While NATO bickers over strategy in Libya, BRIC leaders have gathered in Sanya, China, to demonstrate the growing strength of an alternative grouping that has among its principle selling points the fact that it is neither Western nor U.S.-dominated. To compare the world's most potent and enduring military alliance with a loose affiliation of emerging powers that are divided by perhaps more issues than unite them is clearly comparing apples and lychee nuts or guarana seeds, but the juxtaposition of the two events does offer yet another whiff of how the institutions and ideas of the 20th century are giving way to those of the 21st.
In Libya, the potent alliance that "won" the Cold War is coming apart at the seams fighting over strategy, tactics, and objectives in an optional, low-grade intervention in a largely irrelevant country. The U.S. secretary of state is forced to make public pleas for the bumptious commanders of the coalition to get their acts together, while on the ground the weakened forces of the isolated Muammar al-Qaddafi seem to be holding the megapower onslaught at bay. It is too poignant a reminder that intangibles like knowing what you're fighting for and political will are as important to any battle as the hardware being brought to bear by each side on the other.
In Sanya, Brazil, Russia, India, and the hosts welcomed South Africa into their little club, and if they achieved little else they underscored that they are taking coordination among their countries very seriously and seeking to deepen their ties. However, they did go further and offered a broad agenda including more hints that they will push for alternatives to the dollar-dominated global monetary system that we currently have.
Of course, the BRICs summit resonates with the Libya follies because the original four BRICs voted as a bloc to abstain during the Security Council vote on the imposition of the no-fly zone in Libya and within days of its initiation were publicly speaking out against it. That they were joined in the vote by Europe's most powerful country, Germany, also sent a message that the opposition to the initiative was meaningful and suggested that future votes in international institutions might see the BRICs (or the BRICS … if the final "S" is for South Africa) emerge at the core of a potent new alternative coalition to the traditional Western or developed powers.
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The greater good is the bitch-goddess of foreign policy. It provides at once both the inspiration to elevate society and the temptation to debase it. I'm sure one of the reasons that the study of foreign policy draws in so many passive-aggressive poindexters is because they get a cheap thrill from entering a fraternity in which the only admissions requirement is checking your conscience at the door.
In the first international affairs class one attends or the first serious discussion of foreign policy in which one participates, sooner or later the focus turns to the tough choices that must be made in the name of the Shiva of Foggy Bottom.
It is easy to understand this impulse when one watches scenes as in Libya in which a corrupt despot seeks to maintain his illegitimate chokehold on a society through the slaughter of those who only seek the rights due all men and women. Using force and taking life to stop evil and to protect those who cannot defend themselves is certainly justifiable albeit fraught with moral complexities that we too often too easily set aside.
That said however, we have to acknowledge that the natural habitat of this particular bitch-goddess is the slipperiest of slopes. It is worth remembering that most of the world's greatest sins have been committed in the service of someone's definition of the greater good. It is a point the Obama administration ought to take to heart as recent headlines suggest that we are crossing to the wrong side of the world's most dangerous border, the one that divides "realism" from "evil."
Not surprisingly, no place illustrates this danger like the region we call AfPak. And as a consequence no place more emphatically shouts out the question: "Have we no decency? Are there no limits to what we are willing to accept in the pursuit of our allegedly high-minded goals?"
We accept Hamid Karzai and elements of the Pakistani government although we know them to be corrupt and very likely supporting or enabling our enemies. We do this despite the lesson being chanted in public squares across the Middle East -- not to mention most of the history of modern U.S. foreign policy -- is that this approach inevitably comes back to bite us in the most sensitive parts of our national interests. We are seen as the co-authors of the wrongs our chosen despots commit or tolerate because ... well, because we are. That we are doing this in Afghanistan even as we are seemingly preparing to embrace a bigger role for the Taliban in the government only compounds the wrong -- the only justification for supporting Karzai is that he is better than the alternative but we don't seem to think that's necessarily the case anymore. Whatever your view of the issue, you have to admit it's a treacherously morally ambiguous place to venture to reclaim the national standing the Obama team correctly feels the United States lost during the Bush years.
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They are still there in Tahrir Square. Not as many as before. The energy has ebbed away. The television cameras have long-since shifted their focus elsewhere. To the fighting in Libya. To the water cannons being used against protestors by the U.S.-backed government in Iraq.
But the protestors remain where Egypt's Jasmine Revolution made its great stand against Mubarak's thugs. They are still connected with the world via Twitter and Facebook. They are not yet ready to leave and in that there is an important lesson that may offer more hope than even the jubilation that seemed to emanate from the protestors to every corner of the world when Hosni the Dinosaur finally agreed to lumber out of town.
