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August 29, 2008

Engaging the Middle East

Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal suggests that the U.S. should not abandon the Middle East:

The problem with the Bush administration wasn’t that it was overly focused on the Middle East; it was that it was overly focused on the Middle East, and managed, at the same time, and somewhat amazingly, to make it even more screwed up than it already was. The latter part – rather than the former – is where we went wrong. The correct corrective, therefore, is not to decrease “meddling” but rather to address the region’s myriad problems not by engaging less, but by engaging better.

At what point will the failure to finesse properly the politics of hundreds of million of people of varying cultures, sectarian devotions and tribal loyalties half a world away be credited to the impossibility of the task and not the inadequacy of the tools?

To the extent that the Middle East is "screwed up," it's because the region has been the scene of so much "engagement" by great powers throughout its history. Why not try something novel for a change?

Foreign Policy and the Campaigns

What is "tough, direct diplomacy?"

That phrase from Senator Obama's acceptance speech tonight seems to do a fairly good job of capturing how he portrays his foreign policy. He critiques the "empty rhetoric" of President Bush and Senator McCain. The implication is that he would both provide more substance to the rhetoric and tone down the rhetoric.

Which is a little difficult to reconcile with pledges to "build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation, poverty and genocide, climate change and disease."

So is Senator Obama a hopelessly cosmopolitan idealist? Or a hard-nosed pragmatist?

Probably both. Probably neither, too.

Foreign policy has a way of subverting partisan stereotypes. Conservatives are all for an overly limited, interest-based foreign policy that neglects other nations, until they're deeply committed to ending tyranny the world over, or at least remaking a country or two through massive commitments of troops. Liberals are supposedly enthrall to open-ended commitments, airy values, and a globalism that fails to put American interests first. Until, of course, they are the ones pointing out the limits to American power and the need to take seriously the security concerns of Iran and North Korea and make deals with them.

These are all stereotypes, of course. But they're interesting because somehow two diametrically opposed stereotypes are both simultaneously widespread about both parties.

That's a result, more than anything, of the unique status of the presidency. The office has pretty much unchecked authority in international affairs - far more independence than most other democracies' executives. And as a result, the party tends to take on the general bent and frame of mind of the guy in charge, and party ideology will usually bend to accommodate. The process is probably helped along by the fact that, most of the time, economic and social issues are more important to most voters, so the parties have tended to organize themselves around both issues. Realists and internationalists and neoconservatives and isolationists all can find niches in both parties.

It also makes figuring out a candidate's likely foreign policy pretty tough. Few of the foreign policies any president offered while on the trail have lasted much beyond the first year. But it makes it even more important to evaluate a candidate's general attitude and approach.

Senator Obama's speech did not include anything that indicated his approach to me - it was mostly just politics, which is appropriate for a convention speech anyway. I doubt Senator McCain will say much substantive or interesting in his convention speech either. But how the two respond to each other, and to events, in the next several weeks could shed light. What does Obama mean by "tough diplomacy?" How would McCain actually give shape to his get-tough instincts? Both have given some indications of this in the last few months and years. But the details that surface in the campaign will be much more instructive than the broad stereotypes that have already attached to both.

August 27, 2008

The 'Kosovo Precedent'

Writing in the National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter suggests that America's recognition of Kosovo's independence set the table for Putin:

When the United States and its key European allies ignored Russia’s protests and recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blithely insisted that the Kosovo situation was unique and set no international precedent whatsoever. Prominent members of the foreign policy communities in Europe and the United States echoed her argument.

Moscow’s August 26 decision to recognize the independence of Georgia’s separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia demonstrates the arrogant folly of that position. In just a matter of months, the Kosovo precedent has backfired on the United States and generated dangerous tensions between Russia and the West.

Christopher Hitchens demurs in Slate, plausibly arguing that the Russians are merely using Kosovo as a handy excuse. I think Hitchens gets the better of this specific argument, but I think he's far too glib in over-looking the precedents the U.S. established in Kosovo.

Out-going editor of the National Interest, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, reviews some of the reasons proffered by Russia for their action in Georgia:

1) Russia had a right under "responsibility to protect" (R2P) to intervene to defend a civilian population and could intervene without the permission of the Georgian government or of any international body

2) Russia had a right as the "guarantor" of regional security

3) Russia had a right under prior agreements that created the cease-fire and peacekeeping missions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Gvosdev goes on to note that these rationales originated echo those made by the U.S., "at a time when the power of the U.S. individually and of the West collectively seemed to dwarf possible challengers and when the only real initiator of military action might be the United States. Will, in the future, proponents of R2P, for instance, want to see China use this as a rationale for action?"

This cuts to the question of whether international norms really do restrain nations. You heard a lot of concern several years ago that America's use of preventative war in Iraq would open the door to any number of countries taking similar actions under the rubric of self defense. That didn't happen. Not to say that preventative war was a good idea on the merits, but it does suggest that a lot more goes into the calculations of war and peace than the handy availability of fig leaves.

However, to the extent that international norms do exercise some kind of restraint on a nation's behavior, it seems to me that you would want to set the baselines as modestly and objectively as possible. That would mean abandoning subjective notions like R2P and preventative war and resetting to a position that rejects the acquisition of territory by military force.

Gvosdev goes on to wonder if "in the next several years we may see a return to enhancing the position that the international system should be defined by sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and the importance of the imprimatur of the Security Council for any military action other than self-defense, or perhaps the international system will become more anarchic. But I do think that some of the notions about an "international community" which were fashionable earlier may be coming in for some serious re-examination."

Put me down in the "anarchic" camp.

Is there any evidence, in either the McCain or Obama campaigns, that they pine for a return to an "international system... defined by sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and the importance of the imprimatur of the Security Council for any military action."

If anything, they seem to go out of their way to repudiate that system. Senator McCain has proposed a "League of Democracies" precisely because he wants to circumvent the veto-wielding autocracies on the Security Council. In the Obama camp, you have a number of people - including his top foreign policy adviser Susan Rice and now his VP pick, Joe Biden - who have urged the use of military force against the regime in Sudan for their internal crimes.

Should the US Learn from China?

Thomas Friedman hits the US hard today for missing out on the last seven years, while China has passed us by on so many levels:

As I sat in my seat at the Bird’s Nest, watching thousands of Chinese dancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magic at the closing ceremony, I couldn’t help but reflect on how China and America have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing for the Olympics; we’ve been preparing for Al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.

The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.

Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?

Now, faulting the US for its shortcomings, and finding China so impressive, is easy, because on the surface the comparison really does seem stark. China's come a long way quickly, whereas we've obviously lost some relative distance.

But dig a little deeper, and the comparison rapidly becomes less useful.

Start with that mag-lev train Friedman points to. I've ridden it; it's worse than useless. The thing doesn't actually go all the way into Shanghai, you have to get off and transfer to another, non-high-speed rail to get anywhere you actually want to go. Plans to extend the train into the city proper were halted by angry residents this year. It was a vanity project, meant to inspire columns exactly like this one by people who don't take the time to actually find out what's going on. The mag-lev folks tried to build demonstration trains in the US on several occasions and failed, because it was too expensive and delivered poor results.

Or take the Olympics. Big impressive show, yes. But did it actually make anyone's life better? Sure, you could point to the massive infrastructure investments in Beijing. But, why, exactly, couldn't the Chinese government have invested those funds without the Olympics as a pretext? And why should China be spending $47 billion in one of its wealthiest and most developed cities, when more than 100 cities of 1 million people or more have far inferior infrastructure? Because that spending wouldn't have shown up on TV, and wouldn't have shown up in Friedman's column.

Security spending? Definitely the wrong example to pick as a point of comparison. China's security spending for the Olympics was so over-the-top that they proudly (eighth picture down) unveiled the world's first Segway-mounted assault rifle brigade in preparation. Their overly zealous security measures before the Games probably cost billions more in lost business.

