Your humble blogger continues to enjoy his family vacation immensely -- especially since Phase One has ended and Phase Two does not require anything to do with the House of Mouse.
Today's topic is U.S. foreign policy in the age of Obama. Here's what's worth reading:
1) Richard Neu, "U.S. 'Soft Power' Abroad is Losing Its Punch." RAND. My take: When he writes "The most potent instrument of U.S. soft power is probably the simple size of the U.S. economy," I get the sense that Neu doesn't entirely get what "soft power" means. And the whole "U.S. debt is sapping perceptions of U.S. power" shtick sounds very 2009. Still, as a read of the conventional wisdom of American thought on this issue, it's a good precis.
2) Tom Wright, "Neocons vs. Realists is so 2008," Foreign Policy. My take: Wright accurately describes "restrainers" and "shapers" but misses the bureaucratic impuleses for different actors to adopt these positions. Secretaries of state tend to be "shapers" -- otherwise, why would they take the job? Meanwhile, Secretaries of defense tend to be "restrainers." They're leery of any non-essential engagement that would potentially require the use of force -- because that could put the military in harm's way. The principal exception to this rule during the post-Cold War era was Don Rumsfeld, and even he wanted U.S. troops to get the hell out of Iraq five minutes after Saddam's statue fell.
3) Roger Cohen, "Beltway Foreign Policy," New York Times. My take: On the one hand -- oh, does my former Fletcher colleague and now SAIS Dean Vali Nasr knows how to tease his forthcoming book. I can only hope that, should I be in a similar position, Roger Cohen should need some column filler. On the other hand, it's not a real shock to learn that the Obama White House made serious efforts to constrain Richard Holbrooke/run foreign policy. Going from there to asserting that "American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations" seems a bit of a leap. Mind you, it's still a refreshing and bracing critique that's worth reading.
Your humble blogger will be winging his way back to the East Coast after a few days at Comic-Con. Now, one of the purposes of this blog is to act as a networked node between the worlds of popular culture and international relations. So while I could prattle on about what's hip (Wonder Woman) and what's not (surprisingly little Battlestar Galactica cosplay) or all of the ways that Joss Whedon is God -- well, a god -- that would be wrong and uninteresting to readers.
Instead, here's another angle. We know that:
B) America remains the world's cultural hegemon; so...
C) What we learn about Comic-Con attendees will tell us much about the future of global culture.
So, what did I learn:
1) America was better in the past. Comic-Con has grown by leaps and bounds in term of attendees in the past few years, and the old-timers are a bit cranky about this fact. And by "old-timers," I mean people who were here five years ago. Still, I was told that the lines used to be shorter, the exhibition hall used to have more open space, and "it used to be about the comics, man." Or, as one person put it, "all these people used to tease me in high school for liking this s**t." Nostalgia for yhe past, it would seem, is hardly limited to political elites.
2) The cultural elite is a hell of a lot more diverse than other elites. A common lament is the maleness and whiteness of the top one percent of anything. Well, rest assured this is not the case at Comic-Con. Based on my own observation, I'd say that while men outnumbered women, it's getting awfully close to gender balance. Similarly, minority representation was quite robust as well. Indeed, one group in particular with a powerful presence at Comic-Con is the disabled. If you ammassed the number of people in wheelchairs at this convention, you'd have a formidable mobile infantry.
3) Americans are cool with bureaucracy and surveillance -- so long as it's about something they want more than something they need. The lines for some of the sessions were staggering. Seriously, Disneyworld employees would have looked at these lines and said, "dude, this is out of control." I don't want to say that people were thrilled about the lines -- but compared to the DMV or even boarding an airplane, there was a minimum of fussing and feuding. Why were people cool with having 10,000 individuals in front of them to see a Walking Dead panel but ten people in front of them at the Starbucks caused complaint? I think it's about want vs. need, but I'll take alternative explanations in the coments.
As for surveillance, it was impossible to walk five feet without passing an interview or a photograph. A third of the attendees at any large panel were recording everything on their cameras.
4) There are tiny pockets of innovation everywhere. The Blog Son and I went to the panel for a forthcoming video game, The Last of Us (here's a trailer). I'm not a gamer, but I get the sense the game is easerly anticipated. What impressed about the panel was the care and craft that the creators had invested into the scenario, the acting, the gameplay, and so forth. Politicians might pooh-pooh the intended effect of all of this energy, but the innovative talent on display was impressive.
Now, this was a big panel, but all around the exhibition hall there were pockets of just brilliant stuff littered around the place. True, there was also a lot of schlock, but even a lot of the schlock was demented and brilliant.
5) Zombies still rule. I mean, c'mon -- they were everywhere at Comic-Con. Everywhere.
It's hard to believe, but ten years ago Robert Kagan published "Power and Weakness" in the pages of Policy Review. Coming on the heels of the invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the Iraq debate, Kagan's essay seemed to crystallize the state of the transatlantic relationship back in the day.
To celebrate it's 10th anniversary, Policy Review has come out with a special issue devoted to the essay, asking a variety of smart people to weigh in. Oh, and me. As I put it in my essay, "I come to praise Kagan's insights -- and then to bury them." You'll have to read the whole thing to see what I mean.
Check out the rest of the essays as well. With the passing of a decade, it's pretty easy to point out the ways in which Kagan's analysis breaks down (and, to be fair, the ways in which it doesn't). To his credit, Kagan himself is painfully aware of how his essay has aged:
Ten years ago, when I wrote the original essay, it would not have occurred to me that anyone would be commenting on it a year later, let alone a decade later. As Tod knows, I only wrote the essay because he had invited me to speak at a conference, and I had to deliver something. No doubt the other contributors will recognize the experience. Therefore from the beginning I have been acutely aware of the essay’s limitations — and have had the good fortune to have all those limitations pointed out to me frequently, in many languages, with greater or lesser kindness over the years, and now again at the scene of the crime a decade later.
I remember talking with Kagan when the original essay came out and blew up, and I can aver that he was just as surprised as anyone else about its impact. Let this be a lesson for policy wonks everywhere. Sure, most of the time when you write something it disappears into the ether, to be forgotten almost immediately. But on occasion, serendiptity or fortuna strikes, and you've suddenly got a major essay on your hands. Always write with that in mind -- because if your essay does blow up, you better be ready, willing and able to defend every paragraph of it.
Your humble blogger has, on occasion, opined about the intersection of sports and politics. This topic is both tempting and treacherous. Tempting, because a lot more people pay attention to sports than world politics, and so it's a way for the pundit to A) show how "in touch" s/he is with the mass p;ublic; and B) use the sporting moment-du-jour as a metaphor to make a point that was already in the pundit's back pocket. This is why most of my writings on this topic have been either to debunk the notion that sports really affects world politics, or just as another excuse to mock the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community.
Which brings me to New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. In a month Lin has gone from being demoted to the development league to leading the Knicks to a globally televised victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. It's a great story: undrafted , devout Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate bucking the odds -- as well as numerous outdated stereotypes -- to seize his moment in the sun and turn what had been a lackluster Knicks
decade season into something exciting.
