Perhaps by the time you read this, the asteroid named 2005 YU 55 will have sped past the earth, missing the top of your head by like 200,000 miles, which is nothing in astronomical terms. In fact, given that most items in space are light years apart, the near rendezvous with the 1,300 foot wide chunk of rock and ice is essentially the same thing as a direct hit.
Yet, because astronomers have told us not to worry, I haven't noticed long lines of cars heading out of the city and up toward higher ground. I don't recall reading about a run on hard hats or Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck heading into outer space to save us. There's been no panic. Even though a slight miscalculation on the part of the astronomers who track space rocks could have left us vulnerable to a devastating direct hit. This rock the size of skyscraper would obliterate a city if such a collision were to take place, even one of considerable size that has -- cockroach like -- resisted many other attempts by nature to dispose of it, like Los Angeles.
But despite the fact that many of them grew up lonely in musty-smelling rooms chock-full of collectible action-figures from Battlestar Gallactica and large wall calendars counting down the days before the next Comic Con, we take the reassuring words we have heard from our astronomers to heart. (Haven't we seen the movies, folks? Don't we realize that all abuse these nerds must have suffered in high school scarred them and left them with plenty of motive to drop a decimal place or two, move to a shack in the Rockies and watch the unhappy ending while snuggly tucked under their Luke Skywalker sheets?)
Jay Melosh, who I am hoping is actually a perfectly normal guy who played baseball and has gone on dates, is one of those "experts" upon whom we are relying. He is, according to the Los Angeles Times, a specialist in "impact cratering." What motivates a guy to choose such a life's work? It's probably better that we don't ask. Because we want him to be right. We need him to be right. After all, he is one of those whose words we find comforting enough to allow us to go about our business while 2005 YU55 hurtles straight at us. "This one," Melosh said, "would be a city-buster, but would not wipe out civilization."
What a relief. It would only destroy everything in a 60-mile wide radius if it hit land or create a monster tidal wave 200 feet high if it fell into the sea.
But we take him at his word because he's an expert. (Admittedly one who is far from both big cities and tidal-wave vulnerable shorelines.) Experts like him are telling us not to worry. And once again, trusting souls that we are, we are buying it.
We just have to hope that these experts are better than the experts who told us that deregulating international financial markets or allowing banks to cook up all sorts of derivative markets without any adult supervision would make us all safer. We have to hope that they are smarter than the experts that told us that bankers could be trusted to "self-regulate." We have to trust that they know more than the geniuses who got paid tens of millions to watch after other peoples money and who assured them the best place for it was with Bernie Madoff or in MF Global Holdings.
We have to trust that they are more attuned to reality than those who even now still suggest that once-in-a-hundred-year financial catastrophes occur every 100 years even though we could well be on the verge of our second such event in 3 years any minute now.
No, surely these underpaid socially-ostracized geeks whose word we are taking at face-value about the future of civilization must be better than all those Armani-suited, Harvard-educated millionaires who collect supermodels like the rest of us collect lint in our navels. Or the highly touted geniuses who regulate financial markets or the glamorous billionaire publishing magnate politicians who tell us not to worry they will return Italy to its former glory. Or the air traffic controllers who manage to keep the near-misses to a bare minimum. Or the highly-trained NFL or FIFA referees who never get one wrong. Or the doctors who never make a wrong diagnosis.
No, these are experts. We have nothing to worry about. Having said that, I have two final points for you. One, the next time you see a nerdy little kid who has taught himself elfin and can recite verbatim all the dialogue from the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, hug him. He needs love. He needs to feel like he and the rest of civilization have at least something in common. And while you're at it, buy him an extra battery or two for his calculator. And two, having thought about how well the best experts are doing for us protecting us from global financial calamity and ensuring safe outcomes in other expert-dependent government systems from healthcare to transportation, I'm writing this from a secure corner of my basement. While wearing a snorkel.
One of the primary ways the attacks of September 11, 2001 were supposed to have changed the United States was by revealing to us our vulnerability within our own borders to terrorist attacks. But of course, we had seen many terrorist attacks before then.
We had seen them throughout American history -- shootings and hijackings and bombings. The destruction of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 remains an open wound today. The 1995 Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to blow up 12 airliners en route to the United States and possibly kill as many as 4,000 people was a contributing factor leading to a major heightening of airport security by the Clinton Administration a year later. The Oklahoma City bombing, also in 1995, is still regularly invoked as a sign of our vulnerability to domestic terrorists. Indeed, it was in 1995 that I first remember Richard Clarke, then a colleague in the Clinton Administration and a man who had been both prophetic and evangelical in his warnings of the al Qaeda threat, first describing to me what he sensed that threat to be.
Even just two years before 9/11 we went on high alert on the eve of the millennium, stopping a well-formed, multi-pronged terror threat aimed at our West Coast.
The 9/11 attacks were not even the first attack on the World Trade Center, that having taken place in 1993, also having involved Yousef, Mohammed and a half dozen or so others. In fact, several years before 9/11, I participated in a conference co-sponsored by the Naval War College that was entirely focused on terrorist threats on Wall Street. It took place on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Among those helping to support the event was Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of his team from the company attended the event which considered a variety of potential ways terrorists might target the U.S. financial community including bombings using trucks or aircraft. And a few years later, some of those from Cantor Fitzgerald who attended the event would die when their offices in the World Trade Center were consumed in the attacks we have spent much of the past few weeks commemorating.
The morning of Sept. 11, I was to have met with an admiral whose office was adjacent to the wing of the building that was destroyed. But at six o'clock the night before my office received a call saying that he would have to reschedule the meeting. I was pretty put-off. For almost 15 hours.