They understand that contrary to the generally accepted understanding of the term, revolutions do not happen quickly nor do they end when the initial battles associated with them cease. Revolutions unfold slowly. Successful revolutions inevitably take years, decades or sometimes longer. Revolutions do not just require courage they require tenacity and watchfulness.
In Tahrir Square, they are watching. They are there to hold the Egyptian provisional government to their word. They were there this week to demand that Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak hold-over, resign. If he did not, they would call their brethren back to the square. Shafiq and the leaders of the military who have been entrusted with the transition understood what that meant. For the protestors, it was another step forward but it was still an early one in what they know will be a long journey.
Even should democracy arrive later this year, they know that is not enough. From Mubarak to free and fair elections is great progress, a kind of political miracle, but it is not what the revolution was about. The revolution was about what happens between elections, what leads from election to election, about a culture of transparency, fairness and opportunity. It is about being a democratic society which is very different from sporting a few of the accoutrements of democratic behavior ... like elections.
They don't have to look too far to see that elections alone do not a functioning democratic society make. They can look to Iraq, where despite elections cronyism, corruption, and ethnic and social divisions still rule. They see a country in which the United States spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defeat a despot and install democracy with its people in the street, demanding change, confronted by "security forces in black uniforms, track-suits and T-shirts" who, according to the Washington Post, "attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded to army detention centers."
The Post story quoted a human rights activist as saying, "Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him. ... The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now -- it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state."
While they may not know that Merriam-Webster defines revolution as "a sudden, radical or complete change" they understand that "sudden" and even "radical" are not enough. "Complete" is the operative word and that takes time and vigilance and the spirit of a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter.
It's why, despite the fact that few of them may ever have heard of Benjamin Franklin, they seem to understand what he meant when, asked about what was being produced by America's revolution and the subsequent drafting of its constitution, he said, "a republic, if we can keep it."
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Recently, there have been perturbations in the wonkosphere. While the trembles are so slight that they wouldn't show up on the Richter Scale of a real human being, they have generated blog headlines and conversations at conferences full of people with advanced degrees and too much time on their hands. The stir has been caused by the assertion that we now live in something that big idea branding experts are trying to characterize as a "G-Zero" world.
In the words of one of the term's proponents, Ian Bremmer, the term refers to the assertion that we now live in a world in which "no country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage to drive an international agenda." Bremmer, and another supporter of the idea, NYU's Nouriel Roubini, have been explaining the notion and have done so compellingly enough that after it came up at this year's World Economic Forum gabfest in the Swiss Alps, the New York Times called it the event's "buzziest buzzword."
Buzz words are important in the wonkosphere because people are very busy going from conference to conference, periodically stopping to Tweet about who they bumped into and how they influenced them, and they have very little time to really think about anything. So if you can take an idea, reduce it to a couple of key, easily digestible, tasty ingredients, and wrap into a piece of shiny gold foil you have ... a Reese's Pieces Mini. Well, actually, you have something just like it, but not quite as tasty; you have a candidate for buzz-term of the moment.
Sometimes, it must be said, that even the fizziest of the buzziest actually contain a core idea of real value. Take a stroll down foreign policy nerd memory lane and savor past hits like "illiberal democracy" or "the world is flat" or "clash of civilizations" or "the end of history." Agree with the core notion of the idea or not (the delicious peanut butter center), you have to admit these ideas performed a useful purpose, captured a zeitgeist, and got the conversation going. Some, like "the end of history," were both widely misunderstood and, when understood correctly, wrong. But it was a compelling idea thoughtfully arrived at.
This G-Zero thing, not so much. The idea, of course, plays on all the discussion that has swirled around recent international summits as the attendance lists changed and the labels were altered accordingly. We went from the G-8 to the G-20 and then, keen observers, eager to build their own bit of buzz in the pundit-hive, pondered whether we weren't really seeing a case of a G-18 wrapped around a G-2 (the United States and China.) The Chinese didn't much like this and wished pundits would leave their g-darned labels off of them.
Bremmer and Roubini and company make the case that the United States and the Europeans and the Japanese are too deeply under economic water, and the emerging powers like China and India are too busy developing all the time for anybody to be able to step up and drive the international agenda. And while I know and like Ian and think both he and Roubini are smart guys, this is as an idea that looks like what it is: not much built around a big zero.