This is a narrative that one simply has to enjoy. Professional basketball is, at best, my third-favorite sport, but I tuned in yesterday to watch the Kincks-Mavericks game. Unfortunately, I've noticed that some ink has been spilled and some keyboards have been tapped about him -- and here we get to the treacherous part of this post. Some sportswriters have used the opportunity to wax grandiosely about the Deeper Meaning of Linsanity. Some politics commentators have tried to use Lin to make deeper arguments about the fabric of society and sports.
Let's be blunt -- most of these efforts result in utter crap. Unfortunately, too many sportswriters know too little about the rest of the world to even try to comment on the social or cultural significance of Lin. Numerous idiots have not helped the sportswriting profession by writing things that result in apologies from said idiots for stereotyping Lin and amusing Saturday Night Live skits. We're not seeing the second coming of Red Smith in most of this output. As for the politics writers, well, the lack of actual sports knowledge in some of these efforts makes one almost nostalgic for George F. Will's Sports Machine. Almost.
So I was all set to blog a request for everyone to leave Jeremy Lin and his family alone... but then Gady Epstein wrote something interesting about the whole phenomenon over at the Economist about China's reaction to Lin and why their own sports programs could never have produced someone like him:
Mr Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce. If Mr Lin were to have been born and raised in China, his height alone might have denied him entry into China’s sport machine, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out: “Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.” Even when Mr Lin was still a young boy, one look at his parents, each of unremarkable stature, would have made evaluators sceptical. Ms Beech’s other half happens to be Brook Larmer, the author of the fascinating book “Operation Yao Ming”, which details how Chinese authorities contrived to create China’s most successful basketball star, Mr Yao, the product of tall parents who were themselves Chinese national basketball team players. The machine excels at identifying, processing and churning out physical specimens—and it does so exceedingly well for individual sports, as it will again prove in London this year. But it happens to lack the nuance and creativity necessary for team sport.
What of Mr Lin’s faith? If by chance Mr Lin were to have gained entry into the sport system, he would not have emerged a Christian, at least not openly so. China has tens of millions of Christians, and officially tolerates Christianity; but the Communist Party bars religion from its membership and institutions, and religion has no place in its sports model. One does not see Chinese athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.
Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place. This is because to put one’s child (and in China, usually an only child at that) in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday. If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing. (One must add to this the problem of endemic corruption in Chinese sport that also scares away parents—Chinese football referee Lu Jun, once heralded as the “golden whistle” for his probity, was sentenced to jail last week as part of a massive match-fixing scandal). Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.
In America, meanwhile, athletic excellence actually can open doors to an elite education, through scholarships and recruitment. Harvard does not provide athletic scholarships, but it does recruit players who also happen to be academic stars. There is no real equivalent in China.
So China almost certainly has other potential Jeremy Lins out there, but there is no path for them to follow. This also helps explain, as we have noted at length,why China fails at another sport it loves, football. Granted, Mr Lin’s own path to stardom is in itself unprecedented, but in America, the unprecedented is possible. Chinese basketball fans have taken note of this. Mr Lin’s story may be a great and inspiring proof of athleticism to the Chinese people, but it is also unavoidably a story of American soft power.
Epstein is overreaching juuuust a bit with that closing -- if Lin is an example of American soft power, then all the galactically stupid puns and stereotypes that the Lin story has propagated is a demerit to that soft power as well. Also, last I checked, the countries that dominate the top of the FIFA rankings are not exactly models of laissez-faire in sports.
Still, Epstein has probably done the best possible job of trying to relate Lin to Deeper Global Meanings. Let's hope the rest of the writing class reads him and gives up their own futile quest to do the same.
While the debtopocalypse might have been cancelled, I see that the wake for American hegemony is chugging right along.
The interwebs is drowning from variations of the argument that the process by which the debt ceiling deal was reached has dented American power. To sum them up: Sure, the United States government staved off collapse, but the galactically stupid brinkmanship over it has permanently damaged America's brand. Furthermore, the new politics of brinkmanship means that we could potentially see this kind of own-goal as a new permanent fixture of American political economy. Continued political uncertainty over something as obviously necessary as raising the debt ceiling means that actual policy problems like, say, crumbling infrastructure, education, or reassessing grand strategy is a true fool's errand. So, in other words, the USA is screwed.
To which I say: mmmmmmmaybe.
I don't doubt that the U.S. brand of constitutional democracy has taken a pretty severe hit from this episode. Then again, the parliamentary system of democratic governance has long been more popular, so that's not really a new thing.
There are three factors, however, that make me wary of this kind of eulogy. First, I've come to look at concepts like "soft power" and "standing" with a bit of a jaundiced eye. Even if the U.S. takes a hit in that category, I'm not sure that loss translates anything more tangible than … a bunch of foreign-policy pundits bemoaning its loss.
Seriously, compare the last few years of the Bush administration with the first few years of the Obama administration. Any measurable metric of standing or soft power with the presidential transition. The effect on U.S. foreign policy, however, has been negligible.
Second, power is always a relative term, so the question has to be asked -- who's gaining on the United States? Joshua Keating's survey of global schadenfreude doesn't change the fact that the eurozone remains a basket case, Japan and Russia remain demographic disasters, and China has domestic political problems that make partisanship in the United States look like child's play. Even a cursory glance at military spending reveals no peer competitor to the United States. So yes, the United States will endure a rain of rhetorical horses**t for a while … right up until the next crisis in which the world demands America "do something" because it's still the only superpower still standing.
Or, to put this in bond rating language -- even if US power is downgraded from AAA, who else is even above BBB+?
Third, the thing about democracy is that it has multiple ways to constrain political stupidity and ideological overreach. The first line of defense is that politicians will have an electoral incentive to act in non-crazy ways in order to get re-elected. The second line of defense is that politicians or parties who violate the non-crazy rule fail to get re-elected. So, in some ways, the true test of the American system's ability to stave off failure will be the 2012 election. Politicians from both parties have vastly overinterpreted recent electoral victories as sweeping mandates. I suspect, in 2012, many of them will be penalized for such hubris. If they aren't, well, then the conventional wisdom might have a point.
Smart investors made a ton of money this past month by betting on the full faith and credit of the United States despite the D.C. blood sport. If one could make a similar wager on American power, I'd be inclined to bet against the current market sentiment.
Am I missing anything?
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
In his column today, Nicholas Kristof gives voice to a sentiment shared by many within the foreign policy community:
In my travels lately, I’ve been trying to explain to Libyans, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Chinese and others the benefits of a democratic system. But if Congressional Republicans actually shut down the government this weekend, they will be making a powerful argument for autocracy. Chinese television will be all over the story.
If a high school student council refused to approve a budget so that student activities had to be canceled — even as student leaders continued to pay themselves stipends — a school board would probably cancel the entire experiment in student democracy. But I can’t imagine high school students acting so immature.
