Among members of the foreign-policy community, there has always been a hierarchy of interests. Security has always trumped economics except in times of great crisis. Once Soviet affairs topped the pecking order among regional specializations with the Middle East and European affairs nipping at its heels. Today, China and the Middle East top the list with Europe, Japan, and the other BRICs following behind.
Latin America and Africa have always been stepchildren awarded less top policymaker bandwidth, fewer high level missions, and drawing fewer of the really first tier rising talents of the policy community. Every so often, a regional issue would flair up -- often one associated with another region or global agenda item like spill from the Middle East to the Maghreb or fighting communists in Central America or the Caribbean -- and there would be a scramble, but on the whole, the continents were seen as backwaters, the place where the careers of average to below average diplomats and idealistic but self-marginalizing do-gooders would go to be ignored and then die, generally unlamented. I'm not saying it was right nor am I suggesting that much great and worthy work did not get done in these places.
More importantly, I am not saying that the hierarchy was correct. If it were created in terms of the scale of the human challenges being faced or the future problems being created, these regions would surely have moved up the list.
This week, we have seen a couple of stories that suggest that draw our attention to Africa, one that is a rare but potentially profoundly important positive development, one that is more ominous.
While the bright lights and attentions of big time foreign-policy beat reporters have been focused on the prisoner swap in the Middle East, Hillary Clinton's visit to Libya or the latest economic challenges being faced in Europe, almost certainly the most important story of the week in terms of world affairs was the news of a successful, large-scale test of a malaria vaccine. Malaria claims 800,000 lives a year, 90 percent of which are children in Africa. The vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, successfully prevented half of 6,000 babies tested from getting the disease over the course of a year. This could be a major breakthrough with profound economic and social consequences for the region -- literally millions of lives spared over the decade ahead and millions of more able contributors to society.
If this initial test leads to a viable, widely deployed vaccine, it could be transformational and would represent a watershed success for the global public health community -- for government programs and efforts of NGOs like the Gates Foundation -- and would be just the latest proof that the really big scale international policy wins are happening nowhere near the high profile discussions among many of the usual suspects of the international affairs community. If you are young and want to get involved in foreign-policy initiatives that will touch the most lives look to global public health, climate issues, resource related questions like those pertaining to water or food. These are where the great victories will be won even if they won't get you invited to the most think tank cocktail parties in Washington.
That said, it may well be that the subject on the tips of the tongues at those parties may soon be a different dimension of Africa. While the announcement this week that the United States was sending 100 armed advisors to Uganda to finally help snuff out the scourge that is Joseph Kony, commander of the "Lord's Resistance Army." Kony's brutal band has been responsible for the forced dislocation of millions, the impoundment of more than 65,000 children into his military service, and vast numbers of deaths. The Obama administration has, to its great credit, been targeting Kony with sanctions and other forms of international pressure and its decision to get involved in a more direct way here is welcome, especially given the great scale of the human tragedy associated with the wars of the past two decades in central Africa and the great shame associated with the comparatively minimal and ineffective involvement of the developed world in attempting to stop the violence.
But the intervention also comes shortly after the United States has announced new drone bases in Africa, after our intervention with our allies in Libya, and alongside much greater diplomatic and other involvement in the region associated with growing concerns about the presence of terrorist groups like al Qaeda not only in the horn of Africa but in places like Nigeria. There is much deeper concern about the potentially destabilizing effect of well-funded terrorist involvement in the churning, difficult to police, failed and failing states and regions across Africa's midsection.
Talk to top military brass involved in America's European command and they will tell you that they expect that in the future, Africa will be an ever-greater focus for U.S. and allied involvement for all these reasons and due to the growing resource competition that is taking place across the continent. It is becoming a more strategically valuable place and its chronic problems are opening it up to being the site of future conflicts that demand much greater attention from the United States than we have ever given it.
Add to that the turmoil in the strategically important countries of the Maghreb and the promise of greater economic growth on the continent should we actually successfully begin to manage some of the problems of disease that have impeded growth (as new infrastructure and access to technology empowers more effective education and job creation) and it seems clear that for both good reasons and bad, Africa's place in the hierarchy of interests among U.S. policy makers is likely to be rising for the foreseeable future.
