As I was leaving Paris on Tuesday morning, the city was hunkering down preparing for another national strike. Transport workers were going to be expressing their dissatisfaction with adjustments in their pension schemes through making commutes to the city and travel across France very difficult. But it was only the latest in a series of such protests. The country that gave the world the word aplomb responded with plenty of it, some workers staying home, others finding others means of transportation, and one seasoned Parisian explaining to me that "we have to get used to this, there will be many more to come before all this is over."
What is "all this?" He was speaking of French political battles, but he could just as easily be addressing the current wave of coming to grip with fiscal realities that is buffeting Europe, causing protests from Greece to Britain. Indeed, as Europe seeks to address the underlying causes of the crisis that nearly sent world markets into an even deeper tailspin months ago, it is clear that so much belt-tightening needs to be done and so many programs that have been taken for granted will need to be cut, that for all Europe there will indeed be many more strikes and protests to come.
In Britain, which I visited before my stop in Paris, the news was dominated by headlines from the Conservative Party Conference and the backlash to the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne that child benefits for wealthier families would have to be cut back. Notably, and with considerable courage, equanimity, and grace, Prime Minister Cameron did not sidestep the issue and indeed pushed in his keynote address for more resolve to undertake even the painful reforms that would be necessary to restore British fiscal health. "I'm not saying this is going to be easy, as we've seen with child benefit this week. But it's fair that those with broadest shoulders should bear a greater load."
At the core of his deservedly well-received speech was the message that in order to cut a deficit of 155 billion pounds, sacrifices were required, regardless of their political costs. Furthermore, and importantly, he suggested this was a national challenge, not just one for the government, "The point I want to make is this, the state of the nation is not just determined by government and those who run it. It is determined by millions of individual actions, by what each of us do, and what we choose not to do."
In today's Washington Post, Ruth Marcus, has an excellent piece entitled "The True Conservatives: Britain's Realists vs. America's Wishful Thinkers" in which she wishes that she could summon up Christine O'Donnell-like witchcraft to transform American conservatives into British Tories. She makes a powerful point. But she does not go far enough. Because if we are conjuring here, let's transform the Democrats too, please.
RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images
By a vote of 246 to 1 the French Senate voted Tuesday to excise the word's liberté, égalité, and fraternité from the country's soul. With the vote to ban the wearing of burqas in public, France took a step back into the Dark Ages. Furthermore, the country revealed a deep seated insecurity about the strength of its culture… while at the same time weakening that culture by reinforcing intolerance.
It is estimated that fewer than 2,000 Muslim women in France would be affected by this law. This only underscores the degree of fear driving French lawmakers. Do they really believe these 1,900 or so women can actually undermine thousands of years of national culture or threaten France's national identity? If so, the problem isn't burqas. It's paranoia. Or it's a sense that French culture is soufflé -- so fragile it will fall at the sound of the first whisper.
Combine this with the French government's recent treatment of Romas and you have a pattern of behavior that echoes many of the darkest motifs in European history. Forcing my father to wear a yellow star on the streets of Vienna when he was a boy is the flip side of this coin. Protecting social "purity" by identifying an ethnic minority or by denying that minority -- in this case members of France's second largest religious group -- the right of self-expression is the same appalling thing. (For this reason I would encourage every Jew or Jewish group to stand alongside Muslim leaders opposed to these actions, but I fear it would only further coalesce the supporters of the ban.)
If there is a place for intolerance in civilized society it must be limited to intolerance of intolerance itself. President Nicolas Sarkozy and the people of France should indeed be on their guard. There is a dire threat to France within their midsts, but it does not wear a burqa.
MICHEL GANGNE/AFP/Getty Images
I think for a lot of Americans, particularly those of a more liberal inclination, like Michael Moore or my mother, there was a kind of flickering hope earlier in the week that America might be on the verge of exiting the Middle East once and for all.
