Archive for category Merkel

Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya: Near the End?

I’ll go back to posting about the geothermal project later today, but I’ll take a quick foray into politics again.

In the last two days President Obama has hinted that the US pull out of Afghanistan would be faster than anticipated, suggesting it was time for the Afghans to take control.   Secretary of Defense Gates claimed that NATO was close to a decisive blow in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in Libya NATO forces have pounded Gaddafi targets as the rebels, for awhile in a stalemate with Gaddafi loyalists, now appear to be taking more towns and heading towards Tripoli.   This, along with a flurry of diplomatic activity by China, may hint at a Libya end game.

If by the end of the year the US can point to success in Libya and Afghanistan, the electoral picture for President Obama gets brighter in 2012.   The economy is still the main issue, but successful ends to those conflicts could help bring down oil prices (which as of today are down below $100 again).   Oil price increases helped drag down job creation last month, and maybe one of the most important variables for job growth in the short term.

Iraq saw the deaths of seven American servicemen yesterday, but as bad as that news is, it accentuates the fact that such news has been extremely rare — Iraq is not a vibrant stable democracy, but it’s also not a hot bed of violence and unrest.   In the decade since 9-11-01 we’ve seen wars spread, conflicts go in unexpected directions, and unrest emerge in the Mideast.   Only a fool would suggest that is all about to pass.

But if the US can manage to end the decade by putting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya into the past, allowing the President to campaign on a new foreign policy vision, it may be enough to help him overcome a slow paced recovery.   More importantly, if the US can finally put these conflicts behind us, it will allow a thorough re-thinking of US foreign policy rather than having to react to circumstances which leave us limited options.

Today the President is meeting with German Chancellor Merkel.   They have a lot to talk about.   Merkel’s approach to the recession appears to be working better than Obama’s, and perhaps the two of them can coordinate plans to improve the global economy.   They will also be talking about NATO, Afghanistan and Libya — Germany was one NATO country very skeptical of military action in Libya.   I may be overly optimistic,  but I get the sense that we’re nearing the end of a very difficult decade in US foreign policy.

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Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, stated this weekend that multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed, in Germany.  (Dieser Ansatz ist gescheitert, absolut gescheitert).    She’s right, of course — just look at German political debates and the divisions between Germans and non-Germans.  Multiculturalism has failed throughout Europe.   However, what is it?

That raises the question: what is a functioning multicultural society?  There are a couple of things it is not.

1.  It is not the idea that everyone can live side by side with diverse cultures and faiths, mutually tolerant and receiving equal treatment.    That dream, particularly on the left, ignores the reality of human emotions around complex issues like identity and difference.  Moreover, these emotions mean not only that people will often fear and even despise those who think/act/look differently, but politicians will be able to drum up anger, scapegoat, and enhance divisions.

2.  A functioning multicultural society is also not a stagnant default “home” culture to which others must adapt at various levels.   That idea, a favorite of many on the right, is that as long as those from other cultures achieve some level of adaptation — perhaps learn the language, understand customs, respect traditions — then they can have space for their own cultural practice.  The error here is to see a culture as a kind of natural, unchanging core entity.  This leads people to think they have to protect their culture from change.

My dad’s parents came from Germany.   Grandpa Erb was a Lutheran Minister who still gave sermons in German until his retirement in 1963.  Originally all of this sermons were in German, and his Concordia seminary in St. Louis had given him German language diplomas and training.  I have many of his old notes, in German, as well as a German Bible and hymnal.   The Missouri Synod was the “German” branch of the Lutheran church in America, and whether in Brookings, South Dakota or Lester Prairie, Minnesota, he preached to the faithful who spoke very little or no English at all.   By the end of his career he had an English and German version of each sermon, as the number of German speakers declined.

My dad was born in 1935, and given the era, never learned German (I only learned it in college).  Yet from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth Century a vibrant group of German speakers lived in the Midwest.  Minnesota, where much of my mom’s side of the family came from, had large Norwegian and Swedish communities.

They did not all learn English, and many schooled their children in their home language.   They brought with them German or Norwegian customs, and settled in communities that often shared that ethnic bond.   The children usually did learn English, and over time German became infrequent (perhaps hastened by the world wars) and now I suspect you could walk around Lester Prairie and not hear anyone speaking German as their main tongue.

These people did not adapt to the new culture, they were part of creating it.  America’s culture did not pre-exist the immigrants, it was constructed by them, with each group adapting and constructing the culture at the same time.    Without the Germans, Italians, Norwegians, French, Chinese or Mexicans, the US would have a distinctly different culture.  Who we are is in a state of constant change.   Many on the right decry the fact whites will soon be less than 50% of the population, worrying that American culture will be “lost.”   But culture is always in transition.

Those on the left who want the everyone side by side respecting difference make a similar error.   The immigrant’s culture is seen as something sacrosanct and worthy of protection.   Yet being in a different society will change that person’s approach to life, and offer new perspectives and customs that often will be embraced.   Living in a new country changes people, and to succeed they have to adapt.

My German forefathers kept many of their customs.     They worshiped in German for decades.    They adapted, but they also maintained practices.   To this day we still have the German tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas eve, while the British/French east coast does so on Christmas morning.   Over time they made their mark on American culture, even as their children and grandchildren adapted to it.

The key is to recognize that immigration and “multiculturalism” is a two direction process.  Immigrants change a culture, immigrants are changed by the culture.   The culture is dynamic and in constant transformation, just as humans entering new societies are transformed by experience.  In fact, humans are by definition always in a state of dynamic transformation going through life, none of us is the same at 50 as we were at 20 — even if there are some really core aspects of the self which persist.