As a consequence of the postponement of that meeting, I was in my office on the morning of Sept. 11. I was on the phone with a friend who lived in Lower Manhattan a little before 9 a.m. Suddenly, he became agitated and said, "Oh my God, oh my God." I asked what was wrong and he described for me what he had just seen, a plane flying into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He suggested that I turn on the television in my office, which I did.
Soon after, I walked into the office next door which was occupied by my business partner at the time, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tony Lake. We were joined by another colleague, former Deputy CIA Director John Gannon. It was there that we saw the second plane hit the tower. At that moment, Tony said, "Al Qaeda" softly to himself. John nodded. It was, at that point, only a well-informed guess. But again, both men had been involved for most of the past decade in a growing effort to understand and contain the threat posed by al Qaeda and other similar groups.
Al Qaeda had officially "declared war" on the United States in 1996 and that the Clinton Administration, that had been tracking Bin Laden and his associates since almost its very first days had made him a principle target of its intelligence and counter-terror efforts years before 9/11. In 1998, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency had reported that al Qaeda was planning attacks on the United States and that personnel were being trained to hijack aircraft. In August of that year, our embassies in East Africa were attacked.
We went to lunch that day at an outdoor café near our offices, joined by another colleague, Susan Rice, today the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember a meandering, vaguely surreal conversation touching upon what that day's events might mean and semi-deserted streets over which periodically could be heard jet fighters rushing overhead through the bright blue skies. There was a sense that threats which had been underestimated by many in Washington might now be taken more seriously, but even then there was also a sense that we would need to be careful to succumb to the temptation to over-reaction. As John Gannon would later often say, "the terrorists are not twelve feet tall," meaning that we should not succumb to the temptation to overstate the threat from them. And yet, of course, he was at the vanguard of those who also worked tirelessly to identify and contain the very real threats that existed.
As profound and horrifying a tragedy as it was therefore, 9/11 was not new but part of a pattern, not the beginning of a threat but in fact, one of the few instances in which the threat was realized by a small hate group with limited, sporadic capability to successfully follow-through on its grandiose, malevolent plans.
Nonetheless, due to the gravity of what happened a decade ago, we have had a tendency to set aside the historical context. It helped with the healing and indeed, it seemed respectful to those who were lost to frame the attacks as though they were something new, the act of a great enemy, a piece of a much grander struggle akin to past conflicts that took a high toll. I know when I think of those that were lost, personalizing it as we all do to the stories closest to us -- the kid who grew up across the street from me who was killed in Tower Two or my tennis partner whose sister in law was a flight attendant on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon -- there is some comfort from such an approach.
But comfort aside -- and it's no small thing, comfort, in the face of such grief -- the view is wrong. 9/11 was one of the few realized plots of a small band of outcast criminals. Such plots and such groups will always exist and we are within our rights and indeed, it is our responsibility to civilization, to eradicate such groups and take all reasonable steps to minimize such threats. But it does no one any good to overstate the risks and indeed, as we have seen, it has done us great damage to do so ... even as it has done service to the goals of al Qaeda and other radical extremists.
A decade later the attack has changed us because it touched us and altered irrevocably millions of lives here and across the Middle East. But if you look at the great issues before the United States in 2011, terror is no greater a threat nor any greater an issue today than it was throughout the 1990s. It is important, but our great challenges are the reinvention of our economy, the education of our children, the protection of our environment, the rise of new great powers and a rapidly changing global order, and the implications of participating in an interconnected, risk-filled, under-regulated, untransparent global economy.
9/11 was a heartbreaking event, an important chapter, but it was neither a beginning nor an end, not redefining nor an appropriate lodestar for future policies. As a consequence, tributes having been appropriately paid, memories having been rekindled, it is time to realize that the biggest threat posed that day comes from misunderstanding it and that the best way to contain the risks posed by the men who orchestrated it is to put them and their actions in the right historical context.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
Is it safe to come out now?
I have just climbed out from under my steel-reinforced desk to see how Washington withstood the Great Quake of 2011. Having surveyed the wreckage, I'm tempted to crawl right back.
It was horrifying. Not the earthquake. That was, for those of you who missed it, much like several bad Indian meals I have had. A few seconds of rumbling. Momentary concern something messier might happen. And then nothing followed by a vague lingering sense that it could start all over again.
No, what was horrifying was watching a national capital that has spent the past decade "hardening" its assets against a potential terrorist attack mark the approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11 with hysteria, incompetence, and lunacy.
Following the first signs of the quake, which were akin to having an upstairs neighbor moving around a living room sofa, and a bit of swaying, which was akin to what you might feel after a shot or two of tequila, I slowly got up from my desk to joke with my colleagues about it. Claire, my equally stalwart next-door neighbor, did likewise. But when we strolled down the hall to find our associates we discovered a ghost town. Indeed, within seconds, the entire building had apparently evacuated. Washington has not moved so quickly since the last time Congress declared a recess and the members had to rush to catch the flights to their junkets.
Also within seconds, the Twitterverse was quivering like much of the Eastern seaboard had done only moments before. 140-character survival stories commanded the imagination of America's Eastern elites. That said, it was also impossible to make a phone call. Cell service effectively stopped. So too did work in Washington as folks milled around in the street congratulating themselves on their courage in the face of a catastrophe of the type imminently called for by the Aztec calendar. Work for many was then canceled. People headed home to recover from their 20-second brushes with oblivion. The problem was they headed home all at once. Gridlock stopped traffic throughout D.C.'s downtown area. And we were all left trapped on side streets of the city glaring at each other and wondering what would have happened had something more significant than a gentle 20-second massage actually occurred?
