Thursday, January 31, 2008

And Now in the Realm of the Obvious...

A new report from Human Rights Watch accuses Western nations of turning a blind eye to "sham" democracies that they find economically and strategically useful. In other news, the Earth is round and revolves around the Sun.

At least we're forcing them to make a pretense of democracy now. I suppose, in a somewhat disheartening way, that counts as progress.

On Point - China and India

If anyone has a spare 45 minutes (or is looking for a diversion at work) check out yesterday's On Point interview with Tarun Khanna about the economic, political and cultural consequences of the rise of China and India (yes I'm 23 and listen to NPR, yes I'm okay with that). It's a pretty nuanced program that gets past a lot of the stereotypes and mindless debates on the subject that you tend to hear on American airwaves.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Goodbye to Hegemony, Hello to...?

For those who didn't catch it, be sure to check out Parag Khanna's piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine entitled "Waving Goodbye to Hegemony." In it, Khanna joins the now crowded pack of international relations scholars trying to work out what the international system of the twenty first century (Friedman's "post-post-Cold War era") is going to look like. Fukuyama famously launched the neoconservative vision of a U.S./liberal-dominated "end of history" that now looks increasingly defunct, Huntington proposed his "clash of civilizations," and various other thinkers have offered realist and liberal internationalist perspectives as well. I'm certainly leaving some out, but you get the idea.

In asking (and answering) the questions that such theorists address, they are actually addressing three distinct issues. First, where will power be concentrated in the world of the twenty first century? Second, how will that power be operationalized? Third (for Americans), how ought the United States respond to the situation? All three questions are exceedingly important, because they lead in very different directions. If you are a neoconservative, for example, you believe that power will be disproportionally concentrated in the political and economic institutions of the United States, and operationalized primarily through leveraging America's unassailable advantages in economic and military strength. Thus, as the only entity with enough power to maintain global stability, the United States has both a moral responsibility and national imperative to maintain, by force if necessary, military and economic hegemony. If you take to Huntington's argument, on the other hand, power will begin to concentrate at the center of a number of socio-cultural blocs (civilizations), and will be most easily operationalized by leveraging the common cultural and philosophical mindsets within those blocs. Thus, the United States (and other countries) ought to align its political, economic and military intsitutions with those of societies with which it shares common cultural and historical bonds (basically, Canada and Europe). I could go on, but this is a blog, not a book, and you get the point.

Khanna's vision is somewhat more complex. First off, he asserts that any notion of U.S. hegemony was ephemeral in the first place and is now definitively over. The idea that America will bestride the world as a modern colossus, unequaled and unchecked, is being disproven daily both by America's clumsy ineptitude at running its purported Empire and by the meteoric rise of new powers like China and India. I have no argument with him so far. I wish very much that the post Cold War United States had taken a position of real global leadership, rather than acting as an over-reluctant sherrif during the 1990s and then as an over-eager bully during the Bush years, but it didn't, problems festered, other powers began to counter-balance U.S. strength, and here we are.

Khanna next proposes that the twenty first century power centers will be the societies of the United States, the E.U., and China, which will exercise considerable control over their own regional blocs while competing for resources, markets and influence in the regional blocs of others. To grossly oversimplify, he's proposing a tripolar world rather like that envisioned by Orwell in 1984, albiet with marginally different political geography and (hopefully) less outright military conflict. He sees many of the secondary powers (countries like India, Russia and Brazil) as the "swing states" of this new system, offering their resources and markets to whichever superpowers make the best offer, without entangling themselves in enduring, Cold War style alliances. The system he describes is fluid, dynamic, and one to which the United States needs desperately to readjust by strengthening its diplomatic corps, re-tooling its economy, and maintaining a flexible global posture.

Khanna's analysis has much that is quite valuable. Certainly his rejection of American hegemonic pretensions is right on, and his emphasis on soft power, economic strength and strategic flexibility is extraordinarily important. His point that even superpower control over independent-minded regional blocs will be flimsy at best should be given serious attention.