Now, this is the kind of gut-level response that most foreign policy wonks -- myself included -- have when initially confronting the absurdity of a government shutdown. Surely, such a self-inflicted wound would tarnish the brand image of democracy in general and America in particular across the globe.
Is this truthiness actually true, however? I'm beginning to wonder if this hypothesis rests on anything other than sheer assertion. In terms of direct effects, the U.S. military won't be suddenly lay down their arms or anything. As I understand it, the U.S. won't default on debt payments until mid-May, so the financial catastrophe is still six weeks away. So any appreciable effect rests on whether or not American soft power would be dented.
In a brief survey of the interwebs, I could find no research paper that researched whether the 1995/96 government shutdowns had any effect on either American foreign policy or U.S. standing abroad. This jibes with my personal memory of this period, in which very little was written about how the shutdown affected foreign policy. So maybe this gnashing of foreign policy teeth is a bit much.
Of course, this was likely because the previous shutdowns didn't last that long, the longest duration (17 days) took place during the Christmas break, and no big foreign policy crisis was going on during the shutdown. I think it's safe to say that the world is a wee bit
closer to the end of days interesting this time around. That said, no one expects a long stretch of no federal government, so the effect might very well be similar -- which is to say, nonexistent.
In the end, my more analytical take is that the foreign policy effects of a goverment shutdown will depend on how its resolved. If there is little in the way of massive protests, it would signal to the rest of the world the remarkable stability of American civil society. If steps are taken to get a grip on America's mouning debt levels, then the aftermath of the shutdown would not necessarily leave a bad aftertaste.
That said, there might be one residual effect for democratizing nations -- a preference for parliamentary systems of government over presidential systems. As Robert Williams and Esther Jubb observed back in the 1990s:
The world's other advanced industrial democracies, Germany, France, Japan and Britain, manage their budget crises without resorting to the extraordinary shutdown measures which have become a familiar feature of the American budgetary process.
This shutdown thing does seem to be unique to the American presidential system, which might cause newly emerging democracies to embrace other forms of democratic rule. On the whole, however, this is a pretty marginal effect on American foreign policy.
So, on second thought, if any government shutdown is over by the end of April, I think the foreign policy effects would be pretty minimal. But I am very curious to know if there's been any in-depth research on this question.
Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott blogs about the explosion of forthcoming superhero movies, why they will suck, and what this means for American exceptionalism.
Actually, let me put that a little differently: James Wolcott has used prose more bloated than X-Men 3 to attempt a half-assed connection between summer popcorn flicks and America's place in the world.
First, there's his general critique of today's superhero film:
For old-school comic fans such as myself (who had a letter published in the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four in 1967—top that, Jonathan Franzen), these cinematic blowup editions are lacking on the fun side. The more ambitious ones aren’t meant to be much fun, apart from a finely crafted quip surgically inserted here and there to defuse the tension of everybody standing around butt-clenched and battle-ready, waiting for some laureled thespian (Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor) to elocute and class up this clambake. Even the films that play it loosey-goosier, such as the facetious Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage as a skull-blazing vigilante who chills by listening to the Carpenters), end up laying it on too heavy, faking orgasm like a porn star trying to keep Charlie Sheen’s attention. For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.
Three thoughts. First, this critique ain't exactly new. Second, the reason this critique isn't new is that Wolcott ignores
Drezner's Sturgeon's Law of Crap. Take any artistic or literary category, and 90% of the contributions to said genre will be total crap [Does that apply to your blog posts as well?--ed. More like 95% in my case.] Therefore, the easiest thing in the world to blog about is how 90% of any kind of genre stinks. Third, Wolcott clearly slept through hasn't seen the superhero films that rise above the 90% and possess a fair degree of whimsy, like, say, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles, or Iron Man.
As for the symbolic implications for American power, er, well, here's his key paragraph:
Why so much overcompensation? The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. But in the new millennium no amount of nationally puffing ourselves up can disguise the entropy and molt. Despite the resolute jaw of Mitt Romney and John Bolton’s mustache, American exceptionalism no longer commands the eagle wingspan to engirdle the world and keep raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since Vietnam, whatever the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform, America’s superpower might hasn’t been up to much worthy of chest-swelling, chain-snapping pride (invading a third-rate military matchstick house such as Iraq is hardly the stuff of Homeric legend), and our national sense of inviolability took a sucker punch on September 11, 2001, that dislocated our inner gyroscope. Sinister arch-villains make for high-stakes showdowns, but asymmetrical conflict has no need for them, and for all we know the cavern voice of Osama bin Laden could be a Mission: Impossible tape, poofing into smoke at the first shaft of sunlight. The subsequent War on Terror is one waged within a shadow maze of misdirection and paranoia where the enemy might be no more than a phantom army of apprehensions, viral bugs invading the neural network.
Let me be blunt -- I'm not entirely sure if Wolcott wrote this paragraph or outsourced it to a computer program that strongs together random clauses about American foreign policy. Suffice it to say that the better superhero flicks -- both Iron Man and The Dark Knight Returns come to mind -- contain some interesting commentary on American foreign policy. Indeed, a few years ago Jesse Walker at Reason argued, with some justification, that "Superhero stories may have begun as power fantasies, but it is our ambivalence about power that keeps the modern genre thriving."
I share Wolcott's distaste for hackneyed comic book films, but sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie. Anyone trying to use
any film released in January The Green Hornet as a metaphor for what ails American foreign policy really needs to remember that, most of the time, a bad superhero movie is just a bad superhero movie.
A peculiar kerfuffle between Argentina and the United States has broken out. The New York Times' Alexei Barrionuevo summarizes the standoff:
Argentina has accused the United States military of trying to bring guns and surveillance equipment into the country under the cover of supplying a police training course, creating the latest diplomatic rift between the countries.
Argentine customs officials seized undeclared equipment on Thursday, including what they described as machine guns and ammunition, spy equipment and drugs like morphine, the Argentine Foreign Ministry said Sunday.
The equipment was on a United States Air Force cargo plane carrying material for a training course that an American military team had been invited to provide to Argentina’s federal police.
Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said Argentina would file an official protest in Washington and ask for a joint investigation into why the Air Force attempted to violate Argentine law by sending “material camouflaged inside an official shipment from the United States,” the ministry said in a news release.
“Argentine law must be complied with by all, without exception,” Mr. Timerman said he had told Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, after Mr. Valenzuela complained about how Argentine customs officials dealt with the cargo, the Foreign Ministry said.
Virginia Staab, a State Department spokeswoman, called the actions by Argentine officials “puzzling and disturbing” and said American officials were seeking explanations from the Argentine government.
The plane carried experts and training equipment that had been “fully coordinated with and approved by” Argentina’s government, Ms. Staab said. She said Argentine authorities conducted “an unusual and unannounced search of the aircraft’s cargo, seizing certain items.”
Ms. Staab said the confiscated equipment included one rifle, a first-aid kit, ready to eat meals, a secure communications device similar to a GPS, encrypted communications equipment, tables and personnel foot lockers that contained helmets. She said American officials were seeking “the immediate return of all items retained by the government of Argentina.”