Speaking of massages, the Washington Monument apparently could barely handle its half a minute or so of being the world's largest vibrator. Cracks appeared and tourists were today turned away while its structural integrity could be assessed. Cracks also appeared in the National Cathedral and in several of Washington's schools. Notably, given all of this, cracks had to be appearing in the expensive facade of preparedness that had supposedly been put into place in the wake of attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Californians, who consider a 5.8-magnitude quake barely enough to toss their arugula and goat-cheese salads, scoffed. Haitians and the Japanese no doubt shook their heads. But you have to wonder how aspiring terrorists viewed the whole nonsense. There were probably scores of them in and around D.C. watching, twittering each other and immediately thereafter downgrading their orders for munitions. Who needs bombs when the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth is already, as my dear Dad would say, "more skittish than a menstruating fawn"?
The city with the highest bullshit tolerance in the world apparently is not so good with real stress. My lunch appointment today, 24 hours after the non-catastrophe, was canceled "because of the earthquake." I'd take it personally if I didn't have so much evidence that this is a city with the intestinal fortitude of an inch worm … or me after one of those rogue Indian meals.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Where is Rick Perry when you need him? Just when I thought it was safe to embrace science, comes a news story in The Guardian entitled "Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientists." The subhead adds, "Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat."
Holy shit. I thought it was bad enough that the ice was melting off Antarctica so fast that golf resort developers are already drawing up blueprints and plans for holding the McMurdo Sound Open in 2020 or so.
Now, we now only have to fear rising sea-levels that will displace millions, submerge Wall Street (yet again), and wipe out most of Florida (ever cloud has its silver lining ... even if it is a cloud of ozone), but if the flood waters don't get us, E.T. will!
That's really too much.
Given the news, I hardly blame the president for spending a little time with his family on Martha's Vineyard. We need to be with our loved ones. And besides, Martha's Vineyard will be gone soon one way or another.
If only I had the absolutely disregard for science of a man like Rick Perry. After all, this is a presidential candidate who not only rejects the proven science that demonstrates the human contribution to global warming, he boasts that in Texas they teach both evolution and creationism. He is practically running on the same anti-science platform that was embraced by the Papacy around the time of Galileo. And if only I could bring myself to buy into his nonsense, then perhaps I wouldn't have to worry about both global warming and being obliterated by a little green man with a ray-gun.
According to the Guardian:
The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.
"A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions," the report states.
A pre-emptive strike? Gak! But wait! There is a bit of good news in this. While the Rick Perrys of this world don't believe in actual science based on millennia of data and sophisticated analysis in hundreds of laboratories worldwide, they do have a proven track record of accepting as gospel, so to speak, impossible to prove stories about invisible creatures in outer space. So while the data about climate change may not persuade them to work to change our destructive behavior, perhaps speculative scenarios about how greenhouse gases may trigger an alien Armageddon might just get them to take the problem seriously. Even if those scenarios were actually dreamed up by scientists...
Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
Mario Tama/Gettty Images
With new reports of flood-related calamity in Pakistan today, it is time to launch a different sort of international response to the problem in the Indus River Valley. Because as tragic as this disaster that has shattered the lives of perhaps as many as three New York Cities full of people has been, it is really only a prelude to even greater problems.
On one level, those problems are associated with the ever-present possibility of future floods, a threat that exists because of inadequate flood control infrastructure, flood warning mechanisms, and flood response resources within the country. On another level, as highlighted in Steve Solomon's insightful August 15 op-ed in the New York Times, perhaps an even greater problem in the years ahead -- due to both population growth and melting Himalayan glaciers that might even be a culprit in the current disaster -- will be linked to potential water scarcity, droughts, and resulting food shortages in the same region.
But there is a third looming problem, also addressed but not fully explored in Solomon's piece. That is the problem associated with the fact that the waters of the Indus are shared -- which is to say competed for -- by Pakistan and India. The less water for irrigation, drinking and energy production in the region, the more likely it is that there is conflict between these two nuclear states. Indeed, despite the ethnic and political tensions that have existed between these countries since Pakistan's founding, it could well be that water rather than religion or border disputes is the most likely trigger of future fighting, a prospect made deeply unsettling given the arsenal these two massive nations possess.
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Everybody is concerned that Barack Obama is not emotional enough. MSNBC has seemingly devoted weeks of programming to try to get the president to be outraged about the oil spill in the Gulf. Liberal commentators are suggesting that the key for managing the crisis is that the president should show his feelings -- weep like Representative Melancon, rail like James Carville, mist up like a CNN reporter covering virtually any natural disaster.
But that's not what worries me. First of all, I don't think it will help a blessed thing to have Obama chew the scenery like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (or frankly, like Al Pacino in any movie -- personally, I think he thinks scenery chewing is a great way to add fiber to his diet). It's not who he is and American voters are smart enough to know that. What they want is not histrionics. They want action.
That said, I do have a worry. I think Obama is not unemotional. I think he is catatonic. I think he may be shell shocked. Let's look at the past week or two. Of course, we start with the Gulf. We have the Israeli flotilla fiasco. We have the thousandth U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan. We have the Sestak mess and the Romanoff sequel. We have a Blagoevich trial starting in Illinois that is sure to feature several of the president's closest advisors prominently. We have essentially no job growth other than a bunch of folks the government has hired temporarily to work on the census. We have the stock market teetering. We have Europe wracked by new worries about bank derivative exposure and countries like Hungary. We have Iran's nuclear program buying week after week and little in the way of a global response. Now we have reports that Jim Webb's favorite country, Myanmar, is working on going nuclear. Who's helping them? The North Koreans who are on the verge of a shooting war with the South Koreans. The Japanese Prime Minister tries to do a solid for the U.S. and what happens to him? Booted out of office. Mexican political bigshots are disappearing off the streets. America is on the opposite side of the immigration issue from the President. It's hot out. The worst hurricane season in years is being predicted. Umpires can't even call baseball plays correctly. Larry King was flirting with Lady Gaga.