The loud tick tick tick of the withdrawal timeline has been audible throughout Iraq for months. And with the debate triggered by the McChrystal Report and the pushback calls for more troops seemed to be generating from Vice President Biden and others within the administration, it seemed we might be moving toward a decision by the President that would have us narrowing the mission in Afghanistan. This argued many ... including conservatives like George Will, for that matter ... could only reasonably lead to our withdrawal from that misbegotten place.
And they may even hoped, the United States might finally be ready to pressure the Israelis into backing down on settlements as a way of getting to serious talks about a peace agreement with the Palestinians. No Jewish settlements equals lasting peace settlement, seems to be the calculus there.
Then, reality crept back into the picture. First, it was hinted at when Obama ... at least temporarily ... backed down on pressuring the Israelis on the settlements. But then it came roaring back into focus with a vengeance thanks to the "news" of Iran's second nuclear enrichment facility. Never mind that Obama was briefed on this facility before he became president, that allied intelligence services had known about it for years and that everyone knew Iran was lying about its existence all along. There comes a moment in these things when their lying and our willingness to lie to ourselves or at least to our publics slip out of whack. And that's when the truth creeps out and spoils the party.
And so as the week draws to a close, the picture now looks somewhat different. Iran is revealed again to be a liar and immediately responds by saying "we won't back down." America, Britain, and France make statements condemning Iran, but they range from bland and process oriented (Obama) to bold but toothless (Sarkozy and Brown). Meanwhile, Angela Merkel (who my sources tell me is not one of Obama's faves in Europe to begin with) and the Russians and the Chinese can't or won't make it to the "shocked, shocked" photo op.
Russia and China are the "or" and the "else" of any international threat to Iran. Absent them, countries like the United States and our European allies can only stomp their feet or introduce sanctions that will be largely ineffective. So this problem festers on and looks very likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, days after the Untied States votes to triple aid to Pakistan, the Washington Post runs a story today about the growing anti-Americanism in that country and how it threatens our goals there. Given that Pakistan is where our real enemies are, this reminds us that this is the AfPak War and regardless of what we want to do in Afghanistan, we will for many years be grappling with the much, much bigger problems associated with nuclear Pakistan.
And on top of it all, the Iran revelation makes Bibi Netanyahu (see today's other post) one of the big winners of this week, proving that while Ahmadinejad lies about the Holocaust and nukes, Netanyahu has been accurately characterizing the Iranian threat. Further, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the Obama team that however difficult the Israelis may be, they are matched step for step by the Palestinians.
In short, for those of you who thought we might have been on the verge of getting the heck out of Dodge, reconsider. We can draw down troops in Iraq, but there will be 50,000 there when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can narrow the focus in Afghanistan, but there will be U.S. military dealing with threats in AfPak when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can extend the "unclenched fist" to Iran, but they will spit in it and represent a deep and lasting threat to regional security for many years, certain well past whenever Obama's successor arrives in office. And Israel and Palestine may make peace ... although that seems a long way off...but the volatility in the region will ensure that sooner or later everyone will be clear that they are not the lynchpin of the region's stability issues. (Although they are certainly an important one.)
The decisions Obama makes about Afghanistan, about dealing with a difficult ally in Pakistan, about how to forge an effective international coalition to contain Iran (which will involve coming up with credible, meaningful consequences if they fail to fall into line), and about just how to get two difficult parties to accept the peace they both need and want, will play a large role in determining whether Obama is around for another 3 or another 7 years. But it seems clear that almost regardless of which path he chooses, his successor will face many of the same problems.
A week that began with murmurs of hope among those who would like to see America disengaged from the region -- a group with which I am very sympathetic not to mention one that includes plenty of my relatives -- is distressingly ending with a slightly different tone, better characterized by the shrieks of noted foreign policy observer Mathew Broderick at the climactic moment of "The Producers." "No way out!" he cries, "No way out!"
I'm not always a pessimist. But I am right now.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
"I'm a short guy in a low-paying profession in a country that was last considered a dynamo at the time of Montgolfier brothers first balloon flight," you think, "but my wife is chaud, chaud, chaud and in my country everybody gets five weeks off and all the pain chocolat they can eat. Bien sur we need a new way to keep score."