Meanwhile, what has the US been up to in the last seven years? Well, iPods aren't that bad, nor is Facebook, nor this blogging platform that I'm using right now. Google has done some pretty neat things that perhaps you've heard of. Unlocking the human genome might prove to be somewhat useful. Throw in the thousands upon thousands of incremental improvements in science, technology, health, and living-standards generally, and well, I would not choose to live in the world of 2001 over today's world at all.

Friedman makes two errors, both common. One is harmless - confusing catch-up with progress. He looks at China, and rightly sees the enormous strides the place is making. As I'll never tire of marveling at, the country is growing faster, for longer, and on a bigger scale than any human society ever has. But it's not blazing new territory, yet. Most of China still looks like something out of the early 19th century, and most of the people still live in desperate poverty. Of course the place can change quickly if it gets a few things right. There's a lot of room for improvement. Developing countries can do that; established, developed ones can't, because we don't have easy models to follow. If the US could grow that quickly, we'd all have jet-packs next year, and hover cars the year after that.

I don't mean to take anything away from the phenomenal accomplishments of the Chinese people - just to point out that their situation is different from that of the US or other big, older economies.

Friedman makes a more pernicious error in mistaking appearance for reality, however. China can mount enormous vanity projects like the Olympics, or Shanghai's Pudong skyline, because the government is able to do what it wants in pretty wide parameters without checks and balances. So, it can funnel a great deal of wealth and attention to giant projects that look good if it wants. But it's also free to ignore the costs of displacing thousands of people for the Olympics, or a million and a half people for the Three Gorges Dam. Environmental assessments that would have prevented other governments from building Shanghai's skyline on a swamp didn't function in China, so now that part of town is sinking at a terrifying rate.

The centers of China's showpiece cities are futuristic and dazzling, but at the cost of depleting most of China's water, fouling most of its air, and leaving a creaking infrastructure in the interior that is currently struggling with massive power shortages and transport bottlenecks.

China's young, and these are growing pains to be expected; they're not unlike conditions in Britain in the 18th century, or the US in the 19th. But I wouldn't want to emulate those times here today.

Yes, flying in the US is a miserable experience (which seems to be the real animating complete behind Friedman's piece). And yes, flying is actually almost enjoyable in China. And the buildings there have neat lights and you can get better Internet reception, as long as you don't care about the censorship. But it's important not to forget how much of what shows on the surface in China comes at real, hidden costs to its people. And how much of our bickering, seemingly unproductive stasis really represents a flexible system that lets private individuals make the progress and at least holds the government back from doing too much just for show.

August 26, 2008

The Reliable Kim Jong Il

With apologies to Ben Franklin, nothing is certain in this world except death, taxes and North Korea's president reneging on a negotiated promise.

In related North Korea news, apparently their scientists do more than develop clandestine nuclear weapons, they've also engineered a super-noodle that "delays the feelings of hunger." [Via Patrick Fitzgerald]

Welcome news for a communist nation repeatedly wracked with massive, man-made famines.

Foreign Policy magazine has an article on the North's leader by his former tutor, Kim Hyun Sik.

Not Your Average Dictatorship

Mugabe's Zimbabwe is one of the world's worst regimes, by common assent - inflation in the millions, widespread oppression and violence by the state, and of course Mugabe's recent theft of the presidential election make that undeniable. What to make of the fact, then, that opposition has been allowed to take control of the legislature?

The victory of the opposition candidate, Lovemore Moyo, by a vote of 110 to 98, underscored the opposition’s newfound control of Parliament. Despite widespread attacks on its members, the opposition holds a majority in Parliament for the first time since Zimbabwe achieved independence from white minority rule in 1980 — and now seems ready to wield that power.

This is great news, despite Mugabe's continuing refusal to yield power to Morgan Tsvangirai, who actually won Zimbabwe's most recent free election.

But it raises some odd questions. Why didn't the security services or army stop the parliament from sitting? Why did Mugabe call the parliament in the first place? Members of parliament used a secret ballot to elect their candidate - why wasn't the ruling party able to force them to vote openly, and open themselves to intimidation?

It's actually fairly easy for a strong police or military to run roughshod over a parliament if it chooses. The article linked above hints at some of the options - arrests of key leaders, threats of violence or intimidation, bribery, or just refusing to let the legislature sit. The fact that Zimbabwe's security services were either unwilling or unable to frustrate the people's will in the legislature to the same extent that they were with the presidency is interesting.

It could suggest either of two things. It's possible the ruling party just doesn't care, and will just ignore the parliament's decisions and go on running roughshod over the country. Or it could mean that, despite the months of violence and economic collapse, there remain strong civil institutions in the country that the thugs in charge are afraid to openly destroy. Given the obvious (and somewhat ham-handed) attempts by the ruling party to steal legislative seats, it looks as if they do care, and the second explanation might be more likely.

If that's true, then there is at least hope for the country after Mugabe finally leaves the stage. Unlike a lot of other brutal dictatorships like, say, North Korea or Belarus, Zimbabwe seems to have amazingly resilient institutions in place that could credibly step in and start to direct the rebuilding of the country, once the men with guns are somehow forced or convinced to stand down. And the legislature may be a voice that Mugabe and his lieutenants feel unable to completely ignore. If nothing else, Tsvangirai can now be sure of more leverage in his negotiations with Mugabe than he would have been confident of even two days ago.

Glad That's Over

Well, the hoo-rah of the Olympics has finally passed, and we can all now be spared overly earnest references to the "sacred" Olympic spirit and flame and world unity, the Chinese government's sometimes desperate and over-eager attempts to make sure everything went right, and tired cliche's about China's "coming out party." Sports can go back to being about sports, and not some strange stand-in for international politics.

Even better, it looks like the London Games might actually turn out to be fun . At least, they will be if London Mayor Boris Johnson is in charge. His joy that Ping-Pong, "invented on the dining tables of England," where it was first called "whiff whaff," is coming home understandably got lots of attention. I was more impressed by his pledge to try to bring back the pankration,

"whose chief exponent was Milo of Croton, whose signature performance involved carrying an ox the length of the stadium, killing it with his bare hands and then eating it on the same day."

Now that sounds like a good time.

As Anne Applebaum pointed out in the Washington Post today, that approach - laughter, not overpowered awe - is a much better take on the Olympic spirit.

A New Planetary Policy?

We here at RCW will leave most of the US commentary to our friends over at the mothership, but one of Senator Joe Biden's remarks over the weekend just cries out for expert world commentary.

In listing the many fine things that Senator Obama would change as president, Biden veered into a geospatial issue I have not seen addressed yet by either campaign:

He will have such an incredible opportunity, incredible opportunity, not only to change the direction of America, but literally, literally to change the direction of the world.

I can assure you, dear readers, that even if Barack Obama is the most successful president in the history of the Republic, he will not alter the direction of the planet's stately progression around the sun, nor it's frenetic twirling once roughly every 24 hours. Unless, of course, he has managed to hide a childhood spent on Krypton with clever stories of growing up in Kansas, Hawaii, and Indonesia.

August 22, 2008

The Geo-politics of Food

We’re used to hearing a lot about the geo-politics of oil, but thanks to soaring prices, the geo-politics of food is emerging as an important global issue:

The race by food-importing countries to secure farmland overseas to improve their food security risks creating a “neo-colonial” system, the United Nations’ top agriculture official has cautioned. The warning by Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, comes as countries from Saudi Arabia to China plan to lease vast tracts of land in Africa and Asia to grow crops and ship them back to their markets…. Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said importing nations realised that dependence on the international market made them vulnerable – not only to surging prices but, crucially, also to an interruption in supplies. “They want to secure the supply lines of food,” he said.

The article goes on to note that western officials "worry about countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe gaining more geopolitical leverage following investment in their agriculture."

This strikes me as an example of both the up and downsides of globalization converging in one place. On the one hand, globalization was supposed to make what happens inside a state more relevant to the outside world. In an increasingly interconnected world, a failed state is no longer a global backwater but the potential breeding ground for international dangers like terrorism or pandemic disease (I tend to think that case is over-stated, for the reasons elucidated here by the folks at CATO, but that's for another day).