Argentine officials described the seized material as including equipment for “intercepting communications, various sophisticated and powerful GPS devices, technological elements containing codes labeled secret and a trunk full of expired medicine.”
Now, ordinarily, this sounds like one of those incidents where some errant paperwork and a whole lot of mistrust has escalated things way beyond the level they should be. The Wall Street Journal's Ken Parks and Julian Barnes add some context, however, that suggests something weird is going on:
Argentine officials say some of the materials weren't included in documents submitted by the U.S. Embassy before the plane's arrival, a charge U.S. officials adamantly deny.
"I want to emphasize the need for our equipment to be returned promptly by the government of Argentina regardless of what motivated this inexplicable behavior," Paul Stockton, the assistant secretary of defense for the Americas, said on Tuesday.
Argentine officials, however, responded the U.S. needed to learn that Argentina has its own laws that need respect.
"Just imagine what would have happened if an Argentine aircraft had taken the same kind of material to the United States. [The Argentines] would all be in Guantanamo in orange overalls," Anibal Fernandez, President Cristina Kirchner's cabinet chief, said in an interview with local broadcaster Radio La Red.
The training had been scheduled at the request of the Argentine government, and was meant to be a follow-up to a September 2009 exercise, according to Frank Mora, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs.
"This was all coordinated at the highest levels of the Argentine government," Mr. Mora said in an interview. "So it caught us very much by surprise, the way the government reacted."
When the plane arrived on Thursday, it was met at the airport by senior Argentine officials, including Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who supervised the seizure of the cargo as U.S. officials looked on. (emphases added)
Those two bolded sections lead to two different conclusions. The presence of the Foreign Minister suggests that this wasn't some paperwork screw-up but something with a clear political motivation (rthough it's far from clear whether the entire Argentinian government knows what the heck is going on). The actual motivation is far from clear to me, however -- I'm just gonna assume this isn't an effort by the Argentines to muck up their Paris Club negotiations. This blog heartily welcomes Latin American experts to provide some explanation in the comments section.
For me, however, the more interesting point is the first bolded jab at Guantanamo. It's a horses**t allegation, but it's a horses**t allegation that lots of people make when they talk about the United States (Julian Assange and his defenders have repeatedly averred that Assange would be sent to Gitmo if he were ever to enter the United States, which is an absurd premise on both political and legal grounds).
Here's the thing, though -- is it possible for an American policymaker rebut this kind of wisecrack? There really isn't a good response, because Gitmo is now one of those toxic terms like "bailout" or "Snooki" that can't be undone.
The politics of closing Guantanamo are pretty hopeless, which means it ain't gonna close anytime soon. As a result, this is going to be a sore that continues to fester and continue to erode America's soft power. Maybe that's not worth the political capital required to resolve the situation -- but at least let's openly acknowledge the foreign policy hit.
Sorry, students -- Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage took up my challenge earlier this week to explain "what were the key factors that determined a country's decision not to attend Lu's Nobel [Peace Prize] ceremony?" Click here and then here -- there are cool graphs.
[Then why not replicate them here?--ed. Because more of my readers should be reading The Monkey Cage anyway.]
What's interesting is that, in the end, a few countries that originally signaled their intention to abide by China's wishes reversed course in the end. In particular, some of the anomalous countries -- Colombia and the Philippines, for example -- reversed course and sent representatives.
In doing so, Voeten found a pretty straightforward correlation between domestic press freedoms and attendance. That is to say, the countries that declined to send a representative were the countries that censored their domestic press the most. Foreign policy alignment, as represented by UN votes, does not appear to play a role.
Voeten cautions that this does not mean that China's political and implicit economic pressure played no role, however:
All of this does not mean that international pressure is irrelevant to the story. China can probably credibly threaten small punishments to most countries for attending but not big ones. So, the cost of attending may be pretty similar across states. There is much greater variation in the domestic cost for giving in to Chinese pressure. So, press freedom does a pretty good job in accounting for the variation in who attends and who does not. Yet, without China's ability to credibly threaten repercussions, the whole thing would not have been an issue.
Voeten is correct that China's power was in some ways a necessary condition for them to even consider organizing a boycott. Looking again at the list of attendees and non-attendees, however, I'd mildly disagree with Voeten on China's ability to pressure others. Voeten assumes that Beijing's ability to apply "small punishments" was constant across countries. Looking at the list of target countries, however, there were quite a few with significant export dependence on the Middle Kingdom. China is either the largest or second-largest export market for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Iran, Japan, and Kazakhstan. One would expect both Thailand and the Philippines to also have a pretty strong desire not to ruffle China's feathers.
In the end, however, the only countries that complied with China's request were the countries that already shared China's domestic policy preferences on this issue. Strictly in terms of assessing Chinese power, it is to Beijing's credit that it was able to get these countries to comply. The country's inability to use implicit and explicit threats to compel other countries well within its power orbit to change their minds, however, is... let's say interesting.
One of the occupational hazards U.S. foreign policy wonks possess in abundance is the tendency to forget that domestic politics is really important. Regardless of ideology, most members of the foreign policy community despair of how little time the President devotes to foreign affairs -- because he cares about things like "getting re-elected" or "maintaining popular support" or "responding to public opinion."
I'd like to think that I'm at least aware of this failing, and remind myself on a daily basis that Tip O'Neill had a point.
So, with that bias acknowledged, it's still worth pointing out that Barack Obama has foolishly decided to blow off the most dynamic region in the globe -- again:
President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.
His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked....
This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009 (emphasis added).
Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak. You know what effect that has had on the spill? Absolutely zero. There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I'm not even sure there's a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question).
What's particularly frustrating is that Peter Baker's story contains the seeds that contradict Obama's justification for staying in the country:
White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign fiunancial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”
But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.” (emphasis added)
That's great, Bob -- except that there are certain things that only a President can do. Unless he has some engineering expertise that he's been keeping under wraps, there's very little that Obama can do by staying in the countrry to focus on the spill. On the other hand, Obama's comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Australia and Indonesia are vital supporter states, and yet this president has just given them the cold shoulder -- for the second time, remember -- in order to focus on domestic politics.
The Obama administration has dealt with North Korea as best they could, and after some stumbles have moved down the learning curve in handling the China portfolio. Their approach to the rest of the Asia/Pacific region, however, has gone from sclerotic to just plain awful. The United States needs good relations with these countries -- but this administration has plainly revealed its preferences on this issue. If you look at the Obama administration's behavior, in their minds, the Pacific Rim simply doesn't count.
Question to readers: is the Gulf spill such a political crisis that it requires the Obama administration to blow off allies?
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Views of the US around the world have improved sharply over the past year, a BBC World Service poll suggests.
For the first time since the annual poll began in 2005, America's influence in the world is now seen as more positive than negative.
The improved scores for the US coincided with Barack Obama becoming president, a BBC correspondent notes.
As in 2009, Germany is viewed most favourably while Iran and Pakistan are seen as the most negative influences.
Nearly 30,000 people in 28 countries were interviewed for the poll, between November 2009 and February 2010.