So, if you're Nicolas Sarkozy, president of a country that knows something about little men who want to change the world, of course you embrace a new report from a group of economists led by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz that argues that we ought to be measuring the progress of countries by how happy their people are.
But what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to make of this crazy idea that there is a better way to measure the economic success of a country than GDP growth? Something more important than a tally that primarily measures the value created by a country's businesses? Something more important than a measure that can be strongly positive while inequality grows and the few are cashing in on the labors of the many?
How very French. But come to think of it when we live in an age when China's is flashing nearly double digit growth in the middle of a recession while we're busy trying to convince all the girls that 2 percent is the new 4 percent, maybe Sarkozy is on to something. (Certainly the new approach would make the concept of a global depression that much more accurate.)
Oh, that what Stiglitz and company are recommending is a metric that is more aligned with the interests of people than businesses and would offer governments a measurement of success that actually reflects the aspirations of their citizens ... well, that's easy to dismiss because happiness doesn't seem that serious, does it? I mean, after all, didn't our founders specify that the purpose of our country was to guarantee the right of all of us (well, white men anyway) to life, liberty, and the pursuit of constant growth in "the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation's borders during a given period (usually 1 year)."
Even better than any redirecting of our priorities that might come of shooting for a different set of goals is the fact that totally extraneous things might conspire to raise our national level of happiness even while other economic measures are faltering, thus making us feel better at the times we most need to feel better (like now). Thus, while it might take a while for Barack Obama's economic reforms to restore growth to America his mere arrival on the scene would almost certainly have accounted for a net rise in terms of our gross national happiness (to use the accepted Bhutanese metric.) Heck, just mentioning the Bhutanese metric does it for me because it reminds me of a post this site had over the summer on Bhutan which was written by my very happy-making eldest daughter. (Both my daughters would make me a huge contributor to America's well-being by these new measures. Although come to think of it, they are making a not insubstantial contribution to GDP growth as it is.)
Or you could pick up a paper and read the right kind of story and bing-bing-bing, our collective score rises. Like it did today while reading Obama was on Wall Street pushing for long-overdue financial reforms. Or better yet, because he called Kanye West a "jackass." Or -- because sometimes all it takes is a goofy story about nutty officials -- when I read about Evo Morales's plan to nationalize the Bolivian national soccer team because it didn't make the cut for the World Cup. Or when I read about Venezuela's announcement of its new nuclear program. (I know, that doesn't sound so great. But I've been predicting this problem for so long that it gives me a little lift even if it is a potential calamity for millions of others. Take note: that's what narcissism makes possible.)
On the other hand, the happiness pendulum could swing in the direction of the usual litany of disasters and indefensible policy moves. We could say, extend the Cuba embargo for one more year -- as Obama just did -- and trigger a near-depression (recession?). It's a good example of the kind of pathetic failure of imagination that passes for an excuse to keep repeating our mistakes. But I guess that was the point Sarkozy and Stiglitz were trying to make ... and why their effort, even if it is utterly unrealistic, makes me so dang happy.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of Hillary Clinton's generally successful trip to India, the Financial Times turned to former State Department No. 3 guy Nick Burns for some perspective. Nick, one of the very best the State Department has produced in recent years despite his indefensible love of the Boston Red Sox, said, "If you look at the history of the 21st century, there will be just a handful of great powers and India and the U.S. will be among them."
Which got me to thinking...
The United States is certainly at the moment a great power by any definition. We are the only country on earth capable of projecting force anywhere at any time. The U.S. GDP is almost three times that of the next biggest country, Japan and is roughly the equivalent of the next four added up (Japan, China, Germany and France.) To get a different perspective on the size of the U.S. economy relative to that of the world, take a look at this two-year old map comparing the size of the economies of U.S. states to those of other countries.