On the other hand, greater inter-dependence was suppose to strengthen the incentive for states to cooperate, lest they endanger their economic interests.

If Sudan becomes a "Saudi Arabia of food" then many nations that may feel compelled to take stronger action in Darfur will feel correspondingly stronger pressure not to act, lest the supply of food be interrupted.

August 21, 2008

We're All Georgians?

Rasmussen Reports finds in a poll that 50% of Americans believe the United Nations should send peacekeepers into Georgia, but only 22% say U.S. troops should be involved.

They also found that:

Republicans are definitely more bullish in their attitudes toward Russia and the Georgia situation than Democrats. Fifty-five percent (55%) of GOP voters, for example, believe the United States should take diplomatic action against Russia versus 35% of Democrats. Nearly a third of Republicans (31%) believe U.S. troops should be part of a multi-national effort to bring peace to the region, although 46% disagree. By comparison, only 17% of Democrats say U.S. troops should be involved, while 65% are opposed.

What they didn’t ask, or at least, didn’t report on, was whether Americans would support sending military aid to Georgia to help them expel Russian forces from their territory – a suggestion that’s been floated by several American commentators.

What was more interesting (to me at least) was this finding: “In the new survey, 35% say they are worried that Russia will launch a nuclear attack on Poland, including eight percent who are Very Worried.”

Reassessing Bush’s Foreign Policy Legacy

The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat points to several essays from prominent foreign policy thinkers -David Frum, Robert Kagan, Fareed Zakaria and Edward Luttwak - that go to bat for the soon to be former Commander in Chief. History, they say, will redeem Bush’s foreign policy. (Douthat makes his own contribution to the debate here.)

With the exception of Zakaria, this historical absolution is being rendered by people who are generally invested in Bush’s foreign policy. Before we can grant President Bush “Truman-esque” status, we’ll need to see some serious defections among the ranks of Bush’s liberal and realist critics (not to mention Democratic politicians).  

That said, I do think that President Bush is likely be vindicated by history – at least on a popular basis – for the reasons Douthat elucidates here.

The big question mark, to my mind, is how liberals react to Bush in the long run. Democratic Presidents like Truman and Kennedy have seen their legacy enhanced in part because Republicans eventually came around to their view of the role that values must play in foreign policy. Republicans used to be the ruthless calculators of national interest, while Democrats were the universalist moralizers. President Reagan’s repudiation of Nixon-era détente changed that, and Republicans have never really looked back (not even during the brief, under-rated, tenure of George H.W. Bush).

On the other hand, President Bush’s tenure may spark a newfound liberal love affair with Kissinger-style realism. But I’m not holding my breath.

Mao's Great Hope for China Passes

Hua Guofeng, Mao's anointed successor, died yesterday at the age of 87.

He was either a historical footnote or a pivotal figure, depending on your view of things.

Soon after he took power in 1976, Deng Xiaoping re-emerged on the political scene, sidelining Hua by 1978 and launching China on the reform and opening path that has taken it to where it is today. In the intervening years, Hua just advocated following whatever policies Mao had set down before his death (literally). He may have been instrumental in arresting the Gang of Four (the radical clique that had seized control of the country in Mao's declining years) and ending the Cultural Revolution. Or he may have simply been too ineffectual to prevent this from happening; the exact events are still unclear.

It will be interesting to see how the current Chinese government decides to commemorate Hua's passing. He was, after all, the leader of the country for a couple tumultuous years. He was never purged or banished; even after being consigned to irrelevance, he was allowed to remain a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, the collection of 200-odd leaders that that chooses the top leadership and sets national policies for the Party, until 2002.

Still, his greatest contribution to China, and the world, was probably being so bad at his job. If he had held onto his position and prevented Deng's emergence, China might have stayed on a ruinous socialist path for decades more. His fall from power essentially marked the beginning of modern-day China.

The official reaction to his death will probably be a good example of the strange historical knots the Chinese leadership has to occasionally tie itself in. Mao's policies are recognized as having been pretty disastrous post-Civil War, especially in the Chairman's last decade. But he's still smirking over Tiananmen Square, peeking out from every wallet, and standing magisterially over many a public square in China. The CCP's image of itself and its legitimacy is so tied up with its historic role that it can't jettison the iconography, or much else from its past. Hence the odd willingness to keep Hua around for all those decades on the Central Committee, a strange relic from a past that most everyone was anxious to move past and forget.

The official China Daily has spoken relatively well of him:

Hua was "an outstanding CPC member, a long-tested and loyal Communist fighter and a proletarian revolutionary who once held important leading posts in the CPC and the government", the statement said.

No mention of the tumult surrounding his brief rule, or the decisive nature of his fall from grace. I wouldn't expect one to surface in the official press, but the Chinese Internet is a surprisingly vibrant place where Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen aren't involved, and Hua's passing might spark some interesting reflection or commentary. The deaths of former leaders are occasionally used as opportunities to take shots at the current leadership in China; it will be interesting to see if any officials or scholars find a way to use Hua's passing to comment on current policies or leaders.

August 20, 2008

Must Aid Flow from the Barrel of a Gun?

Samantha Power - erstwhile foreign policy adviser to Senator Obama currently at Harvard - has forgotten more about conflict and humanitarian relief than I will ever know. All the more disappointing, then that her op-ed on how to "protect the protectors" doesn't even mention what seems to me to be a crucial unanswered question: what relationship should aid providers have to military forces?

Power identifies a growing concern among the international aid community: UN and other aid providers are increasingly becoming the targets of insurgents and terrorists in the countries where they work. Once upon a time, a blue flag or red cross or crescent could provide real protection, marking the bearers as neutral noncombatants. But al Qaeda and a host of other violent non-state actors no longer see things that way. Last week, aid workers with the International Rescue Committee were killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban; yesterday, an employee of the World Food Program was killed in Somalia. Most famously, in an attack Power describes in detail here, the UN's mission in Iraq itself was struck by suicide bombers in 2003 and top UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty others were killed.

Power's suggestions amount to recognizing that there are times and places when aid workers simply cannot operate. She argues that "the United Nations and aid organizations must have more tangible, urgent reasons for placing unarmed civilians in the most dangerous parts of the world," that t"he 192 countries that are part of the United Nations must spend substantially more money on security for the organization's missions," and that "international organizations and aid groups get the cooperation of their host countries." Good ideas, all; I doubt many would argue.

But what do you do when there are tangible, urgent reasons for placing civilians in harm's way, but the protection that aid organizations can provide is not enough to protect them? Or when the host country isn't willing or able to provide sufficient protection, but dire humanitarian need exists? After all, in Darfur, the host government is part of the problem, while in Somalia, the government barely functions.

A debate has been raging for some time about whether aid workers can or should cooperate with peacekeepers or other military forces to get help where it needs to go; when I was in graduate school it was a particular point of discussion between students in the development and security tracks. There aren't easy answers: by cooperating with military forces, aid workers lose their neutrality and the protection it should bring, and may become unwitting parties to the conflict. By shunning them, they either leave themselves open to violence and intimidation or leave vast populations abandoned.

I don't know how to square this circle. But I'm not sure how useful any attempts to protect the protectors can be without grappling with the issue.

Ok, Maybe There Is Hope for the Olympic Spirit

BEIJING, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Nino Salukvadze of Georgia embraced her Russian rival and made a moving appeal for peace after winning an Olympic bronze medal in shooting on Sunday.

Salukvadze, who competed only after the 35-member Georgian team were told by their president to remain at the Games in the “best interest of the country” despite Russian military attacks on its territory, finished behind Russia’s Natalia Paderina.

“If the world were to draw any lessons from what I did there would never be any wars,” Salukvadze said.

The two rival shooters—who were once team mates in the Soviet Union—hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks after the dramatic final in the Beijing shooting range hall, where China’s Guo Wenjung came from behind to win the gold medal.