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Little could seem so remote from one another than the 9-9-9 tax reform plan of Herman Cain and the chants of the "other 99 percent" as they occupy Wall Street. One is the politically motivated brain-child of a millionaire businessman while the other is a product of the barely contained anger of young people frustrated by the corruption and inequity inherent in the global politics and business today. Yet these two movements are actually linked together in more ways than you might think, nine to be exact:
1.) Both are products of the politics of alienation. Vast majorities on the right and left feel that the system is no long the means by which we fix our problems -- it is the problem. They feel that politicians and Wall Street and big business are self-dealing and leaving the vast majority of Americans
2.) Both are fueled by a belief that the American dream is broken. The self-dealing has essentially gutted the promise of a better future for all those willing to work for it. The essentials of that dream -- a home, the value one can build in that home, rising wages, a better tomorrow for our kids -- they're all gone or compromised for most Americans. For those who didn't go to college there was once an opportunity to join the middle class and have a life of dignity -- also gone. The idea of retiring seems also destined to soon become an exhibit in the Smithsonian as few Americans indeed will be able to afford it.
3.) Both turn on a common theme -- driven by an intense indignation at inequity. It's not just that they system is broken, as Nick Kristof writes compellingly in yesterday's New York Times, it is that it has been gamed. A tiny few benefit and the rest of us of the country -- the 99 percent, the residents of Main Street -- are falling hopelessly, helplessly behind.
4.) Both a reactions against "the establishment" -- although different halves of the establishment. The Tea Partiers think government is the problem. The Occupy Wall Street crowd think it's the financial community or big corporations. The reality is that it is the collaboration between the two for decades (centuries actually) to change the rules of the system to give monied interests the upper hand, a free ride, bailouts when they need it (even when average home owners get nothing), etc.
5.) Both have "good hooks" -- they are easily digested, communicated, understood. The reason that 59 point plans and 1000 page pieces of legislation get no traction is that they are difficult to communicate, understand, debate effectively. Condemn Cain or the protestors all you want, they are connecting because they are dealing at a visceral level with a problem that actually lives in people's guts.
6.) Neither is truly radical. One is the defense of the status quo dressed up in the garb of "change" (where have we seen that before?). The other is unfocused anger. Radical would require an effort to really, truly and deeply challenge and change the system -- to get money out of politics through federally financed elections, to limit the size of banks, to demand transparency and tighter regulation of derivative products, to effectively challenge corporate compensation systems, to toss out the current tax code and start over with something simpler...and, sorry Herman, fairer. We are at a time that demands real, constructive radicalism, a willingness to question everything, to embrace "dangerous' ideas, to ask why we have markets, why we have the system of government we have, what our collective goals are, what our core political philosophies are and to be willing to remake and rebuild those institutions and systems and processes that don't conform to our vision and our ideals
7.) Both are preludes to real change -- but neither in its current form is the ultimate vehicle for that change. Because there is no "ask" for the Occupy Wall Street people, because 9-9-9 doesn't add up and would be deeply unfair to poor and middle income Americans, the movements are more noteworthy for what fuels them than where they are going. The frustration will either lead to a real constructive change agenda...or it won't, problems will deepen...and the real call for change will come more emphatically later.
8.) Each is being misinterpreted by the other. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not, as accused by the right, "anti-American." At their core what they are doing is as fundamentally American as can be. The Tea Partiers may not be my cup of...well, they may be hard for me to swallow...but they do have a legitimate beef that the government needs to operate in their interests and within its budget. That's not to say one side will agree with the other...it's to say that both should listen carefully for what is the same in their arguments. (So too should politicians on both sides who are too quick to view all this as politics as usual...and to play it as such.)
9.) Both should be welcomed by everyone -- they are a sign of long-overdue activism. Now the job is to translate that activism into meaningful change...which I think may require a very different set of political leaders and parties than we have today.
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If you have been wondering where America's Commerce Secretary was, I have finally found the answer. Hillary Clinton ate him.
The evidence for this assertion is that once again Hillary Clinton has demonstrated just the kind of leadership and insight into international economic policies that one might hope for from a Commerce Secretary if Congress actually thought the position important enough to confirm one.
Of course, I am kidding. About Hillary Clinton eating the Commerce Secretary. Not about anyone thinking the job was important enough to fill. Clearly, the Republicans in Congress don't seem to think that confirming a business leader like John Bryson to add needed heft and his considerable and useful experience to the President's team is a good idea in the middle of the kind of economic crisis we are currently enduring.
No, I make the comment about Clinton because once again she has stepped up and shown herself to be both an innovative Secretary of State and President Obama's most valuable cabinet member. For the second week in a row she is devoting her Friday to demonstrating how central she sees economic work to be to the job of the State Department and the international standing of the United States. Last week, the interaction turned on a meeting with the President's job council at which the focus was how to help America grow through international economic engagement, such as the smart initiative led by her Under Secretary Bob Hormats to promote more foreign investment in the United States. (It's what I call the OPM Stimulus...in which OPM stands for "other people's money.")