We have plenty of political juice, are the leading force in the alliance that spends 85 cents of every defense dollar on the planet and helped design the international system in ways that it reinforces our position. We're also protected by two great oceans and our neighbors are fairly easy to get along with. (Mexico is a bit of a concern at the moment but Canada lost its last remaining offensive capability when Wayne Gretzky moved to the United States.)
All that said, the United States may be nearing the peak of its power. With the U.S. public debt around 90 percent of GDP and likely to pass the 100 percent mark in the next year or two, with well over $40 trillion in unfunded retirement health care liabilities that are unlikely to be significantly reduced anytime soon, and with uncertainty about when our addiction to debt will end, we're just going to have less money to spend for everything...including defense. We're also likely to have less of a stomach for spending on the kind of far-flung efforts associated with projecting force. Iraq-fatigue which will soon be joined by AfPak-fatigue will further dampen our appetite for using that big military we have and we may well take a generally more defensive, less-interventive stance than we have seen in the recent past.
So, what about the other "great" powers? Who are they?
Burns says India will be among them and it's hard to argue with the proposition that India is critically important to world affairs (which is why Clinton's outreach and efforts to institutionalize a stronger relationship were so welcome and timely). But in terms of military capability, although India has a big military (the world's third largest in terms of manpower), it has only the ninth largest defense budget in the world and spends only about a 20th of what the United States spends, it has only one aircraft carrier and while it is expanding its capabilities rapidly as perhaps the largest developing world arms acquirer, it is ultimately constrained by the size and state of its economy. While growing rapidly, it still has a nominal per capita GDP of just over $1,000 a year, ranking it 142nd in the world. Roughly 80 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day and according to some estimates the almost 90 percent who live on less than $2.50 a day on purchasing power parity terms represent a larger chunk of the population than who live on the same meager amount in sub-Saharan Africa. The country is heavily dependent on foreign oil imports, half the children are malnourished...it's growing, it's a great story, it's a remarkable achievement in democracy, but it's ability to project force or throw its economic weight around is severely limited. (It's economy is smaller than that of Canada which, as noted earlier, is no one's idea of a great power...even though they're a swell neighbor, a useful ally and could offer great vacation values should global warming continue.)
Ok, then, certainly China is a great power. After all, they have 1.2 billion people. (Although India will soon overtake them as the world's most populous country.) Their economy is growing, according to Morgan Stanley, at a robust 9 percent even in the midst of this nasty "great" recession. They have the world's third largest economy (which is about twice as big as the economy of California) and will soon surpass Japan. They have the world's second largest army and the second largest defense budget...which is about one seventh that of the United States. They are upgrading their capabilities but unlike the United States or other would-be great powers on this list they do have as a significant military consideration maintaining the integrity and stability of their country in the face of restive populations in far-flung regions. Despite China's economic growth it faces the paradox of labor shortages and perhaps as many as 150 million unemployed or under-employed citizens floating unsatisfied through society. It is heavily dependent on foreign imports of food and energy as well as on a faltering U.S. market. Around three-quarters of its reserves in U.S. dollar denominated instruments which shows a heavy dependence on a potential rival (that's a two way street, of course.) And despite astonishing progress in reducing poverty, in terms of per capita income China is still poor, ranked at somewhere between 100 and 110 among all countries worldwide. Finally, China is ill-at-ease on the world stage, uncomfortable throwing around its political weight and still reluctant to intervene far from home except economically (which will lead, of course, over time to growing influence abroad.)