From Reuters, via Yahoo!

August 19, 2008

The Tragedy of Unintended Consequences

The Centre for Global Development, a well-respected DC think tank, has a sobering new report out arguing that "AIDS donors may actually have weakened the health systems necessary for an effective AIDS response." $20 billion in spending may have actually been counterproductive:

"The big HIV donors are creating AIDS-specific systems that compete for health workers and administrative talent, share the same inadequate infrastructure, and further complicate already complex flows of information," said Nandini Oomman, lead author of the report.

(That summary is from Reuters, via the UN. The full report does not appear to be online yet. When it is we'll get it on the front page here.)

Laurie Garret, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, made a similar point in Foreign Affairs in January 2007:

Today, thanks to a recent extraordinary and unprecedented rise in public and private giving, more money is being directed toward pressing heath challenges than ever before. But because the efforts this money is paying for are largely uncoordinated and directed mostly at specific high-profile diseases -- rather than at public health in general -- there is a grave danger that the current age of generosity could not only fall short of expectations but actually make things worse on the ground.

The reasons for this are almost entirely political: individual diseases are easily identified, targeted, and measured; disease-specific interventions are easy to sell to domestic audiences; affinity groups of those in the rich world with the same disease provide powerful lobbying help; perhaps most importantly, system-wide health interventions are really, really hard to pull off, and may be impossible to manage without many times more money.

It's not time to abandon disease-specific interventions, even if these arguments are correct (and it's by no means certain that they are; I'm sure responses and critiques by people who know more than me will surface soon): at the very least, interventions to address HIV-AIDS or malaria or tuberculosis benefit the millions of poor who have or are at risk from these diseases, and that's no small thing.

But findings like this are a healthy reminder that, even when taken with the best of intentions, backed by the best science available, and run by the smartest, most committed individuals possible, any foreign policy is going to cause unintended side effects. The best policymakers can do is try to anticipate them, and when unanticipated ones come along, try to adjust.

With the HIV-AIDS projects, it seems like a few incremental changes - simplified reporting requirements, broader mandates for health care providers, and focusing more on working with and strengthening local health care systems - could probably go a long way. Even if it has created challenges, the commitment by so many countries to fight nasty diseases on a global level is itself an important start towards making genuine improvements in world health. Let's hope reports like this inform efforts to make this commitment more effective.

August 18, 2008

Cameron in Command?

The latest Guardian/ICM poll looks especially bad for Labour:

Voters would overwhelmingly prefer David Cameron as prime minister, even if Labour replaced Gordon Brown with David Miliband, a new Guardian/ICM poll shows.

The prime minister returns to No 10 tomorrow after his summer break to find Labour stuck a long way behind the Tories. The only silver lining for Brown is that Miliband, his foreign secretary and possible leadership rival, would not do any better as a credible challenger to the Conservatives.

When people were asked to choose the best prime minister between Cameron and Brown, or Cameron and Miliband, the Tory leader beat both men by the same 21% margin.

Filling NATO's Void

Matthew Yglesias, blogging at his new Think Progress digs, comments on Georgian aspirations for NATO membership:

Whether or not you support NATO membership for Georgia as some kind of long-term measure, this doesn’t make much sense as a short-term strategy for getting Russian troops to leave. For one thing, it’s just not going to happen (a topic to which we’ll return). For another thing, it’s a bit of a Rube Goldberg device — we persuade the Europeans to extend a NATO security guarantee to Georgia and then, with that guarantee in place, Russia has to choose between leaving and war with the United States and we hope they choose leaving. It would be quicker and simpler, albeit insane, for the United States to just straight-up threaten Russia with war unless they withdraw from Georgia. Then Russia needs to choose between leaving and war with the United States, and our plan to use a threat of war to force them out isn’t held hostage to the vagaries of French and German decision-making.

It seems to me that the opposite outcome is more likely were Georgia (and Ukraine) finally granted NATO membership. It's worth pointing out that the most outspoken critics of Russia's recent behavior - aside from the United States - are the former bloc states that are now protected under the NATO umbrella. However, far from pounding the drums of war, most of these states are instead using their treaty membership to lobby for diplomatic action in the Caucasus. Ukraine, on the other hand, has seen the proverbial writing on the wall in Georgia and is rushing into the waiting arms of America's unilateralist community. The former is showing faith in the entailed protections of NATO, while the latter is scrambling to protect their sovereignty.

This, to me, is the point of a 21st Century NATO. Georgia has been on the path to NATO membership for over two years now. Their democratically elected government has worked to increase defense spending and liberalize their public institutions in order to meet membership criteria. This isn't a casus belli for the U.S., nor is it an impetuous reaction to the Russian incursion. Georgia has played by the rules, gone through the process, and now they're simply hoping for a little advanced capital from the West.

Nowhere in the NATO charter - or even the more recent Membership Action Plan (MAP) - does the 'interoperability' of aspirant states depend on whether or not an occupying power disagrees with the overall process. Yglesias' argument, if I'm correct, seems to go as follows: Don't let Georgia join the organization built to deter the Russians, because it might upset the Russians.

So if Georgia is turned away, then what options remain for NATO? Why does it exist? Moreover, what options remain for Georgia? If Europe's definitive military body can't protect them, where then can Georgia turn?

Think John Bolton.

UPDATE: Just to add to my point here, check out Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's rhetoric in his respective WSJ and WaPo columns on the invasion. Rather than framing the conflict as a regional, niche problem for Georgia to deal with, he inflates it (rightly or wrongly) into a test of Western values. This rhetoric is perfectly consistent with the American hawk community.

I think it's safe to say that his rhetoric would be slightly different were Georgia a NATO member today.

Real-Life Rambos

Robert Kaplan's piece in this month's Atlantic is ostensibly about Burma, but what it says about US power in today's world is much, much more interesting.

The piece presents the views of a missionary and three former US Special Forces who have moved into the NGO sector in Burma and Thailand. These are not your traditional civil society folks though. The usual model for international aid and development groups is to set up a field office or two, disburse some funds, teach some classes, and issue some reports. The institutions usually try to stay out of domestic politics and draw a bright line between themselves and governments and militaries.

Kaplan's interlocutors, on the other hand, seem to be explicitly working to strengthen separatist militias and bring down the Burmese junta. One group, the Free Burma Rangers, operates in tandem with some of the ethnic militias, according to its founder:

We stand with the villagers; we’re not above them. If they don’t run from the government troops, we don’t either. We have a medic, a photo­grapher, and a reporter/intel guy in each team that marks the GPS positions of Burmese government troops, maps the camps, and takes pictures with a telephoto lens, all of which we post on our Web site. We deal with the Pentagon, with human-rights groups …

This group and the others Kaplan mentions are shadowy organizations that funnel funds and humanitarian relief to hard-pressed ethnic groups, assist the militias, attempt to organize disparate tribal groups with little in common, spread information among resistance groups within Burma and from Burma to the outside world, and liaise with US government officials and military planners. Were there to be clandestine US government activity in Burma, the smart money would be on these groups being involved in some way.

Most of the funding for these groups seems to be much less interesting, though: church donations and grants, mostly. One of the people profiled was caught smuggling weed into the US to fund his activities, but the other three seem to rely on fundraising drives and grant proposals just like those more traditional NGOs use.

It's quite a testament to the strength of US civil society that is willing and able to fund all this (not to mention the better well-known groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that are also active there). It's an example of amazing private initiative and the wealth necessary to support it that few other countries' populations are both willing and able to produce. Leveraging this commitment are the Americans in the region themselves - highly competent people, often former military, who know the local languages, have dense networks of local connections, and know how to access the support of constituencies back in the US. As Kaplan points out, the US has long produced lots of these regional operators, largely via missionary movements. The global commitments that the Cold War led the military and intelligence communities to make created a whole new breed of on-the-ground operator.

