It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!

2 Comments

The Digital Generation?

President Obama had a good week.   He grabbed the headlines by having the state of Hawaii take the extraordinary step of releasing the state “long form” version of his birth certificate, making the ‘birthers’ look petty.   At the Correspondent’s dinner he and Seth Meyers skewered Donald Trump who made things worse for himself by showing no humor, sitting stone faced, apparently stewing over all the ridicule.   Besides revealing a dark side of Trump’s personality (people who can’t laugh at themselves are almost never good people), he demonstrated that for all his bravado, he knew he’d been, well, trumped.   Then on Sunday night the real news of the week came:  The United States had killed Osama bin Laden.

I will post more on my thoughts and reactions to this, and what it means to the Mideast.   I need some time to mull that over and read more about the operation and the world reaction.    Today I’ll just describe what I did in class and reflect on student reactions.

In World Politics we were going to cover the International Court of Justice, ICC, and the sources of international law.  I had a power point ready and five minutes before class I was going over notes.   I then checked the news and found more detail on Bin Laden’s death.   As I got up for class I impulsively left my computer in my office and instead grabbed an old VHS tape from 9-11-01.

I taped this from my television back on that September day.  I had just gotten done watching a history channel show about Apollo 13 and was going to start working.  I was on a research sabbatical that semester, so I didn’t have class.   I flipped to CNN to check the Dow futures and saw that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings.   “Holy shit,” I exclaimed, and as quickly as possible put a tape in the VCR.   I subsequently captured the second plane hitting, the collapse of the buildings, and much of the rest of the day’s action.    I saw initial reports on the Pentagon being hit and the towers collapse as I was doing a step machine work out (I think that 70 minute work out is still my longest on my step machine!)   At that point I was getting local New York television on Dishnet, so I was able to follow how they covered the story — it was far more personal than the “national” coverage.

I showed sections of that tape to my students today.   The initial reports, the confusion (false stories like a fire on the mall, a car bomb at the state department, a helicopter circling the Pentagon right before the explosion), and the emotion of the commentators was something they’d not experienced.   Most students had been only about eight or nine when it happened.   Watching it brought me back to that day: Peter Jennings in shocked disbelief when the first tower fell.   New York commentators groping for words through emotion after the second fell.   When one said “If there are any young children watching this, I…I…I don’t know what to advise you” the class broke up laughing.

The students did not seem all that upset watching it; it’s an historical fact they’ve grown up with, after all.  Their reactions to Bin Laden’s death were also lacking passion.   They debated whether or not it was legal, a few said they couldn’t celebrate a death, and others said their first reaction was “well, Obama’s got 2012 wrapped up.”

On blogs and facebook friends have expressed thrill and being over joyed by the news.    A few others throw out a bitter “so what, is this worth ten years of destruction?”   Most students remain dispassionate, discussing policy implications and more vocally questioning the importance of the action.   They correctly note that al qaeda is a lot more than “one man.”   Many thought celebrating this paralleled celebrations in some parts of the Arab world on 9-11.

I had been a bit surprised by the lack of passion in my class — was this just because it was something they just grew up accepting as part of history?   People had quietly chuckled at the “I don’t know what to advise you” comment those rare times I’ve shown this video before, never has there been a loud outburst!

The generation of students now in college are the first to grow up completely in the digital age.   The internet and e-mail were commonplace when they were three years old, CDs were becoming obsolete by the time they hit middle school — and many of them already had cell phones by that time.   Could it be that information-age children are becoming more dispassionate yet nonetheless thoughtful adults?

There are other explanations.   Mainers tend to be relatively even keeled, and students are a unique demographic.   We have a good mix of “conservatives” and “liberals,” and the two groups get along well together (that’s also not atypical for Maine).    And, of course, there are a lot of people who diss the new generation — they don’t focus on things for long periods of time, or don’t appreciate literature, preferring tweets and factoids instead.   Yet having seen how student “personalities” shift slowly over time (there isn’t really a cut off point between ‘generations’) I find myself rather optimistic about the new generation.

It’s not so much that they are dispassionate, but that they are savvy about how to handle information.   I see this on facebook debates (one reason I’m one of those faculty who accept student facebook friends is that it’s a window to how this generation thinks).   They seem less likely to give in to emotional reaction/over-reaction, and more likely to look at various perspectives of an issue.   They tend to be more relativistic in their world view than I would be, but that also translates to more tolerance.   I feel they can handle really intense emotional issues without giving in to the anger and passion that often exemplifies my generation.   Even issues like abortion seem a bit easier for them to deal with.

It’ll be fascinating to watch how the true digital generation — people who have been on line essentially from birth — turns out.  I am optimistic.

2 Comments

Hypocrisy no Longer Feasible?

I’ve been watching events unfold in Libya with a mix of fascination and horror at the violence and the complexities of the situation.   It also makes clear a fundamental hypocrisy of the foreign policy of western states: We claim to promote freedom and democracy, when we really support and encourage dictatorship and repression.   If that hypocrisy is no longer feasible thanks to new media and globalization, foreign policy may become much more difficult — but perhaps also more principled.