Who else? The EU would be a great power in economic and military terms...if it actually had a workable means of achieving a common foreign policy and the will to actually project force. Its individual members, notably Germany, France and the U.K., are important powers, 4th, 5th, and 6th respectively in GDP...but France is home to only the 17th largest military in the world, Germany the 20th largest and the U.K. the 32d largest. What's more, Germany is particularly reluctant to project force (much to the relief of anyone with a memory), France does so seldom and the U.K. is developing a pretty bad taste in its mouth in that respect recently. Japan is still legally constrained from projecting force and, while it is the world's second largest economy for the moment (say the next three to five years), that status, is fading and its economy is struggling. While it might be expected that in the next few years Japan will normalize it's military, it is still unlikely it will be useable for much beyond defensive and multilateral actions for the foreseeable future. Russia? Lots of nukes -- perhaps 3,000-5,000 warheads putting it alone on a par with the U.S. (the stockpiles of other would be great powers -- the U.K., France, China and India-range from 10 percent of the low end of this total for France to just over 1 percent of the high end of the total for India.) And Russia's economy? Smaller than that of Brazil (and of course, that economic powerhouse, California). It also may contract at as much as 10 percent this year, which is roughly half what some estimate the bad loans in the Russian banking system. But Russia's biggest problem that it is undergoing one of the greatest peace-time demographic collapses in history, with estimates suggesting the population could shrink from almost 150 million to 80 or 100 million by 2050. That would be a population loss equal to or greater than that associated with the Black Plague of the mid-14th Century in Europe.
What's more, many of the great powers are further constrained by participation in global regimes that only grant legitimacy to multilateral undertakings...which are very hard to achieve as we have regularly seen. While Gideon Rachman makes the case for a UN army in today's FT (one with which I agree...there will be no effective NPT 2.0 without enforcement mechanisms that include the ability to wield force to require compliance)...we're a long, long way from there. So the rule of international law has effectively weakened those who did the most to craft it (even if it has, as I believe, improved the general quality of civilization). And who knows what the impact will be of another global economic shock if, as I believe is going to be the case, we fail to fix what is broke this time around? On these big economies? On their ideological underpinnings?
Are these "great" powers nonetheless still greater powers than the others of the world? Certainly. Most of the countries of the world are virtually powerless. Only 25 countries have the ability to field active armed services in excess of 200,000. Of these perhaps 17 would be considered very economically constrained and all but a tiny handful would be useless too far beyond their own borders. Only 25 countries have GDP's larger than the annual sales of the each of the world's 3 largest companies. (Not an apples to apples comparison, I know...but I offer it primarily to underscore the relative smallness of the rest of the world's economies. The 100th largest company in the world in sales, Target, has sales that total more than the GDPs of all but the 60 largest.) Most countries have precious little political influence and that influence tends to be diluted when it is channeled through low-functioning multilateral institutions. It is amplified via effective alliances but precious few of these exist on any global scale.
That said, as striking as the weaknesses of great powers may be, a parallel trend is that which gives the weakest access to powerful technologies (of mass destruction or political persuasion) that enable them to gain previously unavailable global stature and leverage. Twenty five countries are reportedly considering or planning nuclear power programs. Some of these will lead to nuclear weapons programs. Some of these will contribute to proliferation and making new threats available to weak states and non-state actors. And some of those big companies I mentioned earlier are now weighing in, using their global economic clout to influence everything from tax codes to trade regimes to who wins or loses big elections. So the ends are converging on the middle and the terms we are used to, great and small, powerful and weak, are coming to mean something entirely new.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
It is easy to carp at aspects of President Obama's European trip. The G20 meeting and the NATO Summit offered predictable outcomes, solid but underwhelming. If the president bowed to the Saudi king, and it appears as though he did, it was a gaffe and a pretty nauseating one at that. Debating about whether Michelle should have worn a sweater to see the Queen or whether Obama should have gotten a bigger kiss from Carla Bruni Sarkozy has also spun up bloggers around the world. (Who cares whether she wears a sweater? And of course, he should get as big a kiss from Carla as he possibly can.) The failed North Korean missile test was an unsettling distraction but wiser men than I have long said the safest place to be when the North Koreans are launching a missile is wherever they are targeting.
But, these bits and pieces are not what people will or should remember from the trip. Obama has had a successful journey because he has stepped more or less seamlessly into the role of world leader and done so with both substance and style that have in some important ways altered for the better America's relationship with the world. We may someday look back and lament that the G20 did not do more to address the need for more global stimulus or greater regulation of global securities markets. We almost certainly will look back and note that NATO did not yet realize that we are entering a new era in which they may be surprised to find they are getting the America they wanted...more inclined toward multilateralism by virtue of both belief and necessity -- but that this will obligate the alliance to the discomfort of many within it to share burdens more equitably or fail.