It's a strange but important example of the ways US leadership in the world functions in a different way from that of many former world powers. It's not quite soft power, but not quite hard power either; and while these groups seem, at times, plugged into the US government, it doesn't look like they take orders from it. These guys bear an eery similarity to Rambo, who, in his most recent film incarnation was hanging out in the Thai jungle until summoned to wage one-man war against the Burma's military rulers. Except the real-life examples don't operate with machetes, grenade launchers, and assault rifles (at least, not as far as I know); they fight their battles by posting evidence of human rights violations online and raising funds from American churches.

Networks of independent operators like this twine through countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They don't quite run their own foreign policy, but neither can they be discounted completely by the US or other countries who are setting policy towards these regions. They could be a help, could be a hindrance, depending on how effective the US and other governments can coordinate with them and how much their policies are in line. (The Burma-focused groups Kaplan profiled seem to be at odds, for instance, with hopes for more engagement and less confrontation from the US expressed by Burmese city-dwellers to the Economist this week.) Regardless, these freelancing groups are just one of the many ways that, despite the much-heralded decline of relative US power, Americans will continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on the rest of the world for a long time to come.

August 15, 2008

Musharraf on the Way Out?

From the Daily Times of Pakistan:

The coalition government has offered indemnity and security to President Pervez Musharraf if he resigns, sources privy to the developments said on Thursday.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif has agreed to change his rigid stance against the president, who is likely to finalise a decision in the next few days. The drop scene is likely in a few days, the sources said.

They said the United States, the United Kingdom and Arab rulers had been pressuring the government for a safe exit for Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup against Nawaz in 1999 and has been a US ally in the international war on terror since September 2001. American and British diplomats reportedly discussed the matter directly with Nawaz Sharif after other parties in the ruling coalition told them Nawaz was not willing to show flexibility.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari – the widower of slain two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto – and Awami National Party chief Asfandyar Wali said they gave more importance to the moral aspects than the legal ones, according to the sources. Wali told Aaj Kal the outcome of impeachment would be no different from those of previous military rulers, but did not elaborate the statement.

You can read the whole report here.

Take That, Conventional Wisdom

While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.

So saith Edward Luttwak in Prospect, a British monthly.

I don't know if Luttwak is right, but he tries here to get outside of the daily back-and-forth and take a longer view of things, and that should be commended. Go read it.

Democracy and Development

Democracy and wealth tend to go together. Very poor countries are rarely democratic, wealthy ones rarely dictatorships. Debate rages over which is cause and which is effect, but in general the two seem to reinforce each other.

Which makes a recent argument published in the IHT by Anand Giridharadas, an Indian journalist, all the more interesting:

India was a country of ideas in its youth. At its moment of independence, 61 years ago on Friday, Jawaharlal Nehru declared that its dreams "are for India, but they are also for the world." India championed decolonization, nonalignment and disarmament around the world; it earned a reputation for haranguing philosophical lectures at the United Nations. In the salons of Delhi and Mumbai, an educated class that had come of age as freedom came to India spent long evenings debating the world and their place in it.

But in those days India was all ideas and no power. Today the situation is reversed. If one mingles with its affluent, reads its newspapers, observes its politics, roams its campuses, one sees in India what affluence has wrought: a turning inward, a slow-burn privatization of concern. This is globalization's great irony: It gives you influence in the world but then, with its gadgets and gizmos, distracts you from using it.

He goes on to lament the many ways that India's middle class has largely given up on politics and government, leaving India's democracy in an increasingly tenuous position.

I don't share Giridharadas's pessimism, but the logic of it is worth considering regardless. India has always been the great exception to the democracy-wealth correlation, managing to be both desperately poor and yet still a vibrant democracy. Will the strains of its growth prove too much for its system to handle? What happens when a poor democracy sprouts a middle class practically overnight?

China's unprecedented changes have rightly captured the world's attention. But India's evolution is just as unprecedented. It'll be interesting to see what new lessons about the interrelationships of economics and politics emerge from its development.

August 14, 2008

RealClearWorld Internship

RealClearWorld is now accepting applications for interns. This is an excellent opportunity for college students interested in international relations, world politics, journalism and new media. Although prior experience in these fields is a plus, it is not a requirement. May require some flexible hours.

If you are interested, please email a cover letter and resume to info@realclearworld.com.

Israel's Predicament

Much has been written on the demographic dilemma that lay ahead for Israel. In addition to a booming Palestinian population, the Israeli Arab birth rates within the Jewish state's own borders continue to outpace those of their Jewish citizens (excluding the latter's more orthodox and devout communities).

Andrew Lee Butters of TIME's Middle East Blog reports on one consequence of Israel's demographic predicament and the effects it's having on the nation's military:

Just as Israel's leadership has shifted from a kibbutz-born generation of military men towards those with business backgrounds and the corruption scandals to prove it, young Israelis have taken a less idealistic and more careerist approach to the military. They jockey to get training in valuable skills, or work family connections to get into elite units, which, like prestigious fraternities, help them build social contacts and job opportunities out in the real world. And the changing role of the military since 1967 -- from campaigns against standing Arab armies to sticky counterinsurgency operations in Lebanon to the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza -- hasn't exactly helped morale either.

Moreover, the fastest growing parts of Israeli society are those that are exempt from military service: Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. (Many ultra-Orthodox don't recognize the legitimacy of the man-made state of Israel, and are waiting for God to do the job himself.) By some tallies, only 56 percent of young Israelis now join the military. Because Arab and especially ultra-Orthodox birth rates are much higher than other Israelis, military service could soon become a minority experience.

Demographics may be the deciding factor in the war for the Holy Land. While Israel's more secular and Westernized residents continue to mirror the behavior of those in Europe, her more orthodox and religiously zealous citizens stand ready to assume the country's majority. This puts a new light on the one-state/two-state debate, and places the onus of resolution on the Israelis.

Butters describes an Israel that has lost the expansive and nationalist zeal it was once known for. While the country's "Jewishness" may remain intact, its founding identity is clearly in jeopardy. In order to preserve this, Israel has to accelerate and promote the peace process, as hobbled and flawed it may be to date. One need only observe the way in which the IDF pulled out of Gaza, or the way in which they deal with militants in the occupied territories. Israel understands the urgency, and they realize that a few flawed options today are far better than the one facing them down the road.

August 13, 2008

Saakashvili on CBS

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili appeared on CBS' The Early Show today to discuss the situation in his country:

Full transcript below the fold:

HARRY SMITH, co-host: Joining us from Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city, is the president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. Good morning, Mr. President.

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgian President): Good morning, sir.

SMITH: Please tell me what is the situation in your country now? We are hearing conflicting reports about what is happening in Gori. We understand that the Russians are very active even as we speak in that town, not so many miles away from Tbilisi?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Well, situation is dramatic. We are witnessing a new stage of full-blown Russian invasion and aggression against my country and what we have--the situation developing on three different fronts.

First, in the Georgia...(unintelligible)...region of South Ossetia, where Russian tanks are going through villages inhabited by Georgian population and throwing people out of the houses, putting people into concentration camps that they are setting up in those villages and separating men and women and doing worse kinds of atrocities, unheard of since Balkans or since the war in Chechnya.


Pres. SAAKASHVILI: The other thing is Upper Abkhazia, in the region of Abkhazia, which is several hundred kilometers--miles away removed from the South Ossetia where they're going through villages again inhabited by Georgians and throwing out every single Georgian man or woman and children.

And the third one is that they have moved into the town of Gori and they rampage the town, looted the town. These are regular Russian troops. They go into houses, they destroy houses. There is all this documentary footage around that can prove it.


Pres. SAAKASHVILI: This is not he said, she said, you know. It's--we are lucky that there are television stations around and they're taking things like, you know, furniture, toilet seats, killing people, terrorizing people. What we are seeing now is deja vu from, you know, when Soviet Union was doing these things in the past.


Pres. SAAKASHVILI: When Czechoslovakia was invaded by Nazi Germany...