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When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
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While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
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While the attention of the media is largely devoted to looming storm clouds over the Middle East, it may well be that the next tempest to shake the world may in fact be expected in your teapot. Not to mention your shopping cart. And your gas tank.
In fact, while the uprisings in the Middle East may well be harbingers of historic change in the region, they are also a direct result of another set of factors that could conceivable eclipse them as the big story of the year for 2011: rising global commodity prices. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan among the most notable complaints of protestors has been the skyrocketing food prices.
As noted here, that fact is part of a vicious circle that is worrying markets. Bad global grain crops last year produce unrest in the Middle East this year. That in turn pushes up energy prices due to concerns about disruptions in energy flows. That in turn pushes up food prices further as something like 30 or 40 percent of the cost of most food products is related to energy costs associated with processing, packaging, and transportation.
But that's not the whole story. Look at the headlines coming out of China this week about a spreading and significant drought that is likely to further negatively impact food supplies and push up prices. Look at the other headlines about Chinese and Brazilian concerns about inflation. Or the headlines from today (and many recent days) about how inflation worries are depressing stock prices.
In fact, among the very few people who are not that worried about inflation is U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke who, testified Wednesday, said that while it may be a problem for the emerging world, "inflation is expected to persist (in the United States) below the level Federal Reserve policymakers" feel they have to worry about it. Of course, just because he doesn't worry about inflation here in the United States, doesn't mean Americans aren't going to feel the pinch if food and fuel prices go up. In a rough economic environment like this one for many Americans that squeeze will be particularly acute ... and included in that group are the politicians who will hear the howls of their constituents if prices get above the level average people feel is fair to them. Furthermore, if inflation in places like China, Brazil, or elsewhere in the emerging world causes them to tighten their monetary policies or it negatively impacts real growth, there could be meaningful negative knock-on consequences for the United States.
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In the past several days, an Obama administration that has, for the most part, appeared to handle the Egypt uprising well has been sailing a little close to the wind. In an attempt to appear on top of events, the administration has issued statements that felt a little too much like taking credit for persuading Mubarak to leave office by September.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed they know better when he stated that there were some elements of diplomacy that best take place away from the cameras. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were right to turn to a man as experienced and gifted as former Ambassador Frank Wisner to conduct key elements of their behind the scenes communications with the Egyptian leadership. Wisner is one of the very best the State Department has produced in the past half century. But, what he did and what the president may have said to Mubarak on the telephone in private should have remained private.
That said, going forward, there is much that should be communicated to the Egyptian leadership -- quietly -- in the next day or so if it has not already been said. Paramount among these messages should be an unequivocal statement along the following lines:
While we are deeply grateful for the support and friendship that President Mubarak and the people of Egypt have shown to the United States during the past several decades, we must acknowledge what has changed in these first days of 2011 ... and what has not.
Let us begin with what has not changed. First, America continues to seek only the best relationship with the people and government of Egypt. Such a relationship is, of course, based on a foundation of mutual respect and a recognition that all nations must advance their own national interests. A reason for the strength of our relationship and the depth of our commitment to Egypt over these past decades is the degree to which these principles have been followed.
The United States' primary national interest with regard to Egypt is in preserving peace and stability in the region and in the collaboration that was possible due to our shared goals. That does not just mean peace between Egypt and its neighbors -- it means peace within Egypt and it means stability throughout the region. It also means supporting the shared values and vision that will produce greater peace, stability, and prosperity in the future.
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The upheaval in Egypt has forced many policymakers to grapple with issues of political philosophy that they probably have not considered since their introductory political science courses in college. What's more, the urgency with which they are doing so has only increased with the news from Jordan that King Abdullah succumbed to pressure and replaced his prime minister and his cabinet thus indicating that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square are a symptom of a much bigger phenomenon.
The core debate thus far has circled around whether to embrace democracy even if it might bring with it instability or governments with troubling views. A related question, posed indirectly by Mubarak and King Abdullah with their government reshufflings intended to placate protesting masses, is: "How much democracy is enough to restore calm?" (This is the politics of calculated symbolism: Let them eat window dressing.)
These initial questions however are related to even more important questions going forward. Central to these is: What reforms are required if the Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Tunisian, Libyan, or other governments in the region are to actually make the great leap forward to being something more like genuinely free, democratic societies? (Are you listening in Baghdad and Kabul?)