Today, Clinton spoke at the Economic Club of New York, delivering a speech entitled "Economic Statecraft for a New Era." The speech is part of a series of four she is delivering on key themes of this key dimension of the administration's foreign policy agenda. As she noted in the speech, according to a pre-delivery draft I reviewed:
...Economic forces are transforming foreign policy realities around the globe. We have seen governments toppled by economic crisis. Revolutions born in a Tunisian marketplace have swept across an entire region. Europe faces its strongest test in a generation, thanks to recession and debt. And everywhere I travel, I see countries gaining influence not because of the size of their armies, but because of the growth of their economies.
She then went on to say,
Simply put, America's economic strength and our global leadership are a package deal. A strong American economy has long been a quiet pillar of our power in the world. It gives us the leverage we need to exert influence and advance our interests. It gives other countries confidence in our leadership and a greater stake in a deeper partnership with us. And over time, it underwrites all the elements of "smart power": robust diplomacy and development and the strongest military the world has ever seen.
The speech turned on four key points -- that the administration is "updating foreign policy priorities to include economics every step of the way", that the State Department is "honing" its "ability to find and execute economic solutions to strategic challenges" (from energy to supporting democracy in the Middle East), that the Obama team is "modernizing our agenda on trade, investment and commercial diplomacy to deliver jobs and growth", and that they are focusing on the challenge of growing wealth being wielded by state controlled funds and companies.
That a Secretary of State asserts an economic agenda is not news. Clinton's predecessors have regularly done so and the reality of course is that economics has always played a big role in foreign policy from wars fought over oil to the centrality of revitalizing economies to enhance security as during the Marshall Plan. That a leading figure in a government whose fate depends on job creation and restarting growth would raise such an issue is also not that shocking. What makes this speech different is that Clinton is not just talking the talk she is walking the walk, restructuring State to enhance its economic resources significantly, placing economic issues more central to our policies in places like the Middle East where promoting reforms that create opportunity is seen as a better alternative than say, invasion, when it comes to enhancing stability, mobilizing her team and embassies around the world on these issues and simply by actually credibly engaging with the business community in a way that has eluded many of her predecessors.
Like her excellent Hong Kong speech regarding the administration's "pivot" toward Asia-another element of foreign policy with important economic consequences and in which economics is among the most vital levers -- the New York Economic Club leader provides among the very best examples of the Obama Administration taking its international economic policies and putting them in a coherent framework. Take Clinton's good work in this regard, the recent trade deals and Tim Geithner's excellent and, one might add, courageous engagement with the Europeans in the recent crisis, and you have the most impressive sustained international economic initiative the U.S. has mounted in years.
And early in this administration it was hardly a foregone conclusion there was ever going to be such an initiative. I recall eating a soggy tuna fish on whole wheat toast sandwich in the White House mess with a former senior Obama official who said, "this administration isn't like we were back in the Clinton administration. Back then, international economics was one of our central priorities. Today, it seldom comes up except in terms of financial markets." That was in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis and the focus on stimulus and health care had put domestic issues center stage. Inevitably however, what has happened is that the administration has come to realize that there are no such thing as domestic economic issues that don't have important international components -- nor are there security interests worldwide without economic components.
The Clinton speech therefore is not only a sign of a successful Secretary of State continuing to work to reinvent the department she leads -- to "think different" in the words of Steve Jobs which she quoted in today's remarks -- it is also the sign of an administration maturing and developing better priorities and vital competencies where they are needed. (Although it still might help to have a Secretary of Commerce. I'm just sayin'...)
In fact, the Clinton speech has to be seen as a big success except for one egregious error. Seeking to describe the changes she seeks within State, Clinton asserted, "We need to be a Department where more people can read both Foreign Affairs and a Bloomberg Terminal." I get the bit about a Bloomberg Terminal. But I think she misspoke. A really forward-thinking State Department should probably be turning to a different foreign policy-focused media organization, don't you think?
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I have had two really scarring experiences in my time. One was my childhood. The other was my adult life.
As a child, despite growing up in Beaver Cleaver's America with two loving parents, generally hygienic siblings, and the usual allotment of hamsters, turtles, cats, and a dog, there was still plenty of room for psychological trauma. Most of it came subtly but the damage has been irreversible (as my wife and children will attest). For example, I would bounce in the house beaming to report my grades, be asked how I did, describe the triumph of all As and a B and then, after a long pause, be greeted with "What was the B in?"
As an adult, well, it's much too complicated to go into here. But certainly one scarring experience was working in the United States Department of Commerce. For one thing, the inside of the Commerce Building was so dark, featureless and cavernous that it actually became a kind of spiritual black hole, sucking the souls out of its occupants with a ruthless efficiency that calls to mind a kind of industrial-strength version of the movie Poltergeist. Next, while you may have heard of Churchill's famous description of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, well Commerce was a backwater wrapped in a bureaucracy inside a dysfunctional political system.
