Friday, February 29, 2008

The Modern Slave Trade

If anyone is looking for some happy, uplifting news to perk them up in time for the weekend, I'd suggest checking out E Benjamin Skinner's article in Foreign Policy (subscription required) titled "A World Enslaved," based on four years of research into the modern slave trade. This is an issue that has finally gained some popular currency in recent years, but I imagine that even well-informed people would be shocked by the scale of modern slavery. I certainly was. Here are just a few gems from Skinner's piece:

There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history...

Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl... for 50 bucks...

In South Asia, which has the highest concentration of slaves on the planet, nearly 10 million languish in bondage...

300,000 children are in domestic bondage in Haiti...

In a Bucharest brothel... I was offered a mentally handicapped suicidal girl in exchange for a used car. But for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women, and children enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work or agricultural labor...

You really have to read the article to get the full effect. The section in which Skinner negotiates the purchase of a 12 year old girl in Haiti, complete with adoption papers so that she can be taken back stateside, is particularly charming. I'm still digesting this, and I plan on picking up Skinner's forthcoming book, but to say the least this is an issue about which world governments need to get far more serious. India, evidently, is one of the principal centers of global slavery. I continue to be a huge proponent of improving American relations with India, but if we're going to berate the Chinese government for locking up journalists, we might at least mention to the Indians that cleaning up their act with regard to slavery would pay diplomatic dividends.

The (theoretical) ban on the global slave trade was supposed to have been one of the lasting achievements of the nineteenth century. We're well overdue in making that achievement mean something to millions in bondage around the world.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Delicious Irony

I just finished reading Jerry Muller's "Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism" in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. It's a solid article, and I'll be posting a critique before too long, but I couldn't help but chuckle as I read the concluding paragraphs, which summed up why Muller thinks that parochial ethnic nationalism will remain a powerful force in contemporary politics. On the opposite page sat an advertisement for the Center for Global Affairs at NYU with the headline; "As a global citizen, to whom do I pledge allegiance?" Who ever said social scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Open Source Warfare

The always fascinating John Robb has a great (if disheartening) profile of Henry Okah and his development of open source warfare in Nigeria. Two thoughts: 1) we have to find a source of energy other than oil and 2) we need to start creating much more nimble institutions of governance to deal with this kind of threat.

Khaled Hamza

Check out Shadi Hamid's piece at Democracy Arsenal on the arrest of Khaled Hamza, a Muslim Brotherhood activist in Egypt.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Praise of the Serbian Foreign Minister

Vuc Jeremic, the foreign minister of Serbia, has an op-ed in today's Times criticizing the willingness of the West to go along with the independence of Kosovo, writing that to accept Kosvo's independence is to abjure the binding principles of the postwar international system, principles that "include the sovereign equality of states, the respect for the territorial integrity and the inviolability of internationally recognized borders." Mr. Jeremic is absolutely right. The independence of Kosovo does indeed alter the involability of those principles, and it's about damn time.

While I'm sure Serbians aren't particularly happy about being the test-case for the slowly emerging post-Westphalian international order, the fact is that the notion of self-determination of peoples is slowly catching on as a countervailing force to state sovereignty in the twenty first century, particularly when governments don't live up to their "responsibility to protect" their own citizens. In a world as economically, politically and culturally interdependent as ours, it makes little sense to hold the notion of sovereignty, formulated in 1648 as Europe climbed out of the Middle Ages, as sacrosanct in the same manner it was so held a century ago.

This, of course, brings up a whole boatload of difficult questions. Would I be okay with a state seceding from the U.S. (I suppose it depends which one you're talking about...)? 140 years ago America fought a vicious civil war to prevent just such an eventuality. What is different now? Hypothetically, what process would make such an act legitimate? Perfect answers, of course don't exist. That is the nature of living in transitional times. Important philosophical pillars of the international system must remain in tension. As a matter of principle, though, I do believe that when a sub-state group's experiences - of isolation, of oppression, of coercion - render it no longer meaningfully attached to the political community that it is supposed to inhabit, it has the right to see such separation institutionally enshrined. Kosovo has done this. Along with the Serbian foreign minister, I suspect that it will be followed.