Now, on the one hand, this is particularly impressive, because the people of the world are in a really sour mood. If you look at the entire report, the United States is the only great power and one of only two countries (South Africa is the other) to record an uptick in positive influence over the past year. This is also fully consistent with other surveys demonstrating an "Obama effect."
On the other hand, it's worth asking whether this boost in U.S. favorability ratings has yielded anything in the way of tangible policy gains. Sullivan avers that:
[I]n trying to defuse as well as defeat Jihadist terror, this kind of profound change could serve America's interests well. The idea that a better reputation abroad is meaningless uplift is foolish. It helps the US leverage its power to greater ends. The more popular the US is, the likelier it is to have a positive impact on other countries' leaders.
There's some truth to this -- otherwise you don't get the largest number of world leaders on American soil since the founding of the United Nations. That said, I do wonder just how much leverage this kind of soft power carries with it. Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the UN Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions.
All else equal, it's better to see these numbers going up. I'm just unsure of how much this translates into usable leverage.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger watched the Super Bowl and found it both surprising and entertaining. I'd read so many paeans to Peyton Manning over the past week that I'd come to believe that the game itself was just a formality. Oops.
The ads, however, have made me fear for America. The Super Bowl is the place to launch memorable campaigns. For most of my adult life, I can remember laughing pretty hard at a couple of the ads at the very least.
This year? Dear God, they were abysmal. It's telling that the funniest one was the Snickers spot featuring Betty White and Abe Vigoda. And the Coke ad featuring The Simpsons was kind of intriguing, with a very anti-populist message.
Other than that, the ads showed as much snappiness as The Who's halftime show -- which is to say, none at all. There were back-to-back ads where the joke was not wearing pants. My son described the Intel ad as "kind of creepy." The Audi Green ad was so over-the-top about eco-protection that for 90 percent of the ad I thought it was trying to covince Americans to block any measures to halt global warming. This Bridgestone ad was downright offensive. And, as near as I can figure, all of the Bud Light ads were designed by people forced to imbibe at least a keg of their product.
Screw the National Export Initiative -- the Obama administration should set minimal quality standards for Super Bowl ads.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY
Lost in the Nobel hoopla yesterday was this fascinating New York Times story by Michael Wines about the ways in which China's economy and foreign economic policy are vexing its neighbors.
China has long claimed to be just another developing nation, even as its economic power far outstripped that of any other emerging country.
Now, it is finding it harder to cast itself as a friendly alternative to an imperious American superpower. For many in Asia, it is the new colossus.
“China 10 years ago is totally different with China now,” said Ansari Bukhari, who oversees metals, machinery and other crucial sectors for Indonesia’s Ministry of Industry. “They are stronger and bigger than other countries. Why do we have to give them preference?”
To varying degrees, others are voicing the same complaint. Take the 10 Southeast Asian nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as Asean, a regional economic bloc representing about 600 million people. After a decade of trade surpluses with Asean nations that ran as high as $20 billion, the surplus through October totaled a bare $535 million, according to Chinese customs figures, and appears headed toward a 10-year low. That is prompting some rethinking of the conventional wisdom that China’s rise is a windfall for the whole neighborhood.
Vietnam just devalued its currency by 5 percent, to keep it competitive with China. In Thailand, manufacturers are grousing openly about their inability to match Chinese prices. India has filed a sheaf of unfair-trade complaints against China this year covering everything from I-beams to coated paper.
Read the whole thing -- Wines does a nice job of contrasting China's policy responses in 2008 to what it did a decade earlier. To sum up: those dogs that were not barking previously are starting to growl.
This problem is not going away anytime in the near future. The problem for the rest of the Asia/Pacific is that their comparative advantages (labor costs, process innovations) are also China's comparative advantages. Unless China starts acting as an important consumer market as well -- which admittedly might be happening as I type this -- then China's mantra of being a "responsible power" is going to meet a greater level of static very, very soon.
UPDATE: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Tom Wright has a report on how the financial crisis has affected China's soft power in the Asia/Pacific region that buttresses the Wines story.
Gideon Rachman notes that despite the French concern with happiness, the French themselves are pretty depressed.
I'm pretty sure stories like this are not going to lift the mood of French President Nicolas Sarkozy:
There is no Club Sarkozy nearby in this sweltering, squalid capital [of Guinea]; in West Africa, the French president cannot compete at present, despite his country’s historic connections as the former colonial power here. Right now, in this volatile region, mere mention of being from America — Obama’s America — is enough to avert an armed soldier’s grim gaze, defuse a mob’s anger, soften an unyielding border guard or lower the demands from ubiquitous bribe-seeking policemen.
The president’s name, freshly painted, appears above a barbershop, a grocery, a school, even tire stores here, as well as the cabaret in Boulbinet. In a leading bookstore downtown, a full-scale poster of Obama looks out from behind a closed door, a visual echo of the sentiments of those who go in to discuss politics.
The implications of this new American authority in an unfamiliar spot received a tryout last week, when the Obama administration sent a senior diplomat here to condemn the massacre of dozens of unarmed civilians protesting Guniea’s military government in September. They seem clear: America punches above its weight, in a part of the world that it has hitherto left to the French. The United States, with few practical sticks to beat the junta, nonetheless has a moral authority in the streets that the big-dog French do not match....
[W]hen Mrs. Clinton said the next day that she was “appalled” by the “vile violation of the rights of the people” in Guinea, Captain Camara had nothing to say, publicly at least. But when Mr. Kouchner called for an international intervention force, the captain angrily said, “Guinea is not a subprefecture, is not a neighborhood in France.”
The differing reactions were not lost on local observers. Mamadou Mouctar Diallo, an opposition leader, said Captain Camara “dared to defy France, but he didn’t dare defy the U.S.”
“America is a power that counts,” Mr. Diallo said. “You can’t turn your back on them.”
Children of the 1980's have suffered a series of body blows this summer -- the death of Michael Jackson, the death of John Hughes, etc. Well, now it appears we will have to suffer another indignity. MGM recently announced that they remaking Red Dawn (this week they announced their casting choices), a staple of basic cable outlets for twenty years -- and one of the most unintentionally campy movies ever made.
For the uninitiated, the movie depicts a Russian/Cuban/Nicaraguan invasion of the United States, and the fierce resistance put up by a band of high schoolers. As one of FP's movie geeks, I love this movie almost as much as I love Starship Troopers. Harry Dean Stanton shouting "Avenge me!!"; Lea Thompson and C. Thomas Howell acting all tough; Patrick Swayze shouting "because we live here!" as the justification for killing Russians; Powers Boothe's scenery-chewing; the Cuban occupiers subduing the population by accessing gun registration forms -- it's all good. Wolverines!!!!!
Now, this movie -- the first one rated PG-13, by the way -- was pretty absurd even by Reagan-era standards. Which brings one to an interesting question -- why remake it now? The commissioned screenwriter has provided the following justification:
Similar to the way the original played off Cold War fears in the 1980s, [writer Carl] Ellsworth says the remake will play off of current fears related to post-9/11 terrorism. ''As Red Dawn scared the heck out of people in 1984, we feel that the world is kind of already filled with a lot of paranoia and unease, so why not scare the hell out of people again?''