That said, the tripolar world he describes strikes me as a bit of a stretch. As Matt Dupuis at Foreign Policy Watch points out, he barely even mentions India, even though it may well emerge as a political and economic center of gravity comparable to that of China, and I don't recall seeing the word "Japan" anywhere in the article. Also, while his assertion that Russia's independent influence will decline precipitously due to its collapsing population rings true to my ears, his tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the country as "the Sino-Finnish border" seems a bit premature. I actually think his analysis of the E.U. as a coherently-operating political entity is right on, because future means of operationalizing power - through economic prowess operating in an open system rather than mercentalist domination enforced at the barrel of a gun - won't require completely centralized political structures in order to work. Still, the relative gradations of power that will be wielded by numerous international actors in the coming century make the notion of a "big three" group of superpowers seem like a pretty artificial distinction.

I see the world of the twenty first century as being genuinely multipolar, with the U.S. playing (for a time) a role similar to that of nineteenth century Great Britain: as the most powerful state in a group of other quite powerful states. Europe, Japan, China, Russia, India, perhaps Brazil, and eventually others all deserve a seat at the table, and policymakers shouldn't exclude them because of preconceptions of who counts as a "true" superpower. Still, Khanna's vision is important (I can't wait for the book), and deserves serious scrutiny and debate. He successfully melds cultural, economic, military and political factors into a coherent view of the coming geopolitical structure, and though I think his views could be tweaked, they are doubtless very important.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Weinberger on Free Trade

Amen to Seth Weinberger over at Security Dilemmas. He puts up an excellent response to those who defend free trade while rejecting any notion that we must compensate those who lose from it. Even if we have no moral responsibility to compensate those who lose their jobs and livelihoods due to the (generally positive) effects of globalization - I believe that we do, but let's grant the point for the sake of argument - it is politically necessary to do so. Otherwise, the realities of living in a democracy will make trade unsustainable, to nobody's benefit. This is a perfect example of why economists need to study a bit of political science, and vice versa. Otherwise they simply talk past each other.

More News from Pakistan

So, it looks as though even the flimsy rationale that the Administration has been giving for supporting Pakistan's military government - that they are cooperating with us against Islamist militants, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban - doesn't really hold up. Lovely. Remind me again what we gained by putting ourselves on the wrong side of Pakistan's democracy movement?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gazprom and Serbia

Check out this post by Douglas Muir at A Fistful of Euros. I know next to nothing substantive about Eastern European/Balkan politics. I do know enough to say that Russia's dealings in the Balkans, Kosovo's drive to independence, the West's desire to expand NATO, and the ever-complex world of Russian energy resources deserve more public attention and public debate than they have been getting. Enjoy.

Stare in Pace Romano Prodi

And the ever-dysfunctional, ineffectual government of Romano Prodi has now fallen. Will something better replace it? Beppe Grillo and I doubt it.

Realism, the Commentariat, and Variety in Political Thought

Eugene Gholz at Across the Aisle has posted a worthwhile critique of an excellent article at by Stephen Walt, in which Walt bemoans the lack of realists in the popular foreign policy commentariat. Starting with the recent hiring of William Kristol at the Times, Walt laments that, in the popular press, there is little analytical variation regarding the United States' appropriate global role. He sees columnists and others basically split between liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, both of whom support the notion of the United States as a transformative global leader, ready to project (and at times enforce) its will and values upon the Globe. Walt (and Gholz) argue that the differences between these groups are peripheral: they advocate different policies because they disagree on priorities and means, not because their worldviews are fundamentally at odds. Walt argues that realists need to have a greater voice in public discourse, and that if the Times really wants to hire someone with a fresh voice, it should look to proponents of the realist school.

I'm not a realist (frankly I'm not really sure that I'd call myself an anything at this point), but I'm basically in agreement with Walt. I take issue with Gholz's assertion that there aren't any good candidates because most realists exist in academia. Where else should good public intellectuals come from? Paul Krugman's an academic. Teaches at Princeton. He doesn't seem to have a problem banging out a couple of columns every week. More to the point, though, I agree that public discourse - again, in the popular press, not just in Greek-letter academia - would benefit from the realist perspective. While, during my time as an undergraduate, realism was often presented as the most violent, bellicose way of looking at international relations due to its emphasis on balance-of-power politics, I have come to appreciate the humility with which realists approach the international system. The kind of transformational, almost messianic fervor with which neoconservatives often approach foreign policy questions could stand to be tempered a bit.

I don't agree with everything Walt and his ideological colleagues say. In particular, I tend to think that spreading Democracy (intelligently) is a major strategic interest of the United States, not a dangerous pie-in-the-sky diversion. I also think Walt overemphasizes the similarities between the neoconservative and liberal internationalist worldviews. Still, a perspective like his would be interesting and beneficial to get on a more regular basis. Maybe he can submit his resume to the Salzburgers when Kristol's tenure is up next year.