We have repeatedly seen that elections alone are not the answer. They are too easily gamed and leaders too often use even sham mandates to then justify autocratic misapplication of power. Further, we know that in a country like Egypt one of the threats is that extremist groups seek to use the transition to a new government to promote agendas that twist religious precepts into false justifications for intolerance or worse. We have also seen in the past several weeks that the ability to use all available technologies to communicate or to convene the public is essential to an open society.
While we Americans contribute to global warming with overheated rhetoric (and little else) about 21st century competitiveness, our enemies around the world are employing a different strategy. Being sensible arch-villains, they know that the future is uncertain. (Just what exactly are all those green jobs anyway? And weren't we all supposed to have flying cars by now?)
So, they have concluded, "Why fool around with tomorrow when yesterday is a sure thing?"
That is the only way to explain the most recent move by Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Daniel Ortega -- yesterday's men, each and every one of them -- that proclaims loudly that those who repeat the past may not be doomed to be forgotten.
According to a story in Ha'aretz, Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua are quietly hatching a plan to build a competitor to the Panama Canal along an alternative route that was considered and dismissed roughly a century ago -- back when canals were the "plastics" of their era.
Given the megalomania of this trio, one can only imagine that they will soon join with like-minded maniacs elsewhere on the planet to boldly go where everyone has been before.
Among their likely next initiatives:
Fortunately, we have little to worry about. Because we are protected against the plans of this Axis of Nostalgia by our own advanced defenses and worldview, which, although firmly rooted in the last century, still place us decades and in some cases millennia ahead of our potential opponents.
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What would you do after a rough few months on campus? Roadtrip!
It works the same way for presidents. Though, instead of making the journey in Flounder's brother's Lincoln this one involves -- according to the same people who estimated 11 million people attended the Glenn Beck rally -- 3,000 people, 34 warships, Air Force One, 13 cargo aircraft, three helicopters, and the private aircraft of a coterie of fat cat hangers-on. And instead of heading to Emily Dickinson College to comfort the grieving roommate of Fawn Liebowitz (by treating her to an evening at a local roadhouse to listen to Otis Day and theKnights) this one includes stops in India, Seoul,Korea for a G20 meeting that will involve more slippery smooth talking than"Otter" Stratton could ever muster, Japan, and Indonesia.The rumor that Obama is visiting Indonesia to consider locating his presidential library there is untrue and was denied by the White House moments after Mitch McConnell started to spread it, thus ending the three hours and twenty-two minutes of civility following Tuesday's elections.
For Obama, the trip is bound to be a relief. In fact, a variety of pundits are peddling the idea that given likely gridlock, congressional investigations, and general acrimony at home, that this trip will mark the beginning of a period during which the president will focus on international issues. As the theory goes, presidents can elevate themselves on the international stage without being dragged down by the Congress. Like many such theories, of course, this is nonsense. Nothing would seal Obama's fate as a one-term president quite as fast as a refocusing away from the domestic economic issues that torment his employers, the U.S. electorate.
Furthermore, given those domestic economic problems and the problems associated with our recent overseas misadventures, the United States is going to be both considerably less forward-leaning overseas, considerably more inward-looking generally and, in all likelihood, despite the "trade" sub-theme of the upcoming trip -- which is really a form of mercantilist chest-thumping -- more protectionist going forward.
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While it often seems like most Middle Eastern countries are bogged down solving the problems of the 20th century -- or, in some cases, those of the eighth century -- here in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the United Arab Emirates, they are grappling with the challenges of the century to come.
It has been said before, but it is hard to overstate the striking nature of the successes in this small country on the edge of the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The UAE undoubtedly faces some growing pains and has a long list of reforms that are yet to be made. But, remarkably, in public forums like the one I've just participated in here co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Emirates government, UAE business and government leaders are the first to identify these and debate openly how to prioritize, what models to emulate, what country they want to be a decade from now or in a generation or two.
Here they have carefully studied whether the path to be followed is that of Singapore or of Korea, of Norway or of Ireland ... and where and how it must be unique, playing to their special and evolving comparative advantages. Even as they remain rightfully grateful for the benefits brought by the discovery of oil and gas half a century ago to what was once a desolate, desperately poor corner of the Arab world, they are working harder than any of their neighbors to be less dependent on those first economic windfalls. In their now world-renowned Masdar project, they are building a green city of tomorrow in the desert. But they are doing even more -- investing in technologies being developed in every corner of the world, not just in green energy but in satellites, semi-conductors, and a carefully selected array of other industries.
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We are not in Kansas anymore. More importantly, Kansas is not even where it once was.