Antisystem Movements

Anyone who is at all interested in democratic development ought to find a bookstore that stocks the Journal of Democracy. I have yet to pick up a copy that didn't have numerous articles worth reading. The latest issue has an excellent piece by Sheri Berman (I can't link to the full text; as an aside, I really hope this open model of academic publishing catches on) titled "Taming Extremist Parties: Lessons from Europe" in which she chronicles the political history of Western European communist parties from the end of World War I through the fall of the Soviet Union. She contrasts the generally radical, "antisystem" behavior of these parties during the interwar years (behavior which, paradoxically, contributed to the collapse of democracy and the rise of fascism in much of Western Europe) with the more democratically engaged communist movements of the postwar era.

She attempts to find some common ground between "optimists" who believe that democratic participation has a tendency, through a variety of mechanisms, to de-radicalize and "tame" extremist parties, rendering them less threatening to the democratic system as a whole, and "pessimists" who believe that extremist parties merely use elections as a means to an end without ever truly subordinating their agendas to democratic processes, pursuing a policy of "one man, one vote, one time." Obviously, this issue is germane to today's Middle East, where the question of how Islamist parties ought to be treated by local governments and the international community as a whole remains hotly contested. It is also relevant to places like India, which continues to experience challenges from radical movements that operate both within and without democratic institutions.

In a nutshell (and this is but the roughest sketch of her argument), Berman believes that when democratic institutions are reasonably strong, the mechanisms that the optimists believe will moderate extremist parties do just that (briefly, they identify a "Downsian" phenomenon whereby radical movements must moderate their positions in order to garner a reasonable plurality of votes, a "Michelsian" phenomenon which posits a moderating influence of bureaucratic structures that are necessary in order to compete in elections, and a "pothole theory" of democracy whereby radical programs are sidetracked by the more mundane necessities of day-to-day governance). When state and democratic institutions are weak and have shallow roots in the populace at large, however, extremist parties face fewer pressures to moderate their tactics and goals, and may use elections and an open civil society to foment discord and promote more radical agendas.

Berman notes that the dark days that followed the First World War, when Western Europe was facing unprecedented economic and political crises and Russian Bolshevism actively supported worldwide revolution through the Comintern, were ripe environments for extremist movements. Support for communist movements at the time "varied... in inverse proportion to the health of a country's democratic regime." In Germany, France and Italy, communist movements garnered significant support (though nowhere near a majority of the populace), and had few real incentives to accept the ultimate legitimacy of democracy. They ran slates in elections, but also engaged in violent, destabilizing activity that the weak governments and state institutions at the time could not tamp down. They followed accepted Leninist tactics, expelling moderates from their parties and undermining the governments in which they sometimes half-heartedly participated. In short, they remained radical in their aims as well as in their tactics. It was in part their unwillingness to moderate and ally with the centrist coalitions that held Western European democracies together that fomented fascist transformations leading up to the Second World War.

At first glance, one might have expected a similar radicalization of communist politics in the period after World War II, when the economic and political foundations of Europe lay in ruins. Despite this environment, though, postwar European communist parties slowly but surely integrated themselves into a truly democratic framework, distancing themselves from Soviet patronage, rejecting violence and other destabilizing activity, and eventually accepting the legitimacy of the European postwar social democratic framework (though they obviously continued to promote a very left-wing agenda). Berman argues that the relative strength of democratic and state institutions during this period made destabilizing activity more difficult and less effective, and that with time communist parties saw no choice but to accept the ultimate primacy of the democratic process.

Berman herself, though, alludes to the fact that her analysis is somewhat incomplete when applied to contemporary antisystem movements, acknowledging that "to say that the pessimists' worries are likely to be borne out only when democratic regimes are weak and ineffective is hardly comforting, since it is chiefly such regimes that are grappling with these problems today." The question is why Western Europe developed strong states and democracies after World War II, particularly in places like Germany and Italy that had so spectacularly failed to do so during the interwar period. Berman doesn't provide any real answers, noting only that the pessimists' argument risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and, citing the experience of the European social democrats, warning against seeing extremism where accommodation might be possible.