The Planning of "Ethnic" Violence

Today's BBC has a worthwhile article pointing out Human Rights Watch allegations that much of the "ethnic" (I'll explain the quotes in a second) violence ravaging Kenya is being planned and directed by political elites there. Again, worth reading, but hardly surprising to anyone who has looked at historical patterns of communal violence.

The nature of media coverage of such strife is a persistent complaint of people who study ethnic conflict and ethno-nationalist politics. By framing violence as "ethnic," without adding much context to the term, reporters unwittingly frame it as a result of ancient, hardened, immutable social divisions that spontaneously flare up from time to time (I - along with many others, prefer the term "communal," because it leaves open the possibility for boundaries to change). Furthermore, by using the word "riot" to describe the actual incidents, reporters conjure up images of pent-up anger, randomly exploding into wanton destruction (in the context of Africa, it also unwittingly reinforces racist stereotypes about tribal conflict). Recent history - from the Kristallnacht to the Rwandan Genocide to the 2002 Hindu-Muslim clashes in Gujarat - has shown that such violence is nearly always planned and directed by communal elites. "Pogrom" might be a more appropriate term.

The extent to which elites are responsible for such action (and, conversely, the extent to which the people "on the street" who actually engage in much of the destruction and killing can be viewed as sheep who follow their leaders blindly) remains a matter of debate. Personally, I'm not willing to pin all the blame on those who stoke the conflict. The dynamics by which communal identity is constructed and directed are too complex for such simplistic explanations. Still, it is good to see that some media outlets finally point out the calculated nature of communal violence.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Strategic Inanity

Ever the font of useful information and analysis, BBC News has an excellent summary of many of the energy issues facing the emerging economies of China and India currently up on its website. As I was reading through, most of it seemed informative, if pretty standard for anyone who has been following the issue of global energy supplies over the last few years. Standard, that is, until I came upon the following quote:

China is eager to exploit clean coal technology, but Western companies are not that keen to part with it for hard-nosed commercial reasons.

"What if China got all this clean coal technology and their economy would develop even faster? What would happen to the big economies like the USA and India?" says the BBC's China editor Shirong Chen.

Really? Seriously? We're really worried about giving the Chinese access to clean coal technology because we want to slow down their economic growth? As though China continuing to belch CO2 and sulphur into the atmosphere isn't going to adversely affect our economic growth? As though un-checked global warming isn't going to create security challenges that make the conflict in the Taiwan Strait look like a game of footsie? Can the American business community and the American foreign policy community really be this shortsighted?

Okay, deep breath. This is the BBC's China editor, not the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Commerce or State. Shirong Chen isn't the official mouthpiece of U.S. energy policy. Still, this comment just illustrates the perversity of "realist," zero-sum strategic thinking when it is divorced from all context and perspective.

Yes, it's true, helping China develop clean energy technologies will have the side effect of assisting the economic development of a strategic competitor. If we don't provide such help, though, and China supplants the United States as the world's exhaust pipe, the global instability created by widespread drought, crop failure, famine, natural disasters and all the rest of the near-Biblical consequences of global warming that climatologists have identified will dwarf any threat that China poses to U.S. economic and strategic interests. It bears mentioning, for example, that the Muslim world with whom the U.S. is having such difficulty rests almost entirely within the equatorial regions that will be hardest hit by the crisis.

Rather than be nervous about helping a rival, the United States ought to view the cooperative devleopment of renewable and clean energy as a potential boon to stability in Asia. The United States, Japan, China and India will consume the vast majority of the world's energy in the coming decades. They have a strategic interest in applying their collective intellectual capital (which is formidable) towards a solution to the problem, rather than fighting over the table scraps of the global hydrocarbon economy while vainly trying to insulate themselves from the larger consequences.

This kind of foolishness needs to stop.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Securing Private Security

This charming recent piece in the New York Times provides yet another reminder - as if we needed one - that modern societies need to seriously re-think the roles played by private military contractors like Blackwater. It would appear that, in a 2005 incident, Blackwater forces attempted to use riot gas to clear traffic from an intersection in Iraq, in blatant and serious violation of U.S. military policy and (quite likely) international chemical weapons treaties. In addition to causing havoc and injury among local Iraqis who were doing nothing more provocative than commuting, the release of CS gas in this instance functionally disabled a group of U.S. soldiers manning a nearby checkpoint.