Well, sure, except that this makes no f***ing sense. Post-9/11 terror scares Americans because of the prospect that an attack could take place at any moment. The one thing actors like Al Qaeda can't do terribly well is secure and hold territory -- which is exactly what the Russians were ostensibly trying to do in Red Dawn. I fact, in the original movie, it's the Wolverines who act a bit like terrorists, bombing Russian installations and such. So I can't see how Red Dawn is a usable template for talking about post-9/11 terrorism concerns.
This isn't as bad an idea as remaking Hogan's Heroes -- but it's pretty close.
The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.
If Biden was just shooting the breeze off the record, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with anything in the quotes. I'm pretty sure, however, that part of "smart power" is not being gratuitously insulting to fellow members of the nuclear club. Maybe, just maybe, they'll take this kind of dumbass statement personally.
Don't take my word for it, though -- take Joe Biden's:
It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they're dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you. It just is not smart.
The word "stupid" has been thrown around a lot this week, but I think it applies pretty well to Biden's language.
The Pew Global Attitudes project has released their 2009 report, which means we finally have some hard numbers to see whether the election of Barack Obama has altered global perceptions of the United States.
And it turns out the answer is yes in most places:
The image of the United States has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in Barack Obama. In many countries opinions of the United States are now about as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office. Improvements in the U.S. image have been most pronounced in Western Europe, where favorable ratings for both the nation and the American people have soared. But opinions of America have also become more positive in key countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well.
Here are the numbers:
Most of the results are not surprising. The Obama effect is pretty substantial in Western Europe and Latin America, and nonexistent or negative in the Middle East and Russia. A small positive effect in sub-Saharan Africa, though this is in pat due to the fact that U.S. favorables were already pretty high in that region.
The surprising results are in Eastern Europe, Pacific Rim and South Asia. Obama does poorly in Poland -- perhaps because he's been perceived as more accomodating towards Russia.
In the Pacific Rim and India, however, favorability ratings increased by a fair amount. I'm particularly surprised by the bump in India, given the occasionally prickly tone between the policymakers of the two countries.
Question to readers: Obama said a few weeks ago that he thought a soft power bump would help advance U.S. interests. Given the data, do you agree?
UPDATE: Wow. Kevin Drum digs through the report and finds an even better measure of the increase in U.S. standing -- asking respondents whether they think "America will do the right thing in world affairs." The numbers here are pretty stunning:
Wow. I mean, wow. In a lot of ways this is the more interesting result, because it suggests that other countries think the United States is now more competent.
During the transition, Barack Obama voiced numerous concerns about being trapped in the Presidential "bubble," cut off from the rest of the real world. Oddly enough, this is also a concern of 30 Rock.
If this New York Times story by Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry is any indication, the bubble seems to have completely enveloped Obama's White House staff:
Crowds did not clamor for a glimpse of him. Headlines offered only glancing or flippant notice of his activities. Television programming was uninterrupted; devotees of the Russian Judge Judy had nothing to fear. Even many students and alumni of the Western-oriented business school where Mr. Obama gave the graduation address on Tuesday seemed merely respectful, but hardly enthralled....
Some Obama aides said they were struck by the low-key reception here, especially when compared with the outpouring on some of his other foreign trips. Even Michelle Obama, who typically enjoys admiring coverage in the local news media when she travels, has not had her every move chronicled here.
Seriously? Seriously?! The President of the United States visits a staunchly nationalist country that has significant conflicts with Washington, and the charm offensive didn't take? Well, blow me down!!
When/if Obama visits China and India, his staffers might have some more rude awakenings in their future.
A few days ago Gideon Rachman had a sharp column in the Financial Times about the limits to Barack Obama's "soft power" approach:
Mr Bush had a shoe thrown at him in his last appearance in the Middle East. So if Mr Obama receives his customary standing ovation in Cairo, that will send a powerful symbolic message. But the president should not let the applause go to his head. Even if his speech is a success, the same foreign-policy problems will be sitting in his in-tray when he gets back to the Oval Office – and they will be just as dangerous as before....
The president’s charisma and rhetorical skill are real diplomatic assets. If Mr Obama can deploy them to improve America’s image and influence around the world, that is all to the good. There is nothing wrong with trying to re-build American “soft power”.
The danger is more subtle. It is that President Yes-we-can has raised exaggerated hopes about the pay-off from engagement and diplomacy. In the coming months it will become increasingly obvious that soft power also has its limits.
I don't disagree with much of what Rachman says here, but there's a sin of omission that is worth pointing out. One of the advantages of Barack Obama's popularity is pretty plain -- he gets to say things that, in another man's voice, would sound unbelievably arrogant.
For exhibit A, let's stroll over to Tom Friedman's column today, which Friedman petty much outsources to Obama himself:
“We have a joke around the White House,” the president said. “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”
A key part of his message, he said, will be: “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” He then explained: “There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it.” There are a lot of Israelis, “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”
There are a lot of Palestinians who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not delivered a single “benefit to their people and had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground” they would be much better off today — but they won’t say it aloud.
“There are a lot of Arab states that have not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery,” and when it comes to “ponying up” money to actually help the Palestinian people, they are “not forthcoming.”
When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people.”
Now, imagine that George W. Bush had said the exact same things to Friedman a year ago (not that much of a stretch, actually). He would have been crucified for delivering such a high-handed, arrogant, imperious lecture. Obama, apparently, can get away with it -- if he could, I bet Obama's advance team would have a workplace-safety sign behind him at the upcoming Cairo speech saying, "This is the 134th day that the Obama administration has not invaded an Arab country. Keep it up!"
Obama was surprisingly blunt with Friedman about why he can get away with it:
"What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us.”
Similarly, the president said that if he is asking German or French leaders to help more in Afghanistan or Pakistan, “it doesn’t hurt if I have credibility with the German and French people. They will still be constrained with budgets and internal politics, but it makes it easier.”
Part of America’s “battle against terrorist extremists involves changing the hearts and minds of the people they recruit from,” he added. “And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”
One last thought -- I don't disagree all that much with Obama's diagnosis of the region, but it does suggest an important political problem. Most Middle Eastern states have very little incentive to work towards a two-state solution. Within many Arab countries, domestic resentment can be channeled into anger at the Israelis and symbolic support for the Palestinians. Why would governments in the region want to turn off that very useful spigot?
I don't disagree with Steve Walt's read of Obama's Ankara speech (see Marc Lynch as well), or other hosannahs being heaped on Obama for his European tour. Barack Obama acquitted himself well in London, Strasbourg, Prague and Ankara. U.S. soft power would appear to be in a better place than it was, say, a year ago.
Does it mean anything, however? I also don't disagree with Gideon Rachman's analysis of Obama's trip in the Financial Times:
On many levels, the new US president’s first tour of Europe was indeed a triumph. Mr Obama was articulate, ambitious and charming. His personal style has a touch of the emperor and a touch of the rock star – but with an appealing humility that is common to neither profession....