In Libya it appeared clear the rebels had the upper hand early on — Generals were defecting to the other side, the international community was almost unanimous in condemning the Libyan leader, and Gaddafi’s rambling speeches seemed out of touch with reality.    His efforts to stoke western fears by blaming al qaeda or threatening Europe with a massive influx of African immigrants appeared pathetic and desperate.

However, whenever a state decides to fight back against a rebellion (rather than give in as Mubarak did), the state has considerable power and resources at its disposal.   Sovereignty grants the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, meaning that it can amass a large array of weapons and information to combat a rebellion.   It isn’t easy to overthrow an entrenched dictator, and enough people are implicated in Gaddafi’s regime and its crimes that he has many allies willing to risk it all to try to save the government.   They know that even if Gaddafi ends up in control of a “rump” Libya, they are protected from prosecution and retribution.   And if Gaddafi can create the impression he’s going to win, fence sitters will refuse to join the revolt, fearing a brutal retribution Gaddafi has proven he has no qualms about delivering.

For all the condemnations from the West, the fact is that a choice to engage in a “no fly zone,” targeted air strikes, or some kind of military assistance to the rebels could lead to an increasingly complex and difficult military operation.   At a time when Afghanistan seems to be as far as ever from stability, NATO and the US do not want to find themselves fighting a war in Libya, potentially supporting rebel groups that could ultimately have an anti-western agenda.   Libyan oil and investments are also considerable in the EU, especially for its former colonial ruler, Italy.   Even if the Saudis can keep oil flows stable (thereby demonstrating to the West the importance of Saudi Arabia avoiding strife — something most people prefer not to think about, despite the fact the Saudi regime is more oppressive than any other in the world save North Korea), short term ramifications could be painful, especially if the fighting goes on.

Yet it will be impossible to backdown from the condemnations of Gaddafi, the call for democratic change in Libya and a desire to make sure that war crimes do not go unpunished.

The essential dilemma is that during much of the 20th Century western calls for democracy and markets to spread have been rhetorical ploys, not truly embraced by its leaders.    The West has had no problem being cozy with dictators, as long as the dictators didn’t create international instability or engage in embarrassing human rights failures.   France even stuck with the Rwandan government well into a genocide witnessed by UN peace keepers on the ground!   The US overthrew democratic governments in Guatamala and Iran early in the Cold War, replacing them with brutal dictatorships.   We used repression and lack of freedom as a rationale to overthrow Saddam, even while maintaining our embrace of the Saudi royal family, whose rule was no less repressive.

For a long time we could maintain this bit of hypocrisy.   Most people in the US don’t really know much about the rest of the world, and the media has shown little interest in reporting about despotism and abuse elsewhere.    Every once in awhile a case will become a cause celebre, such as the Darfur region of Sudan, but most of the time third world wars and abuses get ignored.   The longest and most brutal war since World War II has taken place in the Congo, but how much coverage has that generated (and how many people even know about it)?    When we need an excuse to try to get rid of someone a problem for the national interest, such as Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega, then our leaders trot out the rhetoric for freedom, democracy and human rights.   The American people, appalled at the abuses of power by those dictators tend to support action to “help the people over there,” believing that we’re engaged in a virtuous and even selfless act of trying to promote our values.

The hypocrisy in that policy is glaringly obvious (and noticed outside the US), but tends not to make it into the consciousness of most Americans.    The fact is most leaders don’t believe third world countries are ready for democracy, and secretly accept and even support repression by leaders if it prevents instability.   Instability may lead to a growth for extremist groups rather than promoters of democracy after all.

But with al jazeera live streaming video and keeping blogs and constant reports from hot spots in the Arab world, and NGOs increasingly able to penetrate where once only governmental agencies could tread, western leaders may have to make an overt choice:  do we simply accept repression elsewhere and say it’s none of our business as long as our interests aren’t harmed, or do we put principle first?

And if we put principle first, what does that mean?   Does that require military action, or perhaps simply refusing to do things that help dictators?   And what about a case like Saudi Arabia, where we need their oil?   This is the dilemma President Bush was trying to solve when he went to war with Iraq, hoping US power could push the region to democratize, thereby serving both the national interest and principle.    The lesson from that war is humbling.   Even when we spend half the world’s military budget and are the dominant superpower, the ability to use that to shape politics on the ground is severely limited.   That lesson has to be considered when we think about Libya.  It sounds easy to say “impose a no fly zone, strike Gaddafi’s strong points” but defeating Saddam’s military was easy too.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to achieve the desired ends.

If hypocrisy is no longer feasible, that’s bad news for leaders and diplomats who embrace a realist approach that emphasizes stability over all else.    It may, however, force us to confront the actual dilemmas of engaging a world where democracy is a process difficult to achieve and maintain, even as it seems the best way to try to hold power accountable and protect human rights.    Ultimately if dictatorship is to give way to democracy, then at some point the West has to stop enabling the dictators.    It may not work to use military power to force change, but perhaps acting a bit more on principle by refusing to deal with or help those who abuse power and repress/abuse their citizens a step can be made towards positive change.   That will bring its own dilemmas and difficulties, but I’d rather approach those openly than fear standing up for what we believe in.