Her reluctance to tackle the critical issue - why democracy succeeded after the War where it had failed before it - is understandable. Full answers to such questions are the stuff of doctoral dissertations (one day perhaps), but they are critical to an ability to apply the European cases to contemporary regimes, so I'll at least offer a few thoughts. First, in the immediate aftermath of War, when democratic regimes were at their weakest, the presence of several million Allied troops on the European continent certainly helped stabilize things. The prospect of prolonged military occupation, for example, persuaded the French Communists (who had what amounted to an army and were the most coherent organization in postwar France) to use the ballot box, rather than the streets, as their route to power. These troops, in effect, permitted state building on steroids, giving reconstructed democratic governments the ability to quickly achieve Weber's "monopoly of violence" over their territories without too much struggle.

Second, Allied (and especially American) aid to Europe in the years after the war was crucial. William Hitchcock, in his recent history of postwar Europe, argues that, while aid from the Marshall plan was not necessarily vital to European economic recovery (for all of the plan's scale, it contributed but a fraction of Europe's postwar GDP), but did provide governments with critical budgetary breathing space, allowing them to construct social service regimes in addition to investing in economic recovery. American money allowed the shaky centrist governments of the postwar period to make tangible differences in the lives of their citizens, easing economic and psychological social pressures and dampening the appeal of antisystem activities.

More complex internal dynamics were certainly at work in the states of Western Europe as well, but I highlight the effect of external forces because they relate most closely to what the democratic powers of our own time can do to encourage nascent democracies and stave off the destabilizing influence of antisystem organizations. The events of recent years have shown that invasion and occupation are (to be charitable) less-than-optimal ways of shoring up democracy. It worked in Western Europe after the continent had been pounded into dust by the greatest calamity in human history. Not the kind of thing to repeat if we can help it. Still, aid, if intelligently structured, can be effective in shoring up weak transitions to democracy. Senator Biden's recent remarks on U.S. policy in Pakistan present a decent blueprint for what such constructive aid might look like. Berman's example of the ill-conceived ostracization of the pre-war Social Democrats also points to the wisdom of distinguishing antisystem movements from movements whose programs we simply don't like. Many Islamist parties in the Middle East have shown a practical willingness to participate in democratic institutions. As long as they aren't running armed militias at the same time, we ought to be open to them.

Given the complexities of the modern global system, coming up with coherent, flexible ways of responding to movements that eat at that system's foundation can only become more important in the coming years. Kudos to Dr. Berman for her contribution.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Biden on "This Week"

Check out Joe Biden on Stephanopoulos's show this morning. I really hope this guy gets some kind of posting in the next administration. He's one of the best we've got when it comes to an intelligent foreign policy.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Interview with Richard Haass

Check out the McKinsey Quarterly's interview with Richard Haass on the interaction of global business and global politics. Definitely worth the marginally annoying registration process.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And the World Keeps Spinning 'Round

Sometimes, you leave for a long weekend to hit the slopes in New Hampshire and not much happens. Other times, you come back to find dictators resigning, others losing elections, countries gaining independence and the Navy trying to prevent the sky from falling (and/or test antisatellite weaponry). I should go skiing more often.

Frankly, I'm still digesting most of this. I know as a blogger/person with an over-inflated sense of self-importance I should be spouting off opinions and prognostications, but this is all moving pretty fast. Here's hoping those with some real power are doing a better job keeping up. More to come.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Israel "Vague" on Assassination

I'm in absolutely no position to comment definitively one way or another on this issue, but it does strike me that if Israel hadn't been behind Mugniyah's death, they'd be much more forceful in their denials than they have been:

Senior Israeli officials have not commented publicly about the assassination, widely hailed here as a brilliant intelligence coup. Instead, there was an ambiguously worded statement issued by the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday distancing Israel from the act, and what the Israeli news media described as “mysterious smiles.”
Some here saw Mr. Olmert’s vaguely worded statement — “Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident” — more as a nonadmission of responsibility than an outright denial.

I don't know about you, but if lots of people thought that I'd killed someone, and I hadn't, I don't think I'd be smiling much, mysteriously or otherwise.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A New Arms Race

The BBC reports that Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that he now sees world powers as locked in "a new phase in the arms race." Evidently upset at the continuing expansion of NATO, and bolstered by oil revenues that allow renewed spending on Russia's military, Putin is slowly but surely positioning Russia to balance (or at least partially offset) U.S. military dominance. Some of his talk of an "arms race" is likely bluster for domestic consumption, but it isn't something the U.S. can afford to ignore. Nor, in my view, is the traditional response of ratcheting up our own military strength by further orders of magnitude called for (even if it were affordable). Some level of military balancing between the U.S. and emerging powers is likely inevitable in the coming years - that's how strategic relations work - but there are things we can do to cool tensions. Whether or not we continue building our missile shield (I'm a bit agnostic on the whole concept and could be convinced either way), now would seem like a great time to begin serious talks on further substantial nuclear disarmament.