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: ...after pact in Munich in 1938, so there should be...(unintelligible)...to the West.

SMITH: Right.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Italy's appeasement, like they did with Germany over Czechoslovakia when Chamberlain, the then British prime minister said, `Oh, we don't care about Czechoslovakia, it's far away country about which we know very little' or say that democracy's at stake. You know, I heard yesterday Senator McCain saying `we are all Georgians now.' I hope people understand that these are their values at stake. This is freedom in general at stake.

This is not about some far away remote country in which we know little. I mean, Georgia is very, very modern, normal country.

SMITH: President Mikhail Saakashvili. We thank you very much for your time this morning.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Thank you so much.

Georgia as Rorschach Test

Everyone, it seems, has something to say on Georgia; too many to even bother a roundup at this point. I couldn't possibly have anything new to add about the situation itself. But, in reading through the mountains of commentary, one strain has emerged: the potential for the same event to confirm pretty much every pre-existing idea about how the world works.

The Internet is awash in I-told-you-sos. Conservatives and liberals and Republicans and Democrats and neocons and realists and leftists and pacifists and internationalists and Russian nationalists and Georgian apologists and, probably somewhere, royalists and syndicalists and anarchists all seem to agree on one thing, and one thing only - even though it isn’t quite clear what happened yet, the events most certainly proved right everything they've been saying all along.

If you were concerned about a new Cold War last week, well, the fighting in Georgia shows that it has dawned, or at least another version of the great battle of ideas between democracy and authoritarianism. Of course, if the trial of civilizations is still over, then the fighting is nothing more than a classic imperialist land grab that means very little.

The international community, meanwhile, is obviously useless to act to rein in this sort of thing; we rely on it too much. Unless, of course, you think that the international community is the only thing that can act to rein in this sort of thing, which happened because we don't rely on it enough.

The US was either too aggressive or not aggressive enough; we need to recognize Russia's interests or make clear that Russia's gone too far in pushing them; Russia must be tied down in international institutions or unceremoniously booted out of them. On it goes.

Of course people will disagree about what happened and why, but the real interesting disagreements don't usually involve Georgia as such at all.

Where someone comes down on the fighting in the Caucasus will probably be entirely determined by their answers to a few questions: What kind of regime runs Russia? How much does democracy matter in international relations? Are national interests and power all that drives international relations, or do ideas matter? And is force best met by counterforce, or best bargained with and sidestepped?

That's about it. If you answer those four questions, then I'm pretty sure I can predict what you think about the past week's fighting, and what you think should be done.

If you think Russia is run by thugs, well then you'll see their attacks as thuggish. If you care a lot about democracy, then you've probably accepted most of Georgia's claims, and wonder why we haven't done more to help them. You're optimistic we could have prevented this from happening if you believe in the power of ideas; if you're a power-and-interests type, this was pretty much inevitable. If you think superior force wins, you want to exercise it here; if not, you're hoping cooler heads prevail.

That's not to say those aren't valid questions to stake and hold opinions on. Or that thoughtful, insightful commentary about the conflict isn't possible. Only that those four questions are where the real debate is. And that the debate that actually is happening over this crisis - and most crises - is really mostly a proxy for bigger disagreements about how the world works.

August 12, 2008

Looking beyond Georgia

How does one explain anything Russia has done? It often seems the Ultima Thule of paradox itself. Epoch after epoch, Russia has taken its enlightened place among those few, world-shaping nations - only to lapse, at the worst moment, into darkness. In 1839 a French nobleman called Russia "a nation of mutes." A century and a half later a Russian physicist would say, "Russia is not a country, not a people, it is a 1,000-year-long sickness." China, India, France - all places as vexed with interest as Russia. But could they ever be called a sickness?

That's from Chasing the Sea, an always amusing, and sometimes insightful, 2003 travelogue by self-described "adventure journalist" Tom Bissell. The book is nominally about a trip of his to Uzbekistan, but Bissell manages to work in plenty of Russian and Central Asian history, and some none-too-subtle opinions, like the one above.

I'd recommend Russia watchers start to bone up on Central Asia. Sure, everyone is looking at Russia's western flank now - that's where all the action is. But after Georgia, there isn't much for Russia to do in Europe right away - Ukraine is too big and too important to the West for a blatant move by Russia, and the rest of the countries in Russia's western near-abroad seem either too smart to let themselves be provoked like Georgia was or too stable to give Russia much of an opening.

Central Asia, though, is a lot more promising. Despite superficial friendliness, it's pretty clear that Russia and China are intense rivals for access to the region's energy resources. Most of the states in the region have drifted uneasily into and out of alignment with these two countries and the United States. Islamic terrorism is still a threat, the regimes in the region are still less than stable, and maybe most importantly, there are still lots of ethnic Russians spread throughout Central Asia to provide the motherland with an excuse to intervene if security deteriorates. Throw in the fact that no one in the West really likes these regimes - all but Kyrgyzstan are authoritarian, some of the countries emphatically so - and intervention there would be less likely to provoke Western hand-wringing.

If the Russophobes are right, and Russia really is gearing up for a grand return to the salad days of Soviet power, then Georgia could be little more than a warm-up.

August 11, 2008

Roundup on Georgia

For the first time in almost a decade, war has come to Europe. Russia is attacking a sovereign nation for the first time since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. And for the first time ever that I'm aware of, a head of government declared war while actually at the Olympics, making a mockery of the tradition of the Olympic truce.

Russia is pummeling cities and defenses all over Georgia and driving Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the country's two separatist regions. Georgia has pleaded for a truce, but none seems forthcoming.

Beyond that, not much is clear. Claims and counterclaims are flying fast - over who started the hostilities, over whether or not Russia has invaded Georgia proper, over Russia's stated war aims, over whether Russia has targeted a key pipeline, over what could have been done and what should be done now to prevent Russia from completely dismembering a tiny, democratic U.S. ally on its border.

Debate on all these issues is already intense. A partial roundup:

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has published an appeal for support from the West in today's Wall Street Journal. He concludes, somewhat ominously, that if help isn't forthcoming then the entire region may have to rethink its commitment to Western political ideals and true independence from Russia.

Georgian citizens in and around the fighting are pleading for help from the US and NATO and wondering just why they committed 2,000 troops to the war in Iraq, if not to earn protection from their allies.

Charles King, an expert on the region at Georgetown, lays much of the blame on Georgia itself for what he describes as "a form of calculated self-sacrifice," taken in the hope "that Russia's predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up."

The Guardian has largely accepted claims that Georgia attempted to retake South Ossetia by force, and argued that the fighting has been a strategic defeat for Russia. David Clark, a former UK government adviser, took a different tack in the same pages, arguing that the fighting was the result of long-standing Russian scheming, but also betrayed weak self-esteem of a bully.

Ed Lucas, a long-time critic of Putin's Russia, takes a dim view of things, seeing in the fighting the success of Russia's military and propaganda strategy to regain complete freedom of action in its periphery. He urges the West confront Russia now before it starts to eye bigger prizes, like Ukraine.

Thomas de Waal lays the blame more squarely on Georgia's president.

Robert Kagan sees August 8 as the "official return of history," the return of an active confrontation between democracy and autocracy. The argument is either convenient or prescient, as Kagan has been advancing just this theory of world affairs for a year now.

Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus, both Clinton-era State Department officials, see the crisis as an example of a failure of trans-Atlantic unity.

It will be some time before the details of just what is going on become clear. Whatever emerges, though, it seems clear that the fighting is more than the expression of leftover ethnic squabbles, or territorial feuding over some obscure territories. How and whether the US and other nations are able to rein Russia in, and what lessons the other small countries in the region take away, will set the tone and direction of the terms by which the rest of the world relates to Russia for a long time.

August 9, 2008

Why the Olympics Don't Matter

I feel a little left out. Despite having spent a significant portion of my life studying China, and far too many hours of pretty much everyday reading about the place, I just can't muster much to say about the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics.