Emotional? We should be thankful the President of the United States is not curled up in a ball on the floor of the Oval Office weeping. That he can still get dressed in the morning, that he is still willing to show up for work, is a sign of great fortitude.
It's easy to carp. It's easy to give advice. It's not easy to sit where the buck stops. It's not an easy time to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And perhaps the hysteria engines in the U.S. media ought to think about that when they are barking nonsensical emotional advice at the White House in a set up that is very reminiscent of the tactics the U.S. used to get Manuel Noriega out of his hideaway in Panama. (For those of you who don't remember, that involved large, loud speakers...)
Frankly, what the president is doing, staying cool and trying to handle items one at a time is precisely what we need right now. My sense is that as bad as things are in the world, they are only going to get worse this summer. Markets will teeter. Wars will spark. The weather will not cooperate. It's going to be a long hot one... and that is precisely why we ought to be delighted we have a cool customer in the White House.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
In yesterday's post, I noted some of the most relevant developments in the political world that've occurred recently. But we're hardly out of the neck of the woods. The summer of 2010 promises to be an ... interesting time.
As promised, here's an idea of the potential Black Swans to come:
1. Wars of Summer, Part I: The Koreas
As we've seen just in the past couple of days, "engagement" doesn't seem to be doing the trick with North Korea. When you have two countries that have been pointing guns at each other for half a century and one of them is run by the kind of guy who makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look like Albert Schweitzer trouble is always just a Dear Leader moodswing away. When one of those countries starts firing torpedoes at the other, that raises the temperature a bit ... and when that same country has a diplomatic tantrum because its neighbor actually doesn't like having its ships sunk, you get a sense of how off-balance and dangerous the whole thing is. (You also get dictionary editors everywhere rushing to insert North Korea's reaction into the official definition of chutzpah right where "burying your husband in a rented suit" used to be.) While most people assume this is just one of those periodic Korean peninsula hiccups, you never know.
2. Wars of Summer, Part II: Somalia, Yemen, etc.
These places are just two examples of plenty where conditions are chronically horrible and getting worse. If you're going to worry about the Koreas where the stakes are high and both sides would pay an unimaginable price for a conflict, don't rule out conflicts in places where everyone has a gun and life is cheap.
3. Wars of Summer, Part III: Israel, Syria, Lebanon
Speaking of places not to rule out, over the years few places have proven themselves more reliable breeding grounds for warfare than the borders of the state of Israel. And tensions are rising along the most northern of these as we speak. The Israelis are worried about growing stockpiles of missiles being deployed in Lebanon, new missile capabilities in Syria and Iranian mischief in both places. Of all the possibilities for tensions turning to a shooting war this summer, this one may top the list. And, what a great distraction it would make from Iran's nuclear issues (or what great cover for an Israeli strike against the Iranians who are paying for the missiles and underwriting Hezbollah trouble-makers in Lebanon and elsewhere).
4. The Other "Big Spill"
While Washington works itself up into a lather over the spill in the Gulf, it effectively ignores a much bigger catastrophe. A recent NPR report indicated that the amount of man made pollutants that have flowed into the Gulf during the current crisis flow into the air every 2 minutes or so. That's 30 crises like this an hour. 360 a day. Over 1,000 a month. That means this summer there will be 3000 crises like this offshore drilling calamity ... and throughout this period the likelihood that the U.S. government or the world move any closer to addressing this much larger, much less photogenic disaster is pretty close to zero.
5. The Financial Crisis They Call "The Big One"
Remember the financial crisis that took down Bear Sterns? Now we look at that as only prelude. Remember the one that took down Lehman, Merrill and AIG? Perhaps we'll look at that as just the appetizer. Because with the world economy now trembling at the thought of further deterioration in the Eurozone, it wouldn't take much to send us into territory that was unimaginable even two years ago. Likely? No. But possible? Well, let's see, Japan has a debt to GDP ratio that is worse than most of Europe's. What if the markets sour on lending them any more money? What if that takes down some of their banks and they start calling in IOUs and cut lending in places like China? Tim Geithner said this week that overall China's economy is not a bubble. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have some pretty big bubbles in it (see: real estate).
6. The Dem Rebound
The big political story in the United States is supposed to be the losses Dems will suffer in mid-term elections in November. Big time members of the punditocracy are calling for a big swing to the right, a likely Republican take-over in the House and even the possibility of one in the Senate. But by the end of the summer, once campaigns have started in earnest, the loony, fringy, dysfunctionality of the "just say no" party will be revealed and the big surprise U.S. political story of the year will start to take shape. The Dems may have modest losses in November, but it won't be anything like the washout the chattering classes expect.
7. Argentina's Surprise Victory
Despite Lionel Messi's dominance on the soccer field, Argentina won't win the World Cup this year. That'll be Spain. But maybe as the summer ticks on a few more people will start to realize that having done everything wrong and utterly alienated the financial system by telling the big banks to take a hike a few years ago, Argentina is actually having something like a recovery worthy of a tango. Oh, all is not rosy to be sure, but take a look at its per capita GDP in purchasing power parity terms. It just passed Chile to be number one in Latin America (according to Latin Business Chronicle). Between this and the U.S. dollar strengthening despite the fact that the U.S. has also done practically everything wrong (and China's flourishing for years despite its penchant for, how shall we put it, well, communism) who knows... this could be the summer that moral hazard makes its long awaited big comeback.