Once upon a time and in the minds of most living Americans, Kansas was more than just a synonym or a metaphor for America's heartland, it was the actual geographic mid-point of the United States. You could debate whether the exact location deserving of this honor was closer to Lebanon or Grenola, but at the end of the day, all would agree that by virtue of the power and position of the United States, somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere was the center of the world.
No more. America may be the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But the world's economic center of gravity is shifting away from Kansas much more rapidly than anyone had any reason to expect it would even a decade or so ago. (I know this for a fact -- as a senior economic official in the Clinton Administration who helped put together and run the first U.S. inter-agency effort focused on the world's largest emerging markets, I remember how officials would smile patronizingly and roll their eyes, "Yes, China, India, Brazil, yes... important, but not in our lifetimes.")
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This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Some thoughts to start the week:
-If it takes 90,000 documents to tell you that the war in Afghanistan is not going well, that the Pakistani government is not a reliable ally or that many American troops are frustrated with the situation on the ground, then you haven't been paying attention.
-If the release of the Wikileaks archive had come during the Bush administration, Barack Obama would have been the first person out there hailing Wikileaks for their contribution to America's national security...instead of condemning the organization as the White House did over the weekend.
That said, while there was little that was revelatory in the Wikileaks archive, the appearance of the archive marks what may someday be seen as an important watershed. When President Obama took office, Afghanistan was Bush's war. When President Obama released his new strategy and redoubled our troop presence there, it became his war...but it was still argued that he was cleaning up Bush's mess. Now, after almost half a term in office, not only is this Obama's war...but it is increasingly hard to see it as anything but an ugly, deepening mistake.
The release of this information gives a feeling and a tone that the sparse coverage we have had of the war has been lacking. More than anything, it gives Afghanistan the actual feel of Vietnam. Not only are the goals unachievable but our partners are corrupt and our government's representations of what is happening in Afghanistan are often laced with deceptions, partial truths and self-serving spin.
This is the beginning of the end for this failed venture. Even the President's most ardent supporters will peel away from him on this with increasing speed. He will focus on the exit with increasing urgency. And it will be very interesting to see how the President's new man on the scene, General Petraeus, responds to the policy shifts to come.
In the end, it's all a race between the Afghanisation of this conflict and its Vietnamization. Can we hand it off before it decays further, producing collateral damage that will include the political future of this president?
-It is time for Al Gore to step to the back of the bus. Gore and the other usual suspects in the push for climate legislation have failed. That's not to say they didn't face strong opposition. It's to say that after having lost repeatedly to that opposition it is time for them to step aside and let new leaders present new ideas. Cap and trade is dead. The green movement has gotten the politics wrong. A new approach combining bi-partisan legislation driven by economic and energy security concerns with an emphasis on self-financing initiatives and leveraging private and foreign investment is key. But so too is going to be using regulation as an effective driver and working hard to advance policies at the state level where much of the real innovation in the U.S. is taking place.
-Isn't China's timing of its announcement to move toward a carbon trading system in the next several years fascinating? It comes as a stark counterpoint to America's bumbling on this. It sends a message that China gets it and that we don't. And it's no accident. They know what they are doing and they knew how their decision would be received in the context of the flame out of climate and energy legislation on the Hill. Their decision sent two important messages...
-First, China has a sense of urgency on these issues. We don't. Why? It could be one of the most important questions in the world right now.
-Second, for all the talk -- by the Chinese as well as outside observers -- that they are not ready to lead on the international stage, they're doing it. On climate here and on climate during international negotiations, on currency adjustment, on economic reform, on Iran, on North Korea, they have led or been hugely effective behind the scenes. Increasingly, reports come out of bilateral and multilateral international sessions that the Chinese have been impressive and have driven the discussions-sometimes through advancing their ideas, often by simply going slow and knowing the world can't go faster than they are willing to. They are proving to be the canniest diplomatic players on the international stage at the moment. You may not love everything they're doing, but you have got to admire their effectiveness.
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What if the idea of Haiti as a country simply won't work?
They have been trying for two centuries. Even before the horrific tragedy of the earthquake six months ago, Haiti festered. The economy has averaged one percent growth per year for the past four decades (pdf). Haiti's per capita income places it 203rd among all nations. In purchasing power parity terms, it is $1,300 per year, putting it roughly on the same level as Uganda, Burkina Faso and Mali. In nominal terms, the per capita number is only $790, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere by far -- despite Haiti's proximity and ties to the richest economy on earth and aid flows and commitments nearing $10 billion since 1990.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Haitian experiment as a free republic that began with the successful slave rebellion of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines in the first years of the 19th century has by many measures been a failure since the beginning. Today, Haiti's per capita GDP is less than a sixth that of the country with which it shares the island of Hispaniola and therefore many characteristics and circumstances, the Dominican Republic.