Why? At bottom, I just don't think that a couple weeks of sports will matter one way or the other. I don't think they're emblematic of much other than sports. They don't crystallize any trends, or buck any trends, or catalyze any trends, or do anything else that an event can do to a trend.

China's economic growth seems to be the result of a few big, underlying factors - productivity increases, increasing mobility of capital and labor, massive investments in human and physical capital, the country's absurd work ethic, mostly consistent economic policies, and a willingness to grow at all costs, the human and environmental costs be damned.

The country's politics have been amazingly stable over the last ten-odd years - remember, just five years ago observers were in awe that the place had its first peaceful transition of power in roughly a century. At the top, succession and policy processes seem to have become pretty well routinized. The debates are over pretty narrow technical matters, like the appropriate interest rate, rather than big-picture stuff, like the make-up or role of the Chinese Communist Party. The Party has liberalized in some ways - opening its decision-making processes, widening the scope of issues that outsiders can debate - and tightened its control in other areas, like its treatment of dissidents. Both processes are guided by long-standing internal logic that President Hu Jintao and others have explicitly stated on a number of occasions; neither the liberalization or tightening seems to change pace or direction in response to external pressure of any kind.

On foreign policy, Hu and the rest of the government have held to handful of principles: preserve and enlarge China's diplomatic options, do what it takes to preserve domestic Chinese growth, and box in Taiwan internationally. Their tactical skills seem to have improved, as has their flexibility in how they pursue these goals (for instance, Chinese personnel deploying with the UN in Sudan). High-level engagement from the US seems to have helped bring China along to seeing some more common interests; in its foreign policy rhetoric, China has pretty much adopted the "international stakeholder" concept and language urged on it by the US a few years back. But even that shift has come about at the same time that China's interests are expanding so rapidly that a more active, responsible foreign policy is very much in China's own interests anyway. (For more on this line, see the recent, very convincing book by Professor David M. Lampton, a former professor of mine.)

In short, everything important about China seems to have been the result of deep, long-term forces that have absolutely nothing to do with the Olympics. The government hasn't really changed a single national policy to prepare - even its pledge to allow foreign reporters free rein in the country disappeared when the realities of Tibetan riots and a calamitous earthquake interceded. Beijing has built some fancy new buildings and an airport, and a lot of factories and cars around Beijing have been taken out of a commission for a few weeks; that's it.

Over the next few weeks, there will probably be a flood of stories gushing about the impressive stuff China has built and another flood about all the problems it still faces. A couple protesters will make a fracas; some overly zealous Chinese security forces will hassle the wrong people and draw a fusillade of condemnation, but it will be mostly limited to the specific incidents and couched in general praise and admiration. Either the US or China will win the most medals, and TV commentators will pretend for a few days that a country's willingness to support athletes in sports that no one cares about for three out of four years somehow reflects grand geopolitical shifts.

My apologies, but I don't really see relative strength in equestrianism as having any meaning for the balance of power. I'll definitely watch, because I love sports and I like geopolitical spectacle, and no one will be talking about anything else for a while anyway. When the Games are gone, China will still have the world's most dynamic economy, a sclerotic political system, and a set of challenges unlike any other in the history of mankind. It will still be a fascinating place, and a country with more potential to affect the world's future more than any save the United States. But none of it will have anything to do with a couple thousand people from other countries running in circles and throwing things for a couple weeks one muggy August, no matter how many people watch them do it.

August 8, 2008

Land of the Delay, Home of the Tape

It's a staggering fact that of the nearly 200 nations participating in the Beijing Olympics, the United States might be the only one where live coverage of the Opening Ceremony is unavailable.

Why? Thanks to NBC, which continues its criminal practice of "saving" the best of the Games for prime time -- a tactic that began in 1992 when the network first secured Olympics TV rights and continued to near-perfection to this day.

Basically, Dick Ebersol and his minions don't want you to think of the Olympics as a sporting event. They want you to view it as though it's theater. We all know what happens at the end of Hamlet but we'd still see it, right?

The problem is, sporting events can't be scripted (with apologies to the NBA). Neither can news events. And the Olympics are both.

Let's say a bomb goes off in the middle of the Opening Ceremonies. It would instantly reverberate around the globe. Footage of the carnage will be immediately beamed all over the world -- except in the United States.

Because NBC holds the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights, nothing from the Games' venues may be viewed anywhere in America except for on its broadcast partners and its own web site. So while you might get a peek of a still photo here and a news story there, you'd have to tune in, 12 hours later, to see what actually had taken place.

"A Bomb Blows Up the Entire Stage in Beijing's Olympic Stadium! Watch it on NBC Tonight at 8!"

The tape-delay practice, done away with from mainstream American sports in the early 1980s, came back with a vengeance during the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where Ebersol foisted the absurd "Plausibly Live" concept upon the unsuspecting public. Main events were shown on a delayed basis but masqueraded as live.

They became blatantly taped in the subsequent five Olympics, four staged away from U.S. soil. But with the advent of internet age, when free flow of information became readily available, NBC's ratings took a nosedive as potential viewers shunned television coverage when they already knew the results.

Even Ebersol acknowledged this fact and pledged to show more events live from Beijing this year. One way to accomplish that is to strong-arm the IOC to allow certain marquee events to be staged at 8 in the morning in China (prime time in America). Always aiming to please, of course the IOC obliged.

Michael Phelps, perhaps the headline athlete of these Games with his quest for an unprecedented eight gold medals, will have all of his finals broadcast live. NBC made sure of that.

Here's hoping Michael likes the morning swim.

A Job Well Done

Alright, I'll bite, and take maybe the most unpopular position in the blogosphere these days and actually support the president: I think he did a remarkably good job handling the whole China-Olympics-human rights issue.

Even though his remarks in China, and the more substantial speech he made in Thailand might be drowned out in the while pomp-and-circumstance, they're worth taking a look.

In both, President Bush made a point of praising the Chinese people, their culture, and their amazing, unknown-in-history achievements of economic growth:

Tonight the Olympic torch will light the home of an ancient civilization with a grand history. Thousands of years ago, the Chinese people developed a common language and unified a great nation. China became the center for art and literature, commerce and philosophy. China advanced the frontiers of knowledge in medicine, astronomy, navigation, engineering, and many other fields.

But in both speeches, he also made sure to reference China's human rights problems, in a way that will get attention, but doesn't provoke a confrontation:

I have spoken clearly and candidly and consistently with China's leaders about our deep concerns over religious freedom and human rights. I have met repeatedly with Chinese dissidents and religious believers. The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings. So America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists. We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential. We press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs, but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs. As Chinese scientist Xu Liangying has said: "Human nature is universal and needs to pursue freedom and equality."

This is just about the only way to raise these issues consistently with the Chinese government and make any progress. The presentation does as little to embarrass them as possible, while not letting the rights issues disappear from the agenda.

Criticism has, predictably, been withering, with Human Rights Watch launching the harshest broadside in a quote to the NY Times:

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who is closely monitoring China’s handling of the Games, said that the president’s speech underscored “this administration’s peculiar combination of cowardice and ineptitude in raising these issues directly and effectively with the Chinese leadership.”

Ms. Richardson has an admirable forthrightness, but a much less admirable naivete. I wonder what she'd rather the president do? Condemn the government on their own soil and infuriate 1.4 billion Chinese? Nothing would do more to solidify support for the Communist Party.
Not go at all? Well, then he'd never get to raise the issue in the first place.

At the end of the day, it's the patient, undramatic work that builds trust but still applies pressure. That kind of steady but unobtrusive push, from the US and the rest of the international community, is one reason (a minor one, but still a reason) that the Chinese people are probably freer now than they ever have been in Chinese history. There's still a long way to go, but, well, when you move too fast, you get a democracy that looks like Russia. China's change hasn't been as dramatic, but it looks likely to be more lasting than that in that other former bastion of communism - which is exactly why it might be worth thinking about as an example of policy done right.