8. Someone Writes the Truth About Financial Reform
This is the least likely black swan on this list. But it is possible that once financial reform passes later this summer and is signed into law that someone will note that "the most sweeping financial reforms since the Great Depression" actually don't amount to much when it comes to fixing the problems we face. Mortgage defaults, unregulated global derivatives markets, unintended consequences of interconnectivity of markets, lack of global regulatory mechanisms, failure to address the trading culture's perversion of finance, etc... this is like the health care bill and Beatlemania: not the real thing, just an incredible simulation.
9. The White House Gets Humble
Ok, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is the most improbable of the Black Swans. But the folks in the White House are good people at heart and smart ones. Sooner or later they will realize that their mixed, incomplete record in office trumps the historic nature of their victory and that a little humility is in order ... if not because they feel that way then because by alienating even their most enthusiastic supporters they are doing themselves great political damage. As for the American people, they would do better with more realistic expectations. We all want Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt whenever we elect a president. But the vast majority of the time we get Chester A. Arthur. Bush was Chester A. Arthur. Clinton was Chester A. Arthur. And in all likelihood Obama will end up being Chester A. Arthur.
10. Iran Cooperates
Ok, never mind. This one is most likely. But the dangerous twist here is that cooperation from Iran is actually just them buying time to move toward their goal of possessing nuclear weapons technology. The only thing that will stop them from such a stalling course is if they are much further ahead of schedule than we think and that the big black swan of this summer will be the announcement that the world's largest state sponsor of terror will actually have gone nuclear.
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Although it's hard to believe, there have actually been developments this week that were more difficult to understand than the finale of Lost -- which is saying something since the show was roughly as incomprehensible as a boozy 3 a.m. chat with Lindsay Lohan.
If all that's confusing to you, brace yourself -- the summer ahead may prove to be a real head spinner. And more on that note in tomorrow's offering. Stay tuned...
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The disaster in Haiti did not occur yesterday.
While the nation's latest tragedy was triggered by yesterday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake, its real roots were not 10 kilometers beneath the earth's surface as seismologists concluded. Rather, they were in two centuries of misfortune that have plagued the country and most heart-breakingly in the particular failures of the international community and the country's leaders to help the country during the most recent decade and half -- a period when real hope backed with real money seemed to bloom and then, just as quickly, fade.
It was the crushing poverty in the hemisphere's poorest nation that resulted in Port-au-Prince being a city of ramshackle homes of unreinforced concrete or worse, shanties assembled of odd-shaped bits of rusty, corrugated metal, scrap wood, cardboard and old packing crates. It was decades of neglect that made rebar an unaffordable luxury for virtually all on the island or that left communications, power and water systems so underdeveloped that even prior to the earthquake they were operating at what even other poor nations would consider crisis levels.
While it would have been impossible to know precisely when an earthquake of this magnitude would hit or that when it did it would hit so close to this hemisphere's most fragile city, it was known that such a calamity was possible, and not only by seismologists. We have watched repeatedly as hurricanes have battered Haiti and left it staggered because just a few hundred miles away from the richest country on earth was one so deprived that it was ill-equipped even for the predictable weather that came with so many autumns.
We knew all this and yet with every failure to act or to follow through on a good intention, we assured yesterday's outcomes.
In all its benighted history, perhaps Haiti's greatest moment of hope since its independence came just a decade and a half ago. Back then, America finally took interest in its near neighbor as a consequence of a political crisis that, thanks in part to our intervention, resulted in the departure of a dictator whose family had oppressed and raped the island and his replacement by a quiet priest who was embraced by many in the United States as our hemisphere's Mandela. As it turned out, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was hardly the saint that Hollywood stars and misty-eyed journalists had seen him to be.
But we in the Clinton administration did not know that back then -- or at least many did not. We saw his restoration to the country as possibly the latest in the wave of hope-inspiring political upheavals that marked the end of the eighties and the early nineties. We committed thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the country to help give it a new chance. We offered a window of opportunity to tap into real financial resources from us and from the international community. We sent in AID and the Army Corps of Engineers. We trained police and built schools.
I was given the assignment of helping lead the inter-agency effort tasked with assisting Haiti's economic recovery. We brought a trade mission of business leaders to consider investment opportunities in Haiti ... though there were very few. We tried to identify projects of particular promise...ones that might bring phone service to the 70,000 villages that lacked it or electricity or water to the millions who risked life and limb stealing power from exposed wires or drinking water that was less than pure.
But we made serious errors. The first was misreading Aristide. This was the result of an intelligence failure as serious as any in the news in the past few decades. Many in our own intel community knew he was a bad guy, affiliated with bad guys, not a good ally. But top policymakers ignored the intel, even firing folks who had the temerity to tell the truth. Later, we made the mistake of demanding Aristide leave at the end of the term of office he had largely not been able to serve due to his exile ... which may have seemed logical at the time but resulted in his effectively become the opposition to his own party from the moment he left office so he would have a chance to run again for office against his own closest political allies a few years hence.
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My mother would not approve. The bane of my childhood...which was essentially the story of Alexander Portnoy playing softball with Beaver Cleaver and Richie Cunningham in the land of "The Ice Storm"...was her insistence on a thank you note for every occasion. Get an embarrassing set of pajamas from Grandma? Immediately drop everything and send a thank you note. Get $10 from Uncle Max that could have been used to purchase a perfectly wonderful Revell model P-51 Mustang but which your parents hijack and use to buy a new pair of shoes from Tom McCann? Too bad, there will be no staying up late to watch "My Mother the Car" if you don't write a thank you note. Orthodontist slit your gums while installing a torture contraption in your mouth? Probably ought to send a thank you note, just in case.