Yet, here is a President who listens, who has mastered multiple briefs quickly, and who is willing to be bold where it counts. Nowhere is that more clear than in the important speech he delivered over the weekend in Prague in which he announced a new U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, one that recognizes the strategic urgency as well as the moral resonance of our leading a global drawdown of atomic arsenals. Only through such an approach can we address what he called "a strange turn of history" in which "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He agreed with the Russians to begin negotiations to reduce the world's two largest nuclear arsenals and he announced an intent to lead efforts to create a safe path to nuclear power in the emerging world including the creation of a nuclear fuel bank, a potential new international organization overseeing the weapons reductions and a round of diplomacy to advance these goals.
The Wall Street Journal rather predictably juxtaposed Obama's speech on this most important of all national security issues with the story of North Korea's missile test. The not exactly subtle message was "look, the world is dangerous, what is this guy doing?" But the answer is that he clearly understands better than they do that the only way to stop what is currently an out of control global nuclear arms race that is currently threatening not only northeast Asia but which is threatening to spread across the world's most dangerous region, the Middle East, is by having the great nuclear powers start leading by example. Only if all are collectively committed to eliminating nuclear weapons can it be fairly argued that no one should have them. Only if real progress is made can such a case be compelling reiterated and enforced. Obama's Prague speech hinted at the courage and vision of a great leader. That he saw that such a statement should also come with tough messages about the need to maintain missile defense programs and a forward-leaning stance against proliferators also showed this was a strong rather than a weak approach to disarmament. Translating it into action will be the true test as to whether he is the transformational 21st century leader so many in Europe have started to believe...this week...he might be.
Just a week ago I had a piece in the Washington Post asking where the leaders are and urging critics of Obama to be more patient, to give him the chance to be the president we want. A week later, particularly with this Prague speech, Obama has offered the best rationale for such patience. There is a considerable often impassable distance between promising rhetoric and meaningful action, but at least the first steps are being taken. While missteps are guaranteed...I think we all should be more hopeful as the trip draws to a conclusion than we were at its outset.
When I was a boy, in between family readings of von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and the secret diaries of Scipio Africanus, sometimes I would sneak up to my room and read a comic book. Needless to say, DC Comics were heavily preferred over Marvel or other inferior brands because I liked my super heroes dry and undiluted by irony or wit. (Much as I like my blogs.) Particular favorites were the Legion of Super- Heroes and Justice League of America and when my brother and I would act out the events of the comics, he always wanted to be Superboy (which I considered a trite choice) or Aqualad, which I found hard to comprehend although it did lead to his spending a lot of time in the bath and being a very clean child. My favorite was Mon-El who was a mid-level African American talk show host during the day and then at night would become... Wait, I'm confused. That's someone else. This was a long time ago. No, Mon-El was cool because he appeared to have all of Superboy's powers but didn't have that annoying allergy to Kryptonite. I am telling you this because...well, because I thought he was definitely the best one and he never got anywhere nearly as much press attention as he should have.
But the real reason for bringing this all up was that also in these DC Comics stories of Superman periodically he would travel to the Bizarro world. This was a cube shaped planet where the Bizarro Code dictated "Us do opposite of all Earthly things!" Strangely all the people on the planet were rendered to appear the opposite of normal residents of earth -- like Superman -- by having them appear to be chiseled out of something relatively hard, probably soap or a good English white cheddar.
What does this have to do with foreign policy today? Well, currently...
We have a president of France who is pro-U.S., has taken steps to have France re-join the NATO military alliance, and who has played a very active and constructive role in shaping the international response to the global economic crisis.
This same president of France has, with the chancellor of Germany, a woman, led an effort to promote a fiscally responsible response to the crisis, often admonishing the United States about its free-wheeling spending and over-aggressive market intervention.