Stepping back from this one specific breach of sane conduct, this incident highlights, it would seem, much of what is wrong with the way private military contractors are currently used. The soldiers at the checkpoint, for example, apparently had no means of communicating with either the Blackwater helicopter that was dropping CS canisters, nor the convoy for which they were trying to clear the way. Everything I have read would indicate that, for all intents and purposes, private contractors operate as functionally separate from the Coalition forces in Iraq. It should come as no surprise, then, that the two groups often step on each other's toes. Because they are, evidently, only loosely integrated into the Coalition military command structure, they often take actions that are strategically counterproductive to the larger war effort. Looking again at the CS gas incident, the use of chemical weapons, and even smoke grenades, makes life harder for the Coalition by feeding enemy propaganda that the Americans are engaging in chemical attacks on Iraqi civilians. U.S. soldiers may make distinction between themselves and their private counterparts. The Iraqi populace, for the most part, does not.

As anyone who has not been living under a rock for the last year realizes, this is hardly the first time that the relative impunity with which private contractors in Iraq operate has caused problems (indeed, by the standards of some recent events, the CS incident is pretty benign). Some have proposed significantly scaling back the use of private contractors in war zones, saying that the regular military should be able to do more of the job. I am not entirely convinced that, in the long term, that is the right solution.

Some of the very structural issues that can make the use of private contractors problematic also make them potentially valuable assets for global peace and stability. As the World, or at least the Western World, begins to move into a post-modern age in which great power wars are of decreasing concern and the ability to raise and employ mass citizen armies is politically constrained, the ability of governments to augment their forces with private contractors provides an important buttress to the capacity of the state. It allows leaders to avoid the political costs of employing vast numbers of regular troops, most of whom have little choice in the matter, while still accomplishing policy goals.

Many people would say that is precisely the problem. Leader's shouldn't be able to mask the true cost of military conflict by outsourcing the fighting, but rather should have to prove to their populations that a particular military operation is worth sacrificing for. I am sympathetic to this argument. Certainly, the current administration's extensive employment of private contractors has allowed it to (badly) conduct a war that would have otherwise been politically unviable. That said, the smart use of private contractors could solve many of the problems traditionally associated with drumming up support for humanitarian missions and collective security. The Clinton Administration's reluctance to go into Rwanda in 1994 stemmed directly from the experience in Somalia. Casualties sustained by the military in Mogadishu had made humanitarian intervention unpalatable to the American public, and so the genocide was allowed to spin out of control, eventually engulfing all of central Africa in the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The hemming and hawing that accompanied other (marginally) more successful security missions in places like Bosnia and Kosovo stemmed in large part from the same issues, as has the anemic global response to the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

The reputation of many private military contractors - the detractors of whom make no bones about calling them "mercenaries" - has now been seriously damaged due to their association with various atrocities in the U.S.-occupied Middle East. In order to sufficiently rehabilitate them in the eyes of the world, and in order to ensure that they behave as professional soldiers, accountable for their actions, a global legal regime must be established to govern their use. I would suggest, for example, that they be subject to the military justice system of whatever legitimate military authority operates in their theater of war (in the case of the United States, this means the Uniform Code of Military Justice). Furthermore, steps need to be taken to be sure that there is a proper integration of private contractors into the military command and control structure, at least to the extent that it is compatible with their specific contracts. This would ensure that they do not operate as a force unto themselves and undermine the mission that they are hired to support. The UN, in particular, needs to formulate the institutional capacity to effectively, and safely, use private contractors in its security missions.

The world is changing, and I believe that the privatization of at least some state security functions in the twenty-first century is not ipso facto a bad thing. We must, though, adapt our military and legal institutions to face this new reality.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Oy! Another One

According to the New York Times, another strongman may emerge in Pakistan over the next few months. Evidently the U.S., grasping at straws, is beginning to put their hopes for stability in Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has replaced Musharraf as Army chief. Look, I know we don't have any good options in Pakistan, and certainly we'll have to deal with whoever heads up the Pakistani security forces - the Army simply has too much power there not to - but could we please begin to deal with Pakistan as a country, rather than simply looking to cultivate relationships with the boss-of-the-moment?