On top of that, I was largely involved in trade policy which involved making assertions about which we had no substantiation in support of policies we were not sure would work while hoping the negative consequences would not be so bad. And as it turned out, while my pro-trade reflex is still intact, it has over the years been tempered by the kind of caution blended with cynicism that can only come from exposure to the hype associated with the economic benefits associated with trade deals.
So, in short, not only am damaged goods but I have special experience which may account for how underwhelmed I am by the just achieved trade deals with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. I mean I know people are celebrating. I even have friends who are and I don't want to spoil their fun. So I offer my psychological history as a kind of an excuse for being a spoil-sport.
Not that these deals aren't net net a good thing. They are. The Korea deal is even potentially economically significant ... in a smallish kind of way. And there are those 70,000 jobs the administration is claiming will be created by the $13-15 billion in new exports the deals might help generate. But I can't help but think this is all pretty weak beer and that these deals are more like a throw-back to a bygone era of activist trade policy than they are indicator of some new push toward opening global markets.
In a way, not only are these Bush Administration policies come to long overdue fruition, but they kind of feel like they are simply the last spasm of 1990s trade liberalization.
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While Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Captain Louis Renault issued an official statement saying that his government is "shocked, shocked" at allegations that they were behind an assassination plot to kill Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, the incident raises many important questions.
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We can't blame the moral failures of today on someone else.
It's not Bush this time. It's not a prior generation betraying a trust. It's not another country failing to live to the standards of civilization. We're not even able to defend ourselves by saying we were ignorant of what was happening or by feigning that we were looking the other way.
This time, it's us. American liberals have the reins of U.S. foreign policy right now and we are embracing a course in which we are the ones who condone torture, turn our back on genocide, sidestep the rule of law. We operate Guantanamo and defend using extreme measures with terrorists. We ignore national sovereignty. We acknowledge the deaths of thousands upon thousands at the hands of weak, brutal regimes and we say, "not our problem" or "to intervene would be too hard." Then we go off and weep and some other movie of the Holocaust and walk out wondering how any generation could allow such a thing to happen. But we are demonstrating that evil exists in the world not because of the occasional rise of satanic bad men but because of the enduring willingness of average people tolerate what should be intolerable -- apathy has killed more people than Osama or Saddam ever did.
(And before all the "yes, buts...": It is too easy to say Obama is not "really" a liberal. He is in fact, the distilled essence of the liberal ideal in America over the past couple decades, the product of liberal movements, the liberal establishment, an espouser of liberal ideals, the most open and clearly liberal political candidate to be elected to high office in the United States since the middle of the last century -- more so than self-described "centrists" like Clinton, Carter or Kennedy. He may have checked his liberal ideals at the door of the White House situation room, but that's not a counter-argument, that's the point.)
All of us who embrace in any way any part of the idea of liberalism need to own up to the current situation, to remember our past righteous condemnations of others and to ask how we got here. We need to examine why we apply our values so sporadically -- if any beliefs that are so haphazard and so selectively applied can be called a values system at all.
Look at the story running in today's New York Times and elsewhere on the new U.N. report on torture in Afghanistan. Based on hundreds of interviews, the conclusion is that America's Afghan allies regularly employ torture against prisoners linked to that country's insurgency. According to the Times "It paints a devastating picture of abuse, citing evidence of ‘systematic torture' during interrogations by Afghan intelligence police officials even as American and other Western backers provide training and pay for nearly the entire budget of the Afghan ministries running the detention centers." It would be preposterous to suggest the United States, bankrolling these operations, did not know what was going on. It is clear that despite our vast military presence in Afghanistan, we did nothing to stop it. It is also, as it happens, illegal for the United States to provide aid to police organizations embracing torture but that little issue seems to have been set aside. That these governments we support also abuse their female citizens or institutionalize intolerance only compounds the wrong.
Or, alternatively, look at the discussions surrounding the decision by this administration to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. CNN reported yesterday that U.S. may release its memo authorizing the decision to kill the terrorist leader. The objective is to demonstrate the legal basis for the attack which also killed another U.S. citizen. While Awlaki richly deserved to die, the question as to whether U.S. officials have the right to summarily order such an attack raises important ethical questions about the nature and conduct of modern warfare and the decision processes by which public officials arrogate onto themselves roles traditionally left to judges and juries.