There was a valuable lesson in this (for which, ironically, I have yet to send my mother a thank you note.) Gratitude makes a difference. Without it, the beneficence dries up and the giver no longer feels so good about giving and your brother and sister end up getting the better presents. (Or the orthodontist develops a grudge against you which is a very bad thing.)
I think it's time to send my mother to Pakistan. And then to Afghanistan. And then to Baghdad. And then perhaps on to a few other choice spots from Honduras to North Korea. This hardly seems like a reward for an exemplary life, but she could teach these folks a lesson or two about gratitude. And then, when she is done with the tour ... and she develops her own perspectives on just how little our efforts at generating gratitude in these places are actually benefitting the United States ... perhaps she ought to come back here and provide a lesson or two for the administration and for some folks on the Hill, perhaps starting with Senator Kerry. Because not only is the United States suffering from something that appears to be much like a global gratitude deficit...it may well be that the problem is with our expectations and our mechanisms for manifesting our (not so selfless) generosity to the less fortunate (or strategically significant) worldwide.
A prime illustration of the problems we face comes in the form of today's New York Times story "In Refugee Aid, Pakistan's War Has a New Front" by Jane Perlex and Pir Zubair Shah. The article describes how the United States is losing the bidding war for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and how Islamists are edging us out. The authors observe:
Although the United States is the largest contributor to a United Nations relief effort, Pakistani authorities have refused to allow American officials or planes to deliver the aid in camps for displaced people. The Pakistanis do not want to be associated with their unpopular ally.
At the same time, the article goes on to describe how hard-line givers from the Muslim world are using their donations to effectively promote anti-U.S. and anti-Western views. Meanwhile it notes, even American NGOs are saying we shouldn't advertise the U.S. origins of aid shipments because it is likely to inflame hostility. Seems to me like a lose-lose proposition for us there. I mean, I understand the humanitarian rationale behind giving for the sake of giving but really, isn't the purpose of government aid to advance a government objective? Isn't it clear that's precisely what we are not successfully doing in Pakistan?
But the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people are not the only ones who don't seem to appreciate our aid (or who are happy to take it but would like to continue hating us just the same). In Afghanistan, the Karzai administration would not exist without the United States. Is it showing its gratitude by combating the corruption via which our aid is wasted? Is it showing it by making even the slightest effort to embrace the most fundamental universal values of respect for groups like women or journalists? Read the reports out of Kabul. They just don't seem to appreciate all we have done for them.
Neither, it seems does the al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Now, I can see plenty of reasons why the Iraqi people would be pissed off at America. The illegal invasion of their country, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their people and the devastation of their economy come to mind. But I'm not talking about the Iraqi people here. I'm talking about a government that knows full well that even after the pullback of U.S. troops from the cities, it depends on the continuing presence of U.S. forces in the country to ensure national stability and its grip on power. Couldn't they have toned down the celebrations of "liberation" from the Americans just a trifle to reflect the fact that the United States is continuing to invest so much in their ability to hold on to power?
We spent much training the Honduran military that conducted that country's coup earlier this week. We have pumped serious aid money into North Korea to combat famine. We give the Egyptians, the Palestinians, and the Israelis plenty of cash and there seems to be a competition among them to see who can stall our objectives in the region most effectively or creatively.
Now, I realize we don't need to give aid money to people whose situations are stable. Aid tends to go to places where there are myriad challenges. But something is clearly not working here. The reflexive notion that we should write checks because it will generate goodwill seems not to be working. Clearly part of the problem here is with our expectations. And part of the problem here is with our history and perhaps we need to reconcile ourselves to unappreciated generosity for a while as a way of offsetting years of alienating people worldwide. But clearly another part of it is that we are a little ginger in our communications with our allies on these points...at the very least the governments who depend on us for survival ought to be nudged into a more constructive message with all due care to nuance the message to take into account local political realities.
Finally, the U.S. government aid apparatus remains one of its most dysfunctional. Early in the Obama transition there was talk of spinning out U.S. AID and related agencies into a Department of Development and Aid. I am generally anti-adding new departments to the government. But this was a pretty good idea. Economic peace-keeping and nation-building have been among our prime missions internationally over the past several decades whether we like it or not. But because we don't like it we have resisted building the kind of inter-disciplinary capacity to do it right...to recognize that provision of aid in post-conflict or conflict situations has completely different requirements (mostly political) than it does in development situations and that we need to more effectively blend pacification and economic missions. We need a civilian side Goldwater-Nichols to promote better collaboration and coordination among economic and political agencies in the fulfillment of this mission and better coordination with the military which still reluctantly does much of the heavy lifting in this area.
And beyond what we need, the world needs my mother. This is true on many levels. But in this instance it is because those who depend on our aid need to realize that regardless of who is president in Washington, all politics and history aside, the financial reality is that it is going to become harder and harder for the United States to continue providing aid as we have in the past and that average Americans (and even above-average Americans) are going to be soon looking even more energetically than in the past for excuses to shut the spigots. And that's saying something because aid has always been really unpopular in the United States, it's one of the reasons we give less as a percentage of GDP than most developed countries. Absent the thank you notes (which could be a nice card or possibly just making an effort to help the United States achieve our goals) the gratitude deficit could quickly translate into an aid deficit for those who are accustomed to receiving.
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Joe Biden wants to be alone. And after this morning's performance on the Today Show, it is quite likely that the Obama administration will be fulfilling that wish for him very soon. Where was that undisclosed location anyway?
Biden, when asked about how to mitigate the risks associated with the swine flu threat, said that people should avoid being in enclosed spaces with others. He specifically cited airplanes, subways, and classrooms. Which would mean, er, shutting down the entire economy. Actually, all social interaction. In fact, essentially what the Vice President was doing was sending all of us to our rooms.