Multiculturalism fails if culture is seen as a natural product, something pure, which should not be changed.   If immigrants don’t adapt and play a role in shaping the overall culture, then you end up with a fragmented society, where fights over identity and difference overwhelm and can potentially destroy community.   The good news is that the changes can come slowly — the first generation may stick to their past cultural practices, but the second and third adapt and take on the new identity.   The overall culture shifts slowly as well, something obvious if you compare 1970 to 2010, but not so visible on a day by day basis.   We should be able to handle that rate of change.

The bad news is that many people do not understand that cultures change and see any different behavior or custom as a threat.    Natives fear the immigrants will change their culture (they will), and immigrants fear their new home will change them and their children (and it will).    They fear the inevitable.  Fear promotes bigotry.    This error is made by both natives and immigrants.

The key is not to fear change or difference.    Germans and Americans should not fear their culture — each so different now than in the past — being shaped by new comers.   That’s going to happen, and it’s OK.   Cultures are human constructs, and it would be boring if we simply produced the same one over and over.  Moreover, those who go to a new country should not fear losing some of their identity because of their new home.   They and especially their offspring will be changed too, and that’s OK.   We are always changed by our choices and our environment.   Fear can be profound when it comes to issues of identity and difference; letting go of fear in those instances can be very rewarding.


In Praise of Merkel and Sarkozy

The early news from the G20 in Europe is a supposed standoff between Obama and the continental conservatives, Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

I have trouble finding a political home in the American political spectrum, but connect well with European conservatives.   European conservatives support national health insurance, oppose the death penalty, and support basic social welfare programs.  They tend to be pro-life, but without the vitriol or accusations of murder that Americans often engage in.  They appear principled rather than fanatical.

European conservatives avoid the free market extremism of some American conservatives, as well as the religious fundamentalism that has defined conservatism in the US.  To a West European conservative the kind of rhetoric that Sean Hannity engages in (‘the US is the greatest country God has ever given man’) would sound fascistic and bizarre.  In other words, European conservatives generally avoid the things I dislike about American conservatism.

On the positive side, they avoid the kind of ideological anti-market thinking of some on the left, and they recognize the importance of community and tradition.  Where American conservatives are often hyper-individualist, European conservatives still have their roots in the notion of the importance of society.  That makes them less ideological, and more pragmatic.

Merkel and Sarkozy disagree with Obama’s call for increased deficit spending in Europe to stimulate the economy.   A physicist by training, Merkel finds it irrational to think the cure for a debt induced bubble is more debt.  Along with Sarkozy she is calling for a new regulatory regime to make sure that global finance is held accountable to rule of law.   Globalization, they believe, created a situation outside the scope of the regulatory regimes of the states.  States had developed sound policies for domestic regulation, but once capital was freed from having to stay within national borders, it found loopholes and opportunities to exploit.

This isn’t a new argument.  The famous political scientist Susan Strange, writing back in 1999 before her death, talked about the demise of the Westphalian state system in an article “The Westfailure system.”   Of the three crises she saw threatening the system, the most dangerous was the possibility of a global credit crisis due to how ineffective international regulations had become in an era of globalization.  With the US gripped by an ideological free market mindset, people didn’t see the need to develop a transnational regulatory scheme, thus allowing predatory practices to grow.

Germany and France are also signalling the US that just as they did not automatically support the 2003 Iraq war, which they saw as foolhardy and dangerous, they won’t buy in to a massive stimulus which they fear will cause inflation and/or stagflation.   They are worried that this spending will cause a collapse in value of the dollar, and potentially make world recovery more difficult.

These arguments are compelling.  I still think the stimulus is probably worth the gamble, but it will be meaningless without an overhaul of global regulation on finance capital.   The belief that the market can self-regulate has been proven false; those on the inside are privvy to information and abilities to act that allow them to manipulate markets for excessive profit.  That has to be stopped, and can only be stopped with a coordinated international regulatory regime.   This needs to be as profound a change as the Bretton Woods system provided after World War II.

And, though I’ve accepted Obama’s argument that a stimulus is needed and worth the risk, pressure has to be put on the US not to simply try to get out of this on the cheap, expecting the rest of the world to absorb the cost of our higher debt by maintaining an inflated value for the dollar.   This means renewed pressure for the US to cut its budget where possible (especially in areas that do not support the creation of jobs, infrastructure, and  economic growth) and recognize that without fiscal discipline, economic recovery could be very short lived.

Sarkozy especially has made it clear he blames the “Anglos” — the British and Americans — for this mess.  Their penchant for debt, deregulation and speculation pushed the world into the abyss; many of Europe’s problems are contagion from the US.   Obama should acknowledge as much, and make clear that we understand that our laissez faire approach to global capital and our penchant for debt (without savings) were causal factors in creating this crisis.   In so doing, we have to avoid the same kind of borrow and spend policies Reagan used to get us out of the last recession — this time, we’re in too deep, such policies won’t work.

Moreover, Merkel and Sarkozy can set the tone for a strong European voice in world politics, filling a gap that the US is leaving as US power and moral authority remains discredited due to both Iraq and the global economic crisis.   Unlike the Bush Administration, which bristled at the threat (Rumsfeld ridiculing France and Germany as “old Europe”), Obama has to recognize that this isn’t the late 20th century, and the US isn’t the ‘unipolar power.’  We need partnerships, and we need to listen.

Merkel and Sarkozy’s conservatism is a good balance to Obama’s aggressive interventionism.  I find myself in the middle, glad that the continental Europeans are working to make sure that the US approach is not uncritically accepted.   The US must think hard about the consequences of  increased debt, and accept the need for a new regulatory regime for global capital.

Many people ridicule meetings like that of G20 as just for show and unproductive — more to allow leaders to get to know each other than to really achieve results.  This time, however, this meeting could be very important as the start towards figuring out a way to deal with the worst global economic crisis in over 70 years.