I've written before in support of the notion that our current nuclear posture does little to ensure American security, and may actually compromise it. Negotiating with other world powers to seriously reduce nuclear stocks would show that the U.S. is serious about wanting its missile shield as a defensive measure against rogue states, rather than as the first step in a nuclear endgame. It would also be a way to cool rising tensions with powers like Russia and China at little strategic cost. It won't happen under the Bush Administration (they're the ones who've wanted to expand our arsenal after all) but it's something that ought to be on the next president's agenda.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Fire the Graphics Department

Sorry for the sub-par picture. I got this latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly in the mail today, and evidently they haven't posted an image of the cover anywhere on the Web yet. Ah, the magic of cell phone cameras. Now, I look to magazines like the Atlantic for something resembling intelligent discourse on current culture and politics. Generally speaking, they deliver, but this cover had me pretty annoyed. I understand that provocative headlines and arresting images sell magazines, and I'm not expecting Kant's Critique of Practical Reason to be spelled out in the bylines, but could we please try for something a bit more sophisticated than betting lines on the victor of the latest Crusade? It's the twenty-first century for God's sake. It would be nice if some of the more respectable popular media could bring a little bit of subtlety and sophistication to the way they present the complex global interaction of identity, faith, economics and power.

What really gets me is that the issue actually has a number of well-researched, insightful articles on the globalization of religious politics, none of which are particularly inflammatory. The cover, though, does nothing to communicate this, presenting the oh-so-original image of a clashing cross and crescent with a sensationalized headline about which religion will "win." Oy.

Obama and Israel

Jeb has a great post over at Foreign Policy Watch about the presidential candidates' positions on Israel. I don't want to get into this fight too deeply, but why precisely is there this notion that Obama is some stealth anti-Israeli candidate? Has he ever publicly questioned the right of the Jewish state to exist? Has he ever publicly questioned America's commitment to Israel's security? What, in other words, has he done to make people so distrustful of his committment to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, other than to occasionally (and correctly) point out that a two state solution is in the strategic interest of everyone, and that the hardline position on Iran doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere? As the Editors of Haaretz point out, most criticisms of Obama's Israel stance - lacking as they do any substantive foundation - fall back on the notion that his Middle East positions in general are "leftist." I'm still baffled. This is a guy who publicly stated that he would unilaterally strike at militant bases in Pakistan without Islamabad's consent. Yes, he has said that he would alter our diplomatic approach to the region, but have we really reached the point where anyone who advocates talking with diplomats rather than smart bombs is considered "leftist"? Anyways, like I said, I don't want to get dragged too far into this one, but it's at least some food for thought.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Military Spending

So it would appear that the latest budget request from the Pentagon would put U.S. military spending at its highest level - adjusted for inflation - since the Second World War. Clearly, much of this has to do with the strain of fighting two wars for six years running, but in a larger sense, it highlights an important difficulty the United States will have to confront in the not-too-distant future; namely, how to reconcile its defense budget with its economic and geopolitical standing. I've written in several places that America will soon be inhabiting a world that is functionally multipolar. In such an environment, it is questionable whether or not it makes strategic sense to maintain a global military presence on the kind of scale that we currently do. More to the point, it is questionable whether the American people will, in the long term, be willing to continue footing the bill. If our global posture is not politically viable at home, then it will seesaw wildly between strategic extremes to nobody's benefit. This weekend's news is just more indication that we need to start having this conversation now, rather than when the situation reaches critical mass in a decade or two.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Group Loyalty

Check out John Robb's post on group loyalty in the age of Globalization over at Global Guerrillas. Definitely worth a read.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Look Who's Talking

I admit it. I'm a bad political junkie. I didn't watch the Democratic debate last night, even though the field has now been winnowed to two people, and it was billed as the epic final confrontation before "Tsunami Tuesday" next week (I love the hyperbolic names that bored CNN producers come up with for these things). I had hockey tickets. So it goes.