We have the government of Sweden -- who we had been led to believe were practically so communist they were the last surviving member of the Warsaw Pact -- unhesitatingly refusing to bail out national auto icon Saab, while the ultra-capitalist U.S. sentimentally coddled the dying carcass of GM in its fiscal arms.
We have the Chinese, lectured by the entire world for gaming their currency not more than a year ago, proposing a new alternative currency and while no one is clamoring to sign up now, they are taking this idea and Chinese critiques of the U.S. economy very seriously. Because China is now the country with the cash and the U.S. is the country on the global dole.
We even have the U.S. secretary of state going to Mexico to discuss drug violence and actually acknowledging that demand in the United States is a principal driver of the problem that is currently such a corrosive force in that nation.
In the midst of this crisis, we also will soon see a G20 Summit convene in London and while it is not sure they will agree on much, the one thing they seem unified about is giving more money to the IMF...an organization that has at best a mixed record, is despised throughout the developing world and which was widely considered to be so irrelevant as recently as a year ago that there were some who thought the best answer might be to just turn out the lights and convert the whole headquarters building into condos.
The U.S. has finally broken through a wall of prejudice and elected the first African American president, Jaguar and Land Rover are Indian car companies, Japan just beat Korea in a World Baseball Classic Championship Game from which the U.S. was shut out, and the very best basketball player in the world is Jewish.
Ok, of all these things, only the last one isn't true. We have gone through the looking glass. And as it turns out, reading those Legion of Super-Heroes comics may have been better preparation for today's world than even our lively family discussions of the Memoirs of Clive of India. Except of course, there are no super heroes anywhere to be seen and we could really use a few.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
Back to Pakistan's "get out of jail free" card for Khan, I was left again with that nagging feeling that we are headed down a familiar road for the United States, where allies we embrace for seemingly pragmatic reasons ultimately become our worst nightmares.
In fact, making a list of America's worst allies reveals a trend that suggests that the world's hyper power could easily have been cast alongside Jennifer Aniston and Scarlett Johansson in He's Just Not That Into You as one of those prototypical women who buys the line of every sweet-talking guy in town and wakes up in the morning wondering why she feels so used. Seriously, we ought to be taking relationship advice from Anne Hathaway at this point.
Let's make the list. Pick the five worst allies the United States has had in the past 100 years. Set up some reasonable criteria, things you look for in a good ally. So for example, one criterion would be advancing our national interests (or, alternatively, not dedicating themselves to our destruction). Another would be constancy (or, alternatively, not using us and then ditching us when the next best looking cause glides into town). Another, since this is a list of worst allies (all alliances, like all marriages, are imperfect and require work), would be to measure the degree of the damage they did to us or sought to do to us.
Finally, other guidelines probably need to be used -- for example, if a country underwent a coup or a revolution that changed completely its political orientation it probably ought not to be included on a list of allies who turned against us while under the same leadership that created, sought or supported the alliance.
Before listing the very worst cases of turnabout, it is worth noting a few of the countries that were candidates for various reasons. (My candidates follow, but please, offer your own suggestions.) Certainly some of you will nominate the likes of France for being allies who made it difficult for the Atlantic alliance to get anything done and which -- often for little more reason than modest economic gain -- undermined embargoes and other measures to pressure bad actors into behaving. I have no doubt that others will suggest that Israel has actually put us and our interests at risk by allowing the settlement of the West Bank and heavy-handedly keeping the Palestinians down. Some may feel that the embrace of Taiwan has caused more problems than it was worth, though it is undeniable that they were doing what many in the United States thought was in our collective interests. Still others might contend that the billions spent in Egypt or Colombia resulted in abuses or supported regimes whose interests were not always well aligned with ours. Suharto was a good "friend" except to the extent that he was behind the genocide in Timor or was breathtakingly corrupt. The Shah of Iran was a good ally for years, modernizing that country, but it can be argued that between the abuses of SAVAK, his secret police, and his lavish spending, he provoked a revolution that has upset the balance in the Middle East for years. Venezuela was once America's best friend in Latin America but now, not so much. The list goes on.
So who are the worst in modern U.S. history?