So Mr Obama scored very highly for style and ambition on his European tour. But can he deliver the substance? Here, the verdict has to be much more doubtful – for reasons that have more to do with the sheer difficulty of the situation he has inherited, rather than any particular failings on the part of the new president....
The new American president faces an economic disaster at home, a stalemated war in Afghanistan, unpredictable adversaries in places such as North Korea, and largely unhelpful allies in Europe. This week Mr Obama cemented the impression that he is an unusually gifted and intelligent politician. But that does not mean he will succeed. It could just be that he is the right man at the wrong time.
If there's any good news, it's that, after reading Arms Control Wonk, the North Koreans look more and more like an irritant rather than a threat.
Question to readers: will Obama's trip pay any long-term policy dividends?
The World Baseball Classic has been under way since Saturday, and this year's version of the event has been even more exciting than the 2006 inaugural tournament. Already, the U.S. barely edged Canada, 6-5 in a game that came down to the last pitch. As I'm typing this, Australia, having upset Mexico earlier in the week, is giving Cuba a run for its money (the Aussies are winning 4-2 in the 6th. UPDATE: the Cubans come back to eke out a 5-4 victory). If Cuba loses, I would hate to see Fidel Castro's blog post about it (hat tip: SI's Tom Verducci)
This is all prelude, however, to the biggest shocker of all -- in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands eliminated the Dominican Republic, beating them 2-1 in 11 innings. This was the second victory by the Dutch over the D.R. in a week.
For those traditional Foreign Policy reading, World Cup-loving kind of readers, let me try to explain the magnitude of this upset in terms that you would understand. Imagine that the South Korean soccer team just beat Brazil in a match played in Uruguay. No, check that -- imagine that the Koreans beat the Brazilians twice in two matches. That's what we're talking about here.
The implications for the globalization of baseball are pretty good, as Verducci points out:
Major League Baseball can work all of its machinations to pump up interest in the tournament, such as marketing and broadcasting. But there is nothing more powerful to sell the tournament than the unscripted magnificence of the game itself, never more so than when what we regard as the meek overtake the mighty.
I'll be semi-mute on the blog for a few days, as I'm in Charlottesville, VA to prep for a conference on America's standing in the world. Since my big blog boss will be at this event, I'll be devoting long hours in order to try and sound smart.
The question of standing is a tricky one for international relations -- much like debates about soft power. It's clear that Americans care about it -- but America's standing is not really independent from American policies. So, the question arises -- will Americans be willing to see policy changes that boost U.S. standing, even if they require significant costs for the United States (cough, global warming, cough)?
I have my doubts -- but I can be persuaded otherwise. So, question to readers -- do you care about America's standing? Has the election of Barack Obama enhanced America's standing? Should we care?
By complete accident Using my mastery of the interwebs, I've managed to get my name all over The National Interest online today.
Go check them all out!!
In the Boston Globe, Bryan Bender explains that longtime foes of the United States are facing a public relations problem:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has an Obama problem. So does the leadership of Al Qaeda. Obama also presents a challenge to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and other leaders who have utilized anti-American feeling to strengthen their grips on power.
The new American president, who has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone toward some of America's most intractable adversaries, may be making inroads into reducing anti-American feeling in some distant corners of the globe: Entire bookshelves from Egypt to the Persian Gulf are dedicated to Obama; a popular Arab pop star is recording a "Song to Obama"; and public spaces that just months ago were dedicated to anti-American posters are festooned with the smiling American leader.
In response, some of the most anti-American governments, along with the leaders of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Hamas, are testing out their own strategy for dealing with Obama: asserting that he's no different from George W. Bush and insisting that US policies won't change.
In trying this approach, these actors are essentially adopting a neorealist explanation for state behavior -- i.e., the disposition of a foreign policy leader is irrelevant, because states will act based on their position in the international system.
My hunch is that this strategy will not work in the short run, as Obama has pivoted U.S. policy on some important issues (Gitmo, Iran, missile defense, etc.) Not surprisingly, Iran has already begun to deviate from its rabid anti-Obama posture. Yesterday, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would consider a dialogue with the United States. His foreign minister told Reuters today that, "We look positively on the slogan that Obama raised in the elections. The world has really changed."
Over time, this kind of rhetorical response might work, however. It depends on what Obama does rather than who he is.
Perhaps Obama really can persuade European public opinion. But since, as matters stand, no-one thinks there's a military solution to the Afghan problem I'm not quite sure what Obama can offer to make the mission any more appealling. Put yourself in Danish or Portuguese or Italian shoes: what's in it for you? Why would you join a mission no-one thinks is winnable? (Maybe a new strategy can change that, but that too is something that remains to be seen.) It isn't simply Iraq; it's the growing perception that many people feel they have little to know idea why, nearly seven years later, we're still in Afghanistan. What are we actually doing there? What can we actually realistically hope to achieve?.... It would be lovely to think that Obama can bring a new period of transatlantic harmony. But it just isn't the case that American interests are necessarily the same as European interests. The Security Card trumped everything during the Cold War but these are changed times. And there were, in any case, always more differences than seemed the case then too, these days they're much clearer to see. A new President may find it difficult to change that. Or, to put it another way, he may need to give something up himself to advance American interests in other areas.Alex is right to point out the centrality of common security interests to transatlantic security cooperation. I don't think the divergence of interests is as great as he thinks, however, in part because Obama's strategy allows his to display credible commitments that Bush could not. On Afghanistan, for example, the problem the Bush administration always had with getting more allied support was the perception among many allies that the U.S. wanted NATO help in that theatre so they could focus on Iraq. If Obama pursues his graduated withdrawal strategy and expanded soft power capabilities, however, he's going to be able to ask for European help while simultaneously augmenting U.S. forces and resources in the Afghan theater. States are much more willing to cooperate when they sense a serious commitment by the lead actor. Contra Alex, I think a lot of European foreign policy elites do see the security and foreign policy benefits of doubling down in Afghanistan -- if anything, events in Mumbai merely reinforce that belief. Their concern has always been with the lack of U.S. focus and resources in the region. By committing greater resources -- which has been Obama's message for some time now -- I think he can square the circle with the Europeans. [Of course, note that this is all highly dependent on the stability of Iraq. Either Iraq maintains its current level of stability, or Obama must be willing to reallocate troops away from Iraq despite a worsening security situation there.] I tried to make some of these points last night in a discussion of this topic on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin, but I was blinded by Jeff Kopstein's hearty California glow. Nevertheless, true groupies can watch it below:
Having learned the limits of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military strategists are rewriting decades-old military doctrine to place humanitarian missions on par with combat, part of a new effort to win over distrustful foreign populations and enlist new global allies, according to top commanders and Pentagon officials. The Defense Department is implementing a series of new directives to use the American arsenal for more peaceful purposes even as it prepares for war, including a little-noticed revision this year to a document called "Joint Operations," described as the "very core" of how the military branches should be organized. The effort illustrates a growing recognition that, to combat radical ideologies and avert future wars, the Pentagon must draw more heavily on its deep reserves of so-called soft power - its ability to set up medical clinics in a remote part of the world, for example - to balance the more traditional "hard power" of military force, according to more than a dozen US military officers in several regions of the world and planners inside the Pentagon. "Things have changed significantly," Jerry Lynes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is now chief of education and doctrine for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. "We have taken our traditional principles of war and added to them." The changes have already translated into new military operations. When a US military team arrived by helicopter in Cambodia's rural Kampong Chhnang Province in late May, the imam from the local mosque spread the word and hundreds of locals descended on the Americans. But it was not confrontation they sought. It was free healthcare. The Friendship Clinic, offering primary and vision care, dentistry, a women's health center, and medical training, was part of a first-of-its kind humanitarian mission called Pacific Angel by the Honolulu-based 13th Air Force.The story also highlights another oddity: while the Pentagon is making this adjustment, they'd really like a different agency to take the lead:
[W]hile the change in emphasis is generally accepted as a positive development, some are also warning that the military risks taking on nonmilitary missions that should be the purview of the State Department and other civilian agencies. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who has called for greater emphasis on diplomatic and economic tools to further American interests, warned in a speech this month about the "militarization" of American foreign policy and repeated his calls for building new civilian capacity for strengthening fragile states. Others have also cautioned against using the military to perform jobs better suited to civilians, such as democracy building and development aid.I'm sure many will blame the Bush administraion for this state of affairs -- but I think what's going on here is the result of how the foreign policy budget is authorized. Congressmen are happy to authorize more defense spending, because that's easier to justify to their constituents, particularly those constituets whose livelihoods are tied into the military. Authorizing civilian spending on foreign policy, however, just looks like a handout to other countries -- it's much easier for Congress to say no to that authorization, and look fiscally prudent in the process. The long-term effect of this skew, however, is that the military is organizing and running an ever-greater share of foreign policy operations. Lest anyone think I'm ranting against the armed forces, I'm trying to say that they don't want this responsibility. They're stepping up because no other agency possesses either the resources or the willingness to act. Until and unless budget and operating authority are reallocated in the executive branch, this 'militarization' of foreign policy is not going to stop. And, irony of ironies, it's the military that most wants to stop it."Our [foreign] policy is out of whack," said Kenneth Bacon, a former assistant secretary of defense who now runs Refugees International, a nonprofit organization. "It is too dominated by the military and we have too little civilian capacity."
That's pretty savvy analysis, if you ask me. More generally, I think the notion that mere election of Obama would represent a "soft power surge" as it were, should be tempered. It's not that there would be no Obama effect. It's just that it would be concentrated in places where elites are enthusiastic about him and his policies. This would mean Europe, Africa and Latin America, I suspect. Other regions -- the Middle East, Russia and Asia -- might be less receptive. [What about McCain?--ed. He would certainly get an enthusiastic reception in East Asia, and given his trade policies I expect Latin America and any country that wanted an FTA with the United States would be keen on him. He would play less well in Europe, Russia and the Middle East.] UPDATE: Oh, there's also this from Greene and Delap: "The idea that some might consider him a "Muslim apostate," as Edward Luttwak controversially proposed in The New York Times, has been notably absent from Arabic op-ed pages."
Most Arab columnists writing about Obama have concluded that the exigencies of American politics undermine any efforts by politicians to change the country's foreign policy in the region. "With every American election, Arabs investigate the potential presidents, while forgetting that every American president who enters the White House will be governed by American interests and by the information that is presented to him," Alhomayed wrote. "Our problems have been left to us to deal with, and we are the biggest losers."
Looking at the long term, sovereign wealth funds are one component of an alternative development path, suggests a possible rival to liberal free-market democracy. In state-led development societies, governments could use sovereign wealth funds, state-owned enterprises and banks, national oil companies, extensive regulation, and other measures to accelerate economic development, buy off dissent and promote technology transfer. If this model proves sustainable over the long run – and this is a big if – it could emerge as a viable challenger to the liberal democratic path taken by the advanced industrialized states. More countries might think of sovereign wealth funds as a signal of being a “successful” country. One could then envision the proliferation of such funds – even in situations in which there is no economic rationale for its creation. This would have corrosive effects on America’s soft power. It would be an open question whether the rest of the world would look at the democratic development model as one to emulate. Crudely put, far fewer countries would want what America wants.The New York Times has some stories today suggesting that we're already witnessing the first part of this argument -- but not the second. Edward Wong reports on the growing Chinese assertiveness about their economic model:
Senior Chinese officials are publicly and loudly rebuking the Americans on their handling of the economy and defending their own more assertive style of regulation. Chinese officials seem to be galled by the apparent hypocrisy of Americans telling them what to do while the American economy is at best stagnant. China, on the other hand, has maintained its feverish growth. Some officials are promoting a Chinese style of economic management that they suggest serves developing countries better than the American model, in much the same way they argue that they are in no hurry to copy American-style multiparty democracy. In the last six weeks alone, a senior banking regulator blamed Washington’s “warped conception” of market regulation for the subprime mortgage crisis that is rattling the world economy; the Chinese envoy to the World Trade Organization called on the United States to halt the dollar’s unchecked depreciation before the slide further worsens soaring oil and food prices; and Chinese agencies denounced a federal committee charged with vetting foreign investments in the United States, saying the Americans were showing “hostility” and a “discriminatory attitude,” not least toward the Chinese. All this reflects a brash new sense of self-confidence on the part of the Chinese. China seems to feel unusually bold before the Summer Olympics, seen here as a curtain raiser for the nation’s ascent to pre-eminence in the world. The devastating earthquake last month helped by turning world sympathy toward China and dampening criticism of its handling of Tibet.The Times also references a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, however, that suggests Chinese soft power still lags far behind its hard power capabilities:
China, just months before it is set to take the world’s center stage during the 2008 Summer Olympics, still ranks below the United States as a multifaceted power in the opinion of its Asian neighbors. The report, which is based on public opinion survey in five East and Southeast Asian countries and the United States, reveals that perceptions of China’s soft power – the ability to wield influence by indirect, non-military means – generally trail those of the United States and Japan. These perceptions persist despite China’s strong economic relationships in Asia, and around the world, and its consistent and concerted efforts to leverage the Olympic Games to bolster its public image.Click here to read the full report. From the executive summary:
While other polls have detected declining U.S. global influence, the Chicago Council/EAI survey finds that in Asia, the United States is still highly regarded in all five of the key areas of soft power addressed in this survey: economics, culture, human capital, diplomacy, and politics. Whether this influence is a product of U.S. foreign policy or exists in spite of it, it is clear that the United States has a very strong foundation on which to build future policy in the region.
My hunch is that if the survey were broadened beyond the Pacific Rim, Chinese soft power would be inversely correlated with a country's distance from China.
The 64,000 dollar renminbi questions are twofold:
I trust my readers to weigh in.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.