Haiti has had dictatorships and democracy, external rule and global assistance. Throughout its history, its governments have failed virtually all the most rudimentary tests of administrative or policy competence. It has seen almost three dozen coups, averaging one every six years or so. Haiti ranks 126th in the world on education expenditures. Roughly half the population is illiterate. Something like 8 out of 10 college graduates emigrate. The country has only the most rudimentary telecommunications, power generation or transport infrastructure outside of Port au Prince. The majority of people didn't have access to basic health care even before January's earthquake. The leadership has consistently been viewed as corrupt, and its elites have consistently been viewed as out of touch with its people. The top one percent of the population control almost 50 percent of the country's assets. It is almost alone amongst the nations of the Caribbean to be unable to take advantage of the potential for tourism. Deforestation and ill-considered agricultural practices have decimated agri-business on the island-with a few notable exceptions. Manufacturing has never taken in a meaningful way despite much vaunted efforts to manufacture baseballs or clothing.
The human tragedy of Haiti is unspeakable. The promise of its people remains great.
But what if the concept of Haiti is the problem? Haitians speak French and Creole as a vestige of a colonial era that began its decline over two centuries ago. That the island is divided between French and Spanish speaking halves is yet another consequence of European historical caprice. The country's people are descendants of slaves who were torn from Africa and subjected to inhumane treatment as a consequence of a despicable and fundamentally immoral economic model that was recognized as intolerable and unsustainable also decades before the country's founding.
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This may have been the best month for Brazil since about June 1494. That's when the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed granting Portugal everything in the new world east of an imaginary line that was declared to exist 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. This ensured that what was to become Brazil would be Portuguese and thus develop a culture and identity very different from the rest of Spanish Latin America. This guaranteed the world would have samba, churrasco, "The Girl from Ipanema," and through some incredibly fortuitous if twisted chain of events, Gisele Bundchen.
While it took Brazil sometime to live up to the backhanded maxim that it was "the country of tomorrow and always would be," there is little doubt that tomorrow has arrived for the country even if much work remains to be done to overcome its serious social challenges and tap its extraordinary economic potential.
The evidence that something new and important was happening in Brazil began to build years ago, when then President Cardoso engineered a shift to economic orthodoxy that stabilized a country racked by cycles of boom and bust and mind-blowing inflation. It has gained momentum however, throughout the extraordinary term of the country's current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Some of that momentum is due to Lula's commitment to preserving the economic foundations laid by Cardoso, a courageous political move for a lifelong labor leader from the opposition Workers Party. Some of it is due to luck, a changing global energy paradigm that helped make Brazil's 30 years of investment in biofuels start to pay off in important new ways, massive discoveries of oil off Brazil's coast and growing demand from Asia that has enabled Brazil to become a world agricultural export leader and assume the role of "breadbasket of Asia." But much of it is due to great skill on the part of Brazil's leaders in seizing a moment that many of their predecessors likely would have fumbled.
Of those leaders, much of the credit goes to President Lula who has become a bit of a rock star on the international scene, harnessing energy, drive, charisma, uncanny intuition, and common sense so effectively that his lack of formal education has hardly been an impediment. Some goes to other members of his team, such as his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, a former energy minister who has become a very tough chief of staff and a possible successor to Lula. But I believe a large amount of it ought to go to Celso Amorim, who has masterminded a transformation of Brazil's role in the world that is almost unprecedented in modern history. He has been Lula's foreign minister since 2003 (he also served in the same role in the 1990s) but I think there is a fair case to be made that he is currently the world's most successful foreign minister.
It is impossible to pinpoint just one turning point in Amorim's efforts to transform Brazil from a lumbering regional power of dubious international clout into one of the most important players on the world stage, acknowledged by global consensus to play an unprecedented leading role. It may have come when he played a central role helping to engineer a pushback by emerging countries against a business-as-usual power play by the U.S. and Europe during the Cancun trade talks in 2003. It might have been the canny way the Brazilians have used issues such as their biofuels leadership to forge new dialogues and influence either with the United States or with other emerging powers. It certainly involved his embrace of the idea of transforming the BRICs from acronym to important geopolitical collaboration, working with his counterparts in Russia, India and China to institutionalize the dialogue between the countries and to coordinate their messages. (Arguably the BRIC helped most by this alliance is Brazil. Russia, China and India all earn places at the table due to military capabilities, population size, economic clout or resources. Brazil has all these things...but less than the others.) It also involved countless other things from the Brazil's deepened and tightened ties with countries like China, it's promotion of both investment flows and a reputation for being comparatively secure in the face of global economic reversals, the comfort level America's new President has with his Brazilian counterpart -- even extending to encouraging them to play a role as a conduit to, for example, the Iranians. Agree or not with their every move in places like Honduras or in the OAS on Cuba, Brazil has also continued to play an important regional role even as it is clear its focus has shifted to the global stage.