Another dimension of the ethical issues raised in the Awlaki attack has to do with the broader question of drone warfare. Scott Shane's "Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race" in the Sunday Times raised the specter of this issue growing and, as I have argued before, before it does, we ought to be having a vigorous discussion about why it is we think having the technology to violate the sovereignty of other nations with impunity grants us the right to do so. The implication of Shane's piece, of course, is that sooner rather than later, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. We will be targeted. Our officials may be cited as direct threats to some other nation ... perhaps even reasonably cited as such. And then what?
Further, as important as are the issues raised in such stories, equally important are the issues raised by the instances where there are few if any stories at all. We don't hear much about Guantanamo any more. We don't debate much those wars and social catastrophes in which we don't intervene despite the huge human costs. We are essentially silent about the moral consequences of postponing discussion on tolerating an economic system that promotes inequality, puts the weakest at risk due to the greed of the most powerful or threatens the planet's environment.
Some might call the approach America today embraces as realism. Others might say it is justified by circumstances. Both may be true and the tough hard realities of the world may be what directs all American presidents into the mainstream of compromise and pragmatism. But what it is also is frequently morally indifferent and occasionally indefensible.
We have to acknowledge that we have become that which we condemned. We have demonstrated through our actions that we too feel morality is just for speeches and or to be used as a cudgel with which to attack the opposition. And we have to ask, can there be such a thing a liberal U.S. foreign policy or is our national character so corrupted by a sense of self-righteous exceptionalism that there is no place in our policies for solid values consistently applied?
Here's a link to my piece in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Review which explored resetting our goals and our metrics as a way of getting the country on the right track.
I'm feeling curiously optimistic this morning which has me thinking it may be time for a CAT scan.
But I can actually see a way that things don't turn out so bad for the world.
First, to deal with the wolf closest to the sled, the Europeans will have to get their act in order. While they have thus far resisted this tooth and nail, I've heard some modestly encouraging rumblings from folks in the center of the negotiations. I want to point out the people with whom I have been speaking are not terribly optimistic themselves. But they have offered a few crumbs of optimism for those of us who starved for it to scarf up.
First, in the words of one participant, European leaders have begun to work themselves through "the stages of grief associated with the crisis. First, even just a few weeks ago, they were purely in denial. Then, they entered a phase of denial in which it was clear they didn't even believe their own denials. Finally, last week we entered what might be called the ‘silly ideas' phase. And I am hopeful that means now we can get down to serious ideas."
What kind of ideas? Coming up with a program that takes a big chunk, perhaps $250 billion, of ESFS money and uses it as "equity" in funding a "firewall" that might then include a trillion or so capital available to the ECB in the event a big economy -- Italy or Spain -- stumbles. The plan would also need other elements such as Europe dealing with the structural issues associated with achieving something like monetary union and a recognition that no firewall can protect against all threats, especially those that could be associated with a fixation on austerity. Governments in Europe need to focus on getting growth restarted in places like Spain or Italy or bigger problems are inevitable. A final element of an effective plan would then include a significant recapitalization of the IMF which currently is not funded properly to deal with the new forms of risk and contagion which confront global markets.
At some point, banks will need to pay for the insurance policies they are expecting their governments to provide for them and whether that is done by a Tobin tax or some levy on non-deposit liabilities, grappling with that issue will be key to winning political support for further government involvement. And while countries and the IMF are at it, they ought to start to tally what sovereign exposures are to those "implied liabilities", their unwritten but real "obligation" to bail out the too big to fail institutions that are the nuclear charges set at the fault lines of the global economy.
That might in turn trigger a recognition that we will not be well and truly out of the woods of this crisis until we demand more transparency from these banks in terms of their liabilities (including counter-party risks in all manner of derivative transactions), regulations that enforce responsible provisions for dealing with those risks, and perhaps even globally agreed upon limits on the size and activities of such institutions.
But one step at a time. While the insiders with whom I spoke were only cautiously optimistic that progress might be made on putting together an interim solution-firewall for Europe -- or to be more accurate, while they did not outright dismiss the possibility -- they did emphasize that there was a long way to go, the Germans and the French were not playing nicely with each other, and there were deep cultural barriers to even having an intellectually honest conversation among the players about what ails them.
Still, since the focus is optimism, another encouraging sign were the glowing reports I have been hearing of the work that both new IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner having been doing trying to hammer some sense into Europe's fiscal policy pygmies. No, not pygmies ... lemmings. Well, blundering action-phobic bureaucrats. (The problem, according to a friend, is "lots of leaders, not enough leadership.") By one account, about a third of the progress made during the last few weeks is due to circumstance, the growing direness of the situation, and the rest is due to the compelling arguments and forceful interventions of Lagarde and Geithner.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.