While they are not guilty of undercutting American interests in ways that are anything like the four other countries cited on this list (all of whom have gone or seem ready to go from being allies to actually being enemies), France has earned a special place on America's frienemies list for being so relentlessly difficult to deal with. They might call it tough love, but for as long as the Atlantic Alliance has existed they have been a drag on it and in numerous cases in the emerging world they tacitly or directly supported our adversaries or undercut American interests. To be fair, it is tough to pick on them for undercutting us when, especially for most of the past eight years, our policies have often been so worthy of undercutting. And furthermore, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that there has been a thaw in the air of late thanks to the more pro-U.S. attitude of President Sarkozy. Still, it is clear that the country that coined the term hyperpower hasn't quite gotten over the fact that the little band of colonies it helped midwife into existence as a nation long ago passed it in influence politically, militarily, economically and, culturally. So, in the end, they earn the special distinction of being the most dysfunctional of our more high functioning alliances.
Pakistan is number four with a bullet. (For those of you outside the record industry, that means number four but moving up the list.)
This is a country that we have supported and to which we have provided copious aid that nonetheless has become a haven for our worst enemies, a violator of the most fundamental interests of the modern world (against WMD proliferation), a host for terrorists that strike out against other allies and which seems increasingly to be a coup away from fulfilling its long-touted promise of being the most dangerous place in the world. Few countries can match their record of being so anti-American even as they were still ostensibly our allies. One of the worst foreign policy errors made in modern history was the decision post 9/11 to look the other way on the emergence of Pakistan's nuclear program and lift sanctions associated with it in order to gain tactical "advantage" in our war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan by shutting off escape routes into Pakistan.
Only problem: not only is it impossible to shut off those routes, but big portions of the Pakistani intelligence service and the Pakistani population were actively allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda. So much so that now they call our ally home.
3. Saddam Hussein
We made Saddam. We sought him as a counter-balance against the power of revolutionary Iran. We gave him aid, looked the other way when he used chemical weapons and brutally murdered and abused his people and generally wrote off the ugliness to realpolitik. Then, he literally became our enemy entering in effect a constant state of war with the United States for a decade and a half. He ultimately cost us trillions, strengthened our enemies, and invited us into a conflict that has deeply undercut our stature in the world and sapped our military strength. As in all of these twisted alliances, we bear plenty of responsibility for making the situation worse. But as ungrateful, self-serving, twisted, bad allies go, Saddam is certainly headed for a place in the Hall of Fame.
2. The Mujahideen of the Soviet-Afghan War
Yes, with our help they managed the only major defeat suffered by the Soviet Army and in so doing they probably help precipitate the decline and fall of the Soviet empire. Yes, they fought heroically against a much more heavily armed foe that employed horrific tactics. But in the end, many members of the Mujahideen kept the weapons and turned their anti-Western attitudes against the United States. From these groups came both the Taliban and al Qaeda. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who used the skill sets he developed as a U.S.-backed fighter to build the terror organization that ultimately conducted the most deadly attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. As he remains our number one enemy and a symbol to a movement that still threatens us worldwide, his place high atop this list can't be disputed.
1. The Soviet Union
There are few examples of the backfiring of the playing the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend card that will ever rival this one. The Soviets not only went from by our indispensible ally in defeating the Nazis to being the Evil Empire with which we were locked in a death struggle for almost half a century, but they for a while, they were clearly both. As World War II drew to a close, it was already clear that battle lines were being drawn for a potential future conflict with the Russians. Joint victory celebrations, laden with tension, became opportunities to divide up Europe into what would instantly become its Cold War boundaries. In the name of the "cold" conflict that followed, hot wars bled the world for decades and the planet was at the precarious edge of self-inflicted extinction throughout.
But as I say, these are off the top of my head coming out of the weekend. Better ideas are welcome, especially since I don't really like lumping France in with these really bad relationships. (Although it's always fun to tweak them.) And it feels wrong to leave out Asians or Latins.
So... suggestions anyone?
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/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.