Nothing illustrates how far Brazil has come or how effective the Lula-Amorim team has been than the events of the past few weeks. First, the countries of the world cashier the G8 and embrace the G20, guaranteeing Brazil a permanent place at the most important table in the world. Next, Brazil becomes the first country in South America to be awarded the right to host the Olympics. Yesterday's FT carried news that "Asia and Brazil lead rise in consumer confidence", a reflection on the reputation that the government has effectively sold (with the bulk of the credit going to a resurgent Brazilian private sector.) And this week's stories out of the IMF-World Bank meeting in Istanbul show a further institutionalization of Brazil's new role with agreement to change the structure of the International Monetary Fund. According to today's Washington Post: "The nations also preliminarily agreed to reshape the fund's voting structure, promising a blueprint for giving more clout to emerging giants like Brazil and China by January 2011."
Not a bad few days work. And while it's Brazil's Finance Ministry you'll find at IMF-World Bank Meetings, the undisputed architect of this remarkable transformation of Brazil's role in Amorim.
Much work remains to be done, of course. Part of it has to do with the new role that has been shaped. Brazil wants a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council and more of a leadership role in other international institutions. It may well earn these, but it will have to maintain its growth and stability to get there. Further, Brazil seems inclined to minimize regional threats such as those posed by Venezuela (Brazilians tend to look down their nose at their neighbors to the north almost as much as they do toward their Argentine friends to the south ... and thus they under-estimate the ability of men like Hugo Chavez to do too much damage.) And they have an election coming up that may change the cast of players and of course, that can alter the current trajectory in any number of ways -- good and bad.
But it is hard to think of another foreign minister who has so effectively orchestrated such a meaningful transformation of his country's international role. And that's why if I were asked today to cast a ballot, my vote for world's best foreign minister would likely go to Santos' native son, Celso Amorim.
One note on yesterday's post: I received a note late yesterday from a spokesperson for the British Embassy taking issue with my assertion that the British Ambassador had joked that he wasn't getting much attention from the Obama administration. The thrust of their point was that "the Embassy denies categorically that the Ambassador made these remarks, even in jest, and that in our view the relationship between the UK and USA remains as close as ever -- whatever the noises off by febrile commentators in the media." While I stand by my story, their email to me on this was so civil and well-argued that I felt it only fair to pass on their views. I would take the "febrile commentators" point personally, but I had a flu shot only yesterday so they can't possibly mean me.
AFP PHOTO/JUAN MABROMATA
As Barack Obama trotted the globe toward the end of last week, back home a story on the technology front was creating a bit of a buzz. Google announced its plans to introduce a new operating system called Chrome OS that tech sector experts saw as a frontal assault on Microsoft. Chrome would go after Microsoft where it lived, attempting to offer an alternative to its Windows franchise that has dominated since the dawn of the PC era it helped make possible. But Chrome would employ a new paradigm, the idea the future of computers is in harnessing the power of the web, that vast computing power, storage capacity and other resources can be found in the "clouds" of computers that are linked together in the Internet universe.
Chrome's full potential is far off. It will first only be introduced for netbooks later this year. Laptop and desktop versions are many months away. But reading about the announcement and talking to a bunch of computer users, I came away with the sense that the market was viewing this introduction with great hope.
Why? Well, in large part because Microsoft is seen as having become a complacent bully. Microsoft was a tech darling in the 1990s, a symbol of American ingenuity and a likely engine of future American growth. When its market capitalization grew greater than that of GM, it made headlines. Ironically, this ascendancy came at the same time as America's post-Cold War assumption of its role of sole-superpower. In the mid-90s, America and Microsoft were clearly the future of the world.
Then both started to abuse their power. America, in the wake of 9/11, undercut the international system it built, rhetorically flaunted its hallowed values and then crudely and repeatedly undercut them in its behaviors. Microsoft went from a symbol of the garage-launched entrepreneurial energy of the tech revolution to being a ruthless crusher of competitors. In fact, it became so dominant, that it felt it could foist on the American public products that didn't work, were full of bugs, were vulnerable to security breaches and, as in the case of Vista, should never have been released in the first place.