1 Comment

A Wikileaks Kind of World

War has broken out!  So scream headlines on various websites and blogs.  Bowing to pressure from the US, major credit card companies and Pay Pal stop allowing citizens to contribute to and support Wikileaks, leading to a massive cyber attack against those companies, even shutting down Mastercard’s on line system.   Groups opposed to Wikileaks have struck back against the group “anonymous” who has been leading these attacks — as of this writing, if you click that link you’ll get an “account suspended” page.   Wikileaks has also been removed from servers; four days ago I went there and read their self-promotion; now the site is off limits.   You can still reach it, but only through round about means.

Watching all the scampering about in response to a large but relatively vanilla set of leaks, it occurs to me that this isn’t so much about the leaks themselves, but a generation of politicians and leaders who don’t quite understand the new world they now inhabit.   Old methods of controlling information and responding to threats don’t work.   This case is important less for its substance (it’s unlikely the leaks did much if any real harm to the US) and more for what it symbolizes.    It demonstrates that the new cyber-world we’ve created doesn’t play by 20th Century rules.   Technology may be rendering traditional politics obsolete, and at this point leaders don’t know how to respond.

It happened before.   Before 1439, printing a book required extensive work to copy by hand the words, and bind them in a usually lavish form.  Few people could afford books, Latin was the language in which most were written (though in the 14th century there started to be more vernacular literature — Dante’s Inferno, for example).   The church controlled most of the books, and the flow of ideas across Europe or even cities was limited.   Oral communication, including oral histories, was the standard way people shared ideas.   That meant, of course, that disseminating ideas was difficult, and if you challenged authority you got noticed before too many people had latched on to the challenge.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg developed the first (western) printing press.   Suddenly the mass production of books and pamphlets was possible; an information revolution began.  Even after the printing press had been developed it took awhile before literacy to advance to the point that there was a public demand for the printed word.   But by the 1500s ideas could spread quickly.

The Catholic Church learned what this meant the hard way.   When the Pope decided that St. Peter’s basilica needed to be rebuilt to reflect the grandeur befitting the center of the Roman Catholic church, he allowed the printing press to be used to print off papal indulgences, giving people time off from purgatory.   These could be in effect “sold” — given to people who donated to the new basilica.  It worked, giving us the splendor we now find at the Vatican.   Yet it also led to the decline of church power, as one Catholic monk, Martin Luther, appalled by what he saw as a practice which threatened peoples’ salvation, put together a list of 95 issues about church practices he thought should be questioned and discussed.   He penned them in Latin, and nailed them to his university-church’s equivalent of the common bulletin board:  a large church door.

He expected an academic debate.   He got much more.  Some of his friends translated the list into German, and used the printing press spread Luther’s complaints across German speaking lands.   Soon a revolt was brewing, called the reformation.    It wasn’t that suddenly people started to agree with Luther’s argument; rather, these ideas proved able to unite Germans already chaffing at following dictates from Rome.   Luther’s complaint sparked a rebellion which led to over 100 years of instability and war, culminating in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.    The treaty put forth a new political entity: the sovereign territorial state.

The Church was pushed from the pinnacle of power for good, the old medieval political system of decentralized and local authority was destroyed.   An entire new political and cultural world was created, all because communication changed and ideas were able to be spread rapidly and with ease.  The printing press allowed mass education, helped create modern nationalism, and made the industrial revolution and enlightenment possible.    Propaganda, advertising, and even consumerism could not exist without the printing press.   We live in era of the printing press, though that era may be giving way.

The internet and corresponding information technology could impact our political world with as much force and substance as the printing press did the medieval world.   In other words, it could render current political structures and practices obsolete, forcing the entire system to transform.   Like Gutenberg’s invention, it has allowed ideas and information to flow in a fundamentally different and more widespread manner.   Information can be stored electronically and then publicized for the world to see.   Such documents can’t be destroyed, do not suffer physical limits, and cross borders and continents with ease.

The modern Nation State may be the functional equivalent of the 16th Century Church.  It dominates politics, and has considerable control over information available to its citizens.  The state’s control over information allows it to maintain physical control of territory, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of political violence.   A state can go to war, but if non-state actors do so, it’s despicable terrorism.

Does this new technology threaten the sovereign state?   Will the state find that the wide dissemination of diverse views and information previously unobtainable threatens its status?   Will the politics of the Westphalian era, beginning in 1648, give way to a new era, one where sovereignty, territoriality and statehood no longer define the fundamentals of global politics?   If so, what will the new world look like, and how violent/difficult will the transition be?

As the “cyberwars” over Wikileaks rage, this whole issue is symbolic of the “world in motion.”   We live in a Wikileaks kind of world now, and no one is quite sure what that means for the future.

1 Comment