And the World Keeps on Spinning

All the world's eyes are temporarily on Beijing now. Which, unfortunately, might just make it the perfect time for this sort of thing:

Fighting in the border region between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and a breakaway Georgian enclave escalated sharply Friday morning to its highest level in years.

Georgian officials said their troops had made a significant incursion into the breakaway region, South Ossetia, in response to what the officials contended were provocations from over the border, including shelling. The Georgian officials said they had taken up positions outside the capital of the enclave, Tskhinvali.

At least 25 civilians and troops were killed in the fighting that started Thursday, officials from both sides said.

Just an ugly reminder that, for some, the Cold War only froze conflicts, and ended nothing. And a startling reminder that, even in the age of the iPhone and the Google, troops of sovereign nations can, and will, still make incursions, take up positions in enclaves, and risk war with a former superpower to defend a tiny piece of territory that few in the rest of the world have ever even heard about - and fewer, sadly, probably care about.

The Security Council has called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. Let's hope that, while the athletes parade in Beijing, and most of the world's leaders watch them, cooler heads can prevail in New York.

August 7, 2008

A Tale of Two Indias

Two pieces on India point up the place's contradictions in an unusually sharp way.

The Washington Post highlights the positive, continuing an excellent series highlighting the changes that India's modernization is bringing. Economic growth is opening up new career options and life choices for India's new middle class and helping to relieve centuries-old patterns of discrimination:

...new jobs are especially empowering to India's middle- and working-class women. By becoming economically independent, they are delaying marriage, a trend that is slowly changing the male-dominated power dynamic in South Asia.

Pankaj Mishra, writing at the Guardian, looks instead at a string of terrorist attacks, several active insurgencies, and a teeming, desperately poor underclass of Muslims:

The Indian elite's obsession with the "foreign hand" obscures the fact that the roots of some of the violence lie in the previous two decades of traumatic political and economic change, particularly the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the related growth of ruthlessness towards those left behind by India's expanding economy.

In 2006 a commission appointed by the government revealed that Muslims in India are worse educated and less likely to find employment than low-caste Hindus. Muslim isolation and despair is compounded by what B Raman, a hawkish security analyst, was moved after the most recent attacks to describe as the "inherent unfairness of the Indian criminal justice system".


It is now clear that a tiny but militantly disaffected minority of Indian Muslims has begun to heed the international pied pipers of jihad. Furthermore, there is no effective defence against their malevolence.


Which picture is accurate? Is India a shining example of a stable, modernizing democracy, or a hotbed of Muslim anger? The easy answer is to say they're both true and move on. But something more interesting seems to be going on.

Why is India able to stay stable, and keep growing, in the face of repeated terrorist attacks? How has this massive, diverse country avoided succumbing to strike out at its neighbors, or institute a harsh security crackdown, or just fall apart at the seems?

Maybe the growth and dynamism have something to do with India's ability to cope. New avenues of possibility are opening up for millions in the cities. Economic and cultural opportunities have made for a confident government and middle class. Meanwhile, Indian democracy - which is usually described as "unruly" or worse - is not pretty to watch, but is flexible enough to handle threats that would probably topple most other government systems into anarchy or dictatorship.

The threat, and reality, of terrorism and factionalism have been enough to spoil economies and societies in Pakistan, most of the Middle East, and vast swathes of Africa. India keeps plugging along though, and probably will for the foreseeable future. More than established democracies in the West, India may hold lessons for emerging democracies and markets in the rest of world.

August 6, 2008

The Shenanigans Have Begun

From the BBC:

Meanwhile state media reported that four pro-Tibet activists from Britain and the US had been arrested in Beijing after a brief protest close to the Olympic stadium.

They had unfurled two large "Free Tibet" banners from electricity poles, despite tight security.

Reports are that these self-righteous numbskulls will be swiftly deported, I for one think they can't be shipped out of China fast enough.

Not out of any animosity towards Tibet or sympathy for the official Chinese government line, mind you. This sort of thing is infuriating because it is counterproductive - the more high profile the protests are, the more the Chinese government is backed into a corner, and the less likely any solution will be. Remember, the vast majority of Chinese support the government on this one. The ones that don't support the government tend to think Beijing needs to take a harder line, and start cracking heads even more than they have up to now.

At this point, any progress will only come from the kind of incremental, behind-the-scenes negotiation that is tough to pull off when banners are being strung up in front of the world's news cameras.

By the same light, the international protests that greeted the Olympic torch couldn't have hardened China's position more if they had been designed for just that purpose. China's met with the Dalai Lama representatives since then, but the possibility of China agreeing to anything under the duress of outside protests is practically nil. And if Beijing did agree to anything that would satisfy the protesters, then millions of furious Chinese would probably pour into the street themselves.

I hope these 'activists' are happy with themselves. While they congratulate themselves, most Tibetans remain poor and restive. And protests like these are at least partly responsible for ensuring that they stay that way.

August 5, 2008

Department of Unfortunate Metaphors

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, has frequently been accused of covering up the truth. Now, it seems, his office is covering up Truth. As the NY Times reports:

The truth, in this case, refers to an 18th-century allegorical figure in a painting by Tiepolo that serves as a backdrop for government news conferences in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s official residence.

It was retouched in recent weeks to cover an exposed breast, which “might have upset the sensitivity of some viewers,” Paolo Bonaiuti, the prime minister’s spokesman, told a Milan daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, over the weekend. “That breast, that little nipple, ends up right in the shots that TVs make during press conferences.”

The cover-up sort of defeats the whole point of the painting, as an expert points out in the piece:

From an iconographic point of view, “the truth is usually depicted nude,” Ms. Bertuzzo-Lomazzi said. “It’s kind of pointless to have wanted this allegory and then to cover it up. They could have chosen another subject.”

August 2, 2008

Smart Writing on China and India

Some fresh insights:

... were I to be able to ensure being born even moderately well-off, I would probably plump for India over China. In India, money allowed you to exist happily enough despite the constant failure of governments to deliver services. Thus most Delhi households that could afford it had private generators for when the electricity failed and private tube wells in their gardens to ensure the water supply that the municipality couldn’t. The police offered little protection from crime and so many households hired private security guards.


On the other hand, were I to be born poor, I would take my chances in authoritarian China, where despite lacking a vote, the likelihood of my being decently fed, clothed and housed were considerably higher. Most crucially, China would present me with relatively greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility. So that even though I may have been born impoverished, there was a better chance I wouldn’t die as wretched in China, as in India.

That's from Pallavi Aiyar, an Indian journalist in China, who has a new book out on China. The China Beat has an interview and book excerpt that's well worth a read.

August 1, 2008

Who's the Unilateralist Now?

On its face, a simple story: yesterday, the UN Security Council voted 14-0 to renew the mandate of the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping contingent. The United States went off on its unilateralist way, abstaining from the vote because the resolution seemed to relieve some pressure from Sudanese President Omar Bashir to face a genocide charges recently filed at the International Criminal Court.

Except, a few years ago, the United States was fighting the ICC with every diplomatic tool there was. The administration even pointedly unsigned the treaty creating the thing. The US still isn't a signatory, even though it's acquiesced in the Court's work on Darfur.

So why is the US the only country holding out to protect the prerogatives of an institution that it doesn't even belong to? There are lots of possible explanations, but the one that seems most convincing to me is it's a tactical move: If the whole Council unites on the resolution and Bashir fulfills it even partway, then he's got a good chance to get off the hook. But if the U.S. stakes out a more principled stance, Sudan has to worry just what that crazy superpower will do. He'll be more likely to actually comply with the resolution if he has to be afraid of kicking the ball back into the Americans' court.

What'll be interesting, though, is to see how the right and left react to this. Will the left hail the Bush administration's rediscovery of international justice? Credit the US for sticking to principle? Will the right demand the US become more cooperative in the Security Council? Criticize the administration for being too unilateralist, insufficiently pragmatic?

I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. But I am looking forward to the partisan squirming.

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