I did, however, make a point of reading the transcript when I got home, and to be frank I was pretty impressed by the amount of substantive discussion that went on. Granted, now that the number of people on stage is more manageable, the candidates don't have to talk about their positions and proposals in less time than Jeopardy contestants get to buzz in with an answer, but still, good show by both Sens. Clinton and Obama.

I've said on numerous occasions that I won't make this blog about the U.S. election, so I promise I'm going somewhere with this. One of the principal places that Clinton and Obama have differed on foreign policy is on the question of negotiating with regimes that the U.S. doesn't like. Obama has said that he would be willing to meet, without preconditions, with the leadership of countries like Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Syria etc. Clinton, along with many of her backers, has called that stance naive, saying that such meetings would lead to propaganda victories for unfriendly regimes without necessarily benefiting the United States. Obama in turn has accused Clinton of continuing the failed policies of the Bush administration, albiet with some minor tweaks. And so on ad infinitum. I address this issue, though, because to me it seems to indicate not just a tactical difference in how the two leaders would conduct foreign policy, nor simply a shallow attempt to advance their own respective campaign narratives ("experience" versus "change"), but rather to reflect a genuine difference in perception of the geostrategic position of the United States.

First, let me clear the debate of some straw-man arguments. I assume (and it is an assumption) that when Obama says he would be willing to meet with unfriendly regimes "without preconditions," he is not so naive as to literally mean that there would be no diplomatic preparations in advance of such a summit. Obviously, without some agreement as to the issues on the table and the basic goals to be aimed for, a meeting with Chavez or Ahmadinejad would be useless and perhaps counterproductive. I assume that when Obama mentions "preconditions" he is referencing the common position taken by the Bush administration that unfriendly regimes must evince significant changes in behavior (like halting uranium enrichment) before the United States will deign to grant them an audience. This is the strategy he rejects and (as best I can tell) Clinton embraces. To suggest that President Obama would simply get on a plane, land in Tehran, call up Ahmadinejad and ask to sit down for a cup of coffee - as some have implied - is absurd, and isn't worthy of serious discussion.

The real question that needs to be answered before deciding which one of these strategies is appropriate is straightforward: how much power does the United States have relative to other actors in the international system? I have attempted to address this question before, and the answer is complex but vital. If, as the neoconservative worldview would have it, the United States posesses an enduring, historically unprecedented concentration of power, then the Bush/Clinton strategy makes perfect sense. If the world is truly unipolar, then to be cut off diplomatically and economically from the United States is to be left out in the cold. To be cut off from Washington is functionally the same as being cut off from everywhere else.

If, however, the world is (or is fast becoming) functionally multipolar, the strategy breaks down. In such a situation, while a relationship with Washington may bring many benefits, it is far from essential. There are other power centers to which countries can look for diplomatic, military and economic support. During the Cold War, U.S. leaders understood this reality, and so made a greater effort to woo foreign capitals, always concerned that the Soviets would make a better offer.

I doubt that it will surprise any regular readers that I take to the latter viewpoint. Perhaps, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when Russia was imploding, China and India were still emerging from their long sleep, and Europe could not yet be referred to as a singular entity, a strategy based on a unipolar world made some sense. These days, though, it is misguided. Indeed, the situation now is even more complex than it was during the Cold War, as relationships are no longer dependent on ideology, and need not firmly place a country into a single "camp." Iran, one of Washington's principal bogeymen of late, has managed to forge economic and political relationships with authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, democratic ones like India and the E.U., and a host of other "second world" states, giving it all the political advantage it needs. Certainly, patching up the relationship with the United States would be desirable for many in Tehran, but they understand that they needn't prostrate themselves before Washington in order to do it. They're getting along fine without us.

In such an environment, the notion that just the opportunity to negotiate with the United States should be incentive enough to alter regime behavior does not withstand scrutiny. The U.S. is extremely powerful, and will remain so for the forseeable future, but it is not omnipotent, and cannot conduct diplomacy as though it is. The simple act of negotiating with a regime does not confer upon it our approval. It does, however, acknowledge the fact that Washington cannot will that regime out of existence. That's the reality. It's time we recognized it.