Microsoft blew it. Today, consumers and specialists alike are rooting for it to fail. (Hence the love affair with Apple which is seen as the resilient insurgent, the better unconventional choice, even in its advertisements.) Fortunately, for tech consumers worldwide, the growth of Microsoft and the tech sector led to the birth of competitors like Google (founded just over a decade ago.) Google itself is now so large that many wonder if it will become complacent or employ ever-more unfair competitive practices. But it is also big enough that it actually has a chance to undo Microsoft's stranglehold on the inside of the world's computers (of all sizes and shapes), perhaps the most important real estate on the planet earth today (which is appropriately largely virtual).
Under George W. Bush, America also blew the opportunity to consolidate the position it achieved as victor of the Cold War. For years now, many have been rooting for America to fail as well. Certainly, this was never so clear as in the calls for an end to American capitalism during the peak of the financial crisis. But here is where America's fate has thus far diverged from that of its industrial doppelganger Microsoft (the fall of GM, Microsoft's predecessor in the flagship company role, echoes and amplifies many of the points made above...it too grew complacent, ignored the consumer...and invited the competition that has crushed it.) Because while the American brand endured untold damage during the previous administration and continues to be damaged with each passing week of this economic crisis for which we are seen to be responsible, there is still no alternative brand with anything like the appeal of our system, our values or, even today, our track record for creating opportunity for our people.
There is No Alternative (TINA) was a favorite watchword of Margaret Thatcher, used by her to indicate that market capitalism was the only way, and used by her supporters to indicate that she was the only viable option available for saving Britain from the slough of despond it had entered in the 70s. Her enemies were the socialist ideas that had grown so popular in Europe in the post-war era. Soviet communism cooperated by failing during her years in power. And she, of course, spoke for a perspective that was not just British, but was embraced by her soul-brother Ronald Reagan. In a way, it all seems very old-fashioned now. That world seems far away with the Cold War over, the G8 on its last legs, emerging powers rising, America's brand so damaged. And yet, search the horizon. America's greatest ally remains TINA.
Barack Obama can lose his star luster and conduct only marginally effective, workman-like diplomacy as he did last week, and still, post-Bush, post-Iraq, post-Guantanamo, post-Lehman America remains at the center of every critical discussion, the most important player, the basis for all comparisons. China, the rising rival, gains its power from descriptions of how it will have an economy equal to America's within decades...but it is no real alternative. Its political system is defective, fraying at its ethnic edges. Its economic growth is admirable but when we get to the far side of this crisis and the world is depending on China to pick up the slack in the place of diminished American demand, we will see that there are perhaps 50 million Chinese who are anything like Western consumers, a true addition to the market roughly the size of a mid-sized European economy. China with Russia and others seek to sell an alternative to the dollar and the response of world markets is deeply skeptical. Other revolutionary voices for the most part echo the failed approaches of the past.
Had there been a good alternative, now would have been a great moment for it to emerge. In fact, it is perhaps the most telling indictment of the alternatives that are out there...politically, economically, socially, in terms of world leadership...that after such a bad streak, that nothing is really taking hold as Plan B...which creates a terrific opportunity for Barack Obama and his team. We can learn from the Microsoft and General Motors examples. We can seek to adapt to new realities. The trick is going to be convincing the world that a United States that grows at 2 percent a year (which may well be the average for the next 5 years) offers a better approach than a China or an India that grows at 10. Or that the United States offers a better way of life for its people or is a country that deserves the leadership role it has.
It is clear to me that absent a strong recovery, real healthcare reform that meets the needs of all Americans, genuine leadership on climate, and an effort to address the flaws in our system that are exacerbating inequality, sooner or later a weakened, necessarily more inward looking U.S. will find that TINA has flown the coop. It is a telling irony that left-leaning development advocate Susan George offered as a successor to TINA, TATA...which means "there are thousands of alternatives" but also echoes the name of the Indian entrepreneur who now owns the auto brands that were among the British industrial flagships of the Thatcher era (Jaguar and Land Rover) and is the producer of the Nano, the small car designed for the emerging market demands of tomorrow. It is a reminder that things do change and that history suggests that almost certainly there will be alternatives.
But with some luck, America can play the role adopted by the innovators who last at the top, resisting the complacency that TINA's love brings and by seeking to become the even better alternative to ourselves the era requires.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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.