Now admittedly, Mexico is shutting down much of its economy to contain the disease. But clearly, with the limited number of cases of the flu in the United States and its limited impact, he seemed to be over-reacting. Actually, he seemed to be exercising his unique gift for sticking his foot in his mouth. (Which is especially inadvisable in times like these. You just don't know where that foot has been.) But even for Biden, who truly has become the crazy old uncle in this administration, saying goofy things and considered to be having a good day when he doesn't actually set the White House on fire by leaving his oatmeal on the stove for too long, has really outdone himself today though directly pouring gasoline onto the flames of panic and over-reaction to the swine flu outbreak.
It is one thing for the WHO to ramp up warning levels to ensure the world can contain potential threats. It's another thing to suggest that people stay off airplanes (do it long enough and Steve Rattner will have another industry to rebuild), out of public transportation (guaranteed to produce more road-rage related traffic deaths in congested traffic than the swine flu will generate worldwide), and out of school (take that competitiveness).
If the Vice President has become a Howard Hughes like germ-a-phobe, then perhaps he might want to consider going all the way and trying out reclusiveness for a while. We'll miss the light comedy but I'm not sure how many more gaffes of this nature an already weak economy can take. Paging Dr. Gupta: If only Sanjay had been our surgeon general now, we would really be benefitting from his communications skills and the ability to have the administration turn to more qualified spokespeople than kooky old Uncle Joe.
Swine flu! World Health Organization at alert level 4! Markets rocked by sell-offs! Howie Mandel was right! Never shake hands! Bathe in Purell! See if you can borrow a face mask from Michael Jackson! Or hold your breath whenever you are near a ham sandwich! Armies of pigs in uniform marching on Washington! Orwell was right: the animals have turned on us, become more dangerous than us! Four legs bad, two legs good! Head for the hills!
Once again, the media is reacting to a potential threat with its usual calm, responsibly recognizing that sensational coverage of diseases can have far worse consequences than the diseases themselves. Or not.
Remember SARS? Fewer people died of SARS than choked to death in the United States on small objects that year. But estimates of global economic losses exceeded $40 billion. Back then, I wrote an article called "The Buzz Bites Back" for the Washington Post about this phenomenon dubbing it an "infodemic." And it was clear at the time that the progress of the information revolution was amplifying the impact of these information epidemics and accelerating their spread. Yet, still hysteria reigns again.
This is not to say that the WHO response has not been appropriate. It has. It is not to say that there isn't a vital public health role to be played by the media. It is critical that the media offer information about symptoms, precautions, and the spread of potential epidemics. But whereas health officials practice how to manage these crises, not only do the vast majority of media never think such matters through, newer "viral" media are all emotion all the time.
One particularly fascinating element of the infodemic phenomenon is that the spread of rumors or news throughout society looks exactly like the spread of diseases; they are communicated in the same ways and patterns. (You'll note that in both the SARS case and the current instance, it was the infection of Americans that kicked mainstream media into gear and elevated the story into a code-one frenzy.)
The nature of the spread of such infodemics also, by the way, offers useful tools to epidemiologists trying to use modern media to identify potential medical risks and contain them. I know this was discussed in the Net Effects blog here at FP the other day and I would just like to offer one anecdotal insight that suggests to me that perhaps the skepticism about the value of using such tools expressed in the post has been overtaken by events. Back in the months before the SARS outbreak became public, I ran a company called Intellibridge which tracked "open source" intelligence for a variety of clients. In other words, we looked at what was available on the Net in many languages to see what it might offer government or business clients in the way of insights.
One of our analysts spotted a small item in a newspaper in Guangdong province stating roughly that people should not panic due to rumors of an outbreak of a disease. When the Chinese government says do not panic, our analysts were trained to be skeptical and indeed, when we dug into the issue we found that word was spreading throughout southern China, largely by means of cell phone messaging, concerning this new outbreak of disease. In fact, we became so concerned that we called the Center for Disease Control...who proceeded to brush us off saying that they did not accept information of this source from the public. Ten weeks or so later the World Health Organization acknowledged the outbreak of the disease.
The punch line: modern information technologies offer important tools for both containing and amplifying threats such as those posed by the global spread of epidemics. Considerable work remains to be done however, in understanding how to use these tools and to limit their abuse...and new media like Twitter and social networking sites do not make this task any easier. (Although figuring out how to manage this in the context of a free society is an especially important challenge for governments worldwide, arguably much more important than popular media-policy intersections like "public diplomacy.")
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There is a generally held view that when you get a group of Washington insiders together that what you'll get is conventional wisdom. But, when I ended yesterday's meeting of The Carnegie Economic Strategy Roundtable -- a group I chair comprised of a bipartisan folks of top policy-thinkers -- despite that fact that the shared outlook was rather dour (well, veering between dour and how-many-of-these-pills-do-I-have-to-take-before-I-lose-consciousness), there was much said that was actually far from the conventional wisdom you'll get in the paper.
At the core of the discussion was the general belief that in addition to an economic crisis and a series of brewing political crises, the world faces a profound crisis of confidence in many of its most important institutions. One participant quoted a friend who said, "I have seen two things in life I thought I would never see...the fall of two walls...the Berlin Wall and of Wall Street." (While the details of these discussions are off the record until our conclusions are made public later in the year, I can reveal a couple of general themes to yesterday's conversation, which I found quite disturbing.)
Not only have people lost faith in the institutions of Wall Street and the financial community, but they're now wary of international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, and the once seemingly indestructible pillars of the business community like the auto industry, and in governments around the world that have failed to cope with the crisis. (How do you think they feel about their governments right now in Iceland, Latvia, Hungary...or Britain, Pakistan, or Mexico right now?) Indeed, while the U.S. government is enjoying a brief resurgence from very low approval ratings, there was a strong sense that was a fragile rebound and one that would soon be reversed if the stimulus and the financial rescues don't soon produce results. As a consequence, the group felt that there was a not inconsiderable likelihood that the resurgence of "big government" or neo-socialism that is a central theme of the chattering classes may actually be short-lived, a temporary reversal of historical trends that contains the seeds of its own undoing. (Personally, I believe the role of government was due for a recalibration, but also believe that governments like markets overshoot and that we shall over-inflate the government's role in some areas before getting it right...or closer to right.)
For the past four or five years this group at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has been meeting to discuss issues at the intersection of America's top economic and national security interests. This year, all the sessions are around the theme "Present at the Creation 2.0: How Remaking the International System Can Become One of the Top Legacies of the Obama Administration." Yesterday, we had roughly equal numbers of folks who had served in Democratic or Republican administrations, roughly an equal balance between economic, political and security thinkers, even some balance provided with leading thinkers from outside the United States. Virtually all the participants in the group have served in cabinet-level or senior sub-cabinet level jobs in their respective governments.
Among the themes of our discussion I found most disturbing was generally a very downcast view of both the geoeconomic and geopolitical outlooks. Early on in our meeting the point was made that this period doesn't look or feel like the post-World War II environment in which much of the current international system was made. Back then we were dominant, the only surviving megapower, and there was a common threat around which to unite. Neither condition exists today. (It was also pointed out that even with those conditions, it took us almost four full years from the end of World War II until Marshall Plan money really started making its way into Europe. In other words, it took a depression, the Second World War and starting to lose the peace after that war to motivate real rather than symbolic actions concerning the creation of a functioning international community...at least the western branch of such a community.) Subsequently, the discussion then would periodically turn to trying to determine whether we were really in a time more analogous to 1929 or 1932 or 1933 and so on. But that was just a contextual subtext. And as one participant thoughtfully pointed out, these historical analogies are weak and can serve as a needless distraction from the business of understanding what is really going on right now.
The original rationale for convening the group was the recognition that in the year or years immediately ahead, like it or not, the Obama administration will be confronted with the need to reevaluate, renovate, or re-invent virtually every major existing international institution we have and, at the same time, will have to participate in the creation of a few others. This will include continuing with the transformation of the "steering committee" of the international system from a G8-like group to more of a G20-like group. It will include the top items on the agenda of the G20 when it meets early in April in London: restructuring and recapitalizing the IMF and the World Bank (and possibly regional multilateral financial institutions) and rethinking the global regulatory and market-oversight structures we've got. It'll include rethinking organizations that are widely considered to be flawed or faltering or due for a tune-up: the WTO, the UN Security Council, the non-proliferation regime and the UN system itself. It will also certainly include the need to create some kind of Global Environmental Organization (GEO) to administer and enforce any conclusions that may come out of the Copenhagen global climate talks or its successors. It's a sweeping landscape and the choice before the US government is whether to take these issues serially and approach them without core principles and a clear vision as to what kind of international system we want in the future or to take them serially, reactively and to focus on patching immediate issues and putting off the heavy lifting until tomorrow.
My sense is that the group largely (though not universally) shares my view that the former approach clearly makes more sense and represents a big foreign policy opportunity for Obama & Co. But perhaps the most disturbing perception that spread through yesterday's conversation was the recognition that while this could be a moment for reinventing the international system, it might also be a moment that presents great peril for that system and could see the undoing of several major components of the system as a direct result of nation's turning inward to address the most immediate and politically pressing consequences of the global crisis.
Evidence that this was the case came from this week's headlines. The Economist talked about how urgent domestic concerns, financial weakness everywhere, and the deep problems in Eastern Europe could lead to the undoing of the EU. Hillary Clinton arrived in Europe for a NATO meeting at which it seemed unlikely she would get much support from our allies for their assuming great burdens and risks in Afghanistan thus calling into question NATO's relevance going forward. Gordon Brown sleep-walked into Washington to make a pitch for sweeping international financial reforms that met with a chilly reception from the Obama team. The IMF and the World Bank need major infusions of cash to play any kind of meaningful role in ameliorating the current international situation...certainly hundreds of billions of dollars, possibly as much as a trillion or more. Not only does it seem unlikely countries will pony up the dough, there is reluctance among Europeans to give up the voting shares and traditional role they have had in these institutions which will be essential if the Fund and the Bank are to draw in capital from emerging powers and truly reflect the new global reality. And there is a gradual undercutting of the world trading system that goes beyond the dead man walking progress of the Doha Round. Just take a look at the subsidies issues all these national stimulus packages are raising or at the provision in the Senate appropriations bill (cited on FP Passport yesterday) that kills the core NAFTA idea of Mexican trucks being allowed easier transit into the U.S. market. Some organizations, like the OAS or the UN General Assembly itself, are already little more than bureaucracies in search of a quiet place to sleep.
It is not hard to see all this and contemplate what a deepening of the economic crisis might do to attitudes everywhere toward assisting people in distant countries and conclude that we framed our discussion incorrectly. We don't just face a choice between the ad hoc reinvention of the international system or a strategic approach to remaking the global institutional architecture. We are at a fork in the road where one direction takes us to a period in which the international system suffers serious setbacks and is substantially weakened and the other leads to the strengthening that the massive roster of global challenges we face demands.
The group of leading experts with whom I met yesterday were uncertain which direction we were more likely to take.
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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.