As of today, David Rothkopf’s blog will be replaced by a weekly column. For the next few weeks, his column will also appear in this space.
While America's halting path toward accepting the world's new multipolar reality involves a step backward for every step forward, an exceptionalist violation of sovereignty for every bit of teamwork in places like Libya, other countries are actively working to establish new rules for all nations to follow in the new era.
Among those at the forefront of this effort are Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her highly regarded foreign minister, Antonio Patriota. He was in New York last week to advance this effort at the United Nations, and we sat down for lunch together.
The challenge facing Rousseff and Patriota as public servants is a daunting one. Each follows in the footsteps of a formidable predecessor. Admittedly, Rousseff's challenge is much greater and indeed, to many, seems almost insurmountable. She succeeds two presidents who were arguably the most important in her country's modern history, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is credited with stabilizing the country's economy after years of volatility, and her immediate predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, not only her mentor but one of a tiny handful of the world's most important leaders of the past decade. But Patriota's predecessor, Celso Amorim, was also formidable, extremely influential, and a fixture on the Brazilian and international scenes. The bar was set high for her entire administration.
Nonetheless, after over a year in office, despite facing great domestic and international challenges, Rousseff has already earned a higher popularity rating than did Lula at a similar point in his tenure. And Patriota is quietly and, in the eyes of close observers, with great deftness, building on Amorim's groundbreaking work to establish Brazil as a leader among the world's major powers.
"We have a great advantage," notes Patriota. "We have no real enemies, no battles on our borders, no great historical or contemporary rivals among the ranks of the other important powers … and long-standing ties with many of the world's emerging and developed nations." This is a status enjoyed by none of the other BRICs -- China, India, and Russia -- nor, for that matter, by any of the world's traditional major powers.
This unusual position is strengthened further by the fact that Brazil is not investing as heavily as other rising powers in military capabilities. Indeed, as Tom Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, has noted, the country is one of the few to effectively stake its future on the wise application of soft power -- diplomacy, economic leverage, common interests. It's surely no coincidence that, in areas from climate change to trade, from nonproliferation to development, Brazil under Lula and Amorim and under Rousseff and Patriota has been gaining strength by translating steady growth at home and active diplomacy abroad into effective international networks.
But Rousseff's administration is also breaking with the past. Whereas Cardoso and Lula achieved greatness by addressing and solving some of the most bedeviling problems of Brazil's past, from stabilizing the economy to addressing social inequality, Rousseff, while still cognizant of the work that remains to be done, has also turned her attention to creating opportunities and a clear path forward for Brazil's future. From her focus on education to her commitment to science and technology through innovative programs like "Science Without Borders," she is doing something that no Latin American leader has done before but that has been a proven formula in Asia. She is committed to moving Brazil from being a resource-based and thus dependent (which is to say vulnerable) economy to one that counts more for future growth on value-added industries, research and development, and educating more scientists and engineers.
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It is hard to argue with the White House's reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
Obama's multilateralism is both ideological and pragmatic. Since his first days as a candidate, he has made it clear that he believes in the international rule of law, support for international institutions and a United States that is a committed partner rather than a unilateralist rogue within the international system. On the practical front, the U.S. public has neither the appetite nor the checkbook for a sequel to the series of with-us-or-against-us-themed American Sherriff road movies that recently have been playing to such mixed notices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (In both instances while we have worked with coalitions, the U.S. role has been so great that other nations have really been extras, featured ensemble members at best.)
So the president has shown reasoned restraint in the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Libya. While the plight of citizens on the ground cries out for support, Obama and his team have felt that given both the complexities associated with widely bruited-about "solutions" like the imposition of a no-fly zone as well as other interventive measures, that whatever is done would be both more legitimate and more sustainable if undertaken through collective initiative.
That seems like a sound approach -- if intervention actually takes place. But the president and his team must not fall into the trap of thinking that embracing multilateralism excuses inaction when decisive measures are called for. The United States still has national interests -- whether they are in maintaining oil flows or preventing a humanitarian disaster or discouraging other thugocracies from brutalizing their own people -- and if it is the choice of this administration to advance those interests through collaboration with our NATO allies, via the United Nations or through some ad hoc coalition then the United States must find ways to actually do so and to do so in a timely, resolute and ultimately successful way.
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When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.
In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.
But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.
Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it's only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin's was: That it's not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy -- that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That's the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.
That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.
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The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
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While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the Egyptian people in the wake of days of rioting was a masterpiece of insensitivity. With his citizens in the street expressing their needs, he addressed his own. He spoke of poverty and concern for his people, but his message was something far darker. He was making a stand for the status quo.
Watching him, ghostly in the stark podium lighting designed to hide what hints of his age his hairdresser and doctors could not, it was clear that this was an old man comfortable in the old ways of the Middle East. As such he was as much a remnant of Egypt's past leadership as any mummy in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, just as brittle, frail, and ready to turn to dust.
His sacrifice of his cabinet also evoked ancient practices, as well as the last ditch measures of autocrats throughout history. His ministers -- many of whom were not objects of the people's anger -- were used as cannon fodder, a way to test whether the old president's position would hold. The hours and days ahead will determine whether it was enough: whether there are real reforms he might actually entrust his new government with or whether he is betting that his lifelong ties to the military will protect him in ways that his political savvy no longer can.
He is a man out of touch with his people and his times. Like Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, he is a symptom of the greatest problem the region has faced over the past several decades: its self-absorbed, corrupt leadership. From Algiers to Kabul, an arc of autocracy extends across nearly all of the greater Middle East, denying citizens the right of self-determination, buying international favor with oil or political deals, ignoring educational needs, the rights of women, and the investments needed to compete in the global economy.
But with each starkly out-of-touch pronouncement like that from Mubarak today, the arc trembles a bit. Certainly, the fall of Ben Ali started it quivering. In Yemen and in Jordan, demonstrators tested the waters to see if progress might be made there. We have already seen the potency of the Green Revolution in Iran and recognize that even when the autocrats seem to win the day, they only postpone the inevitable. You can't keep the cell phones and the Internet and Twitter accounts off indefinitely and compete in the modern world. You can't deny a future to populations dominated by the young and expect enduring stability.
In Israel, leaders are deeply ambivalent, fearful of instability in a country that has been vitally important to the region's stability -- and even more fearful that what they perceive as an even weaker, minority regime in Jordan might totter. At the same time, on some level they cannot help but note that not only do these uprisings underscore their nearly unique role as a democracy in the region (we will see what reform in Iraq brings) but even more importantly, they illustrate clearly that Israel is far from the biggest problem the region faces.
It is tempting for "realists" everywhere to cling to stability over the questions that opening these countries to self-determination might raise. But we should all have long since passed that point of hesitation. Either we are for the principle or we are not. Either all people deserve these freedoms or they do not. Someday historians may draw a direct connection between President Barack Obama's call for reforms and a new relationship between the United States and the people of the Islamic world in his Cairo speech and the events of this winter. We can only hope that it is connection marked by U.S. actions that are consistent with the high ideals espoused by the president.
In the words of Secretary Clinton today, we have hope that will be the case. In the "Made in the U.S.A." marking on the tear gas canisters being used against the Egyptian protestors we see the potential ugliness that can come from that old-fashioned form of flawed pragmatism that is a hallmark of US foreign policy -- the form in which we make a deal for today's stability that puts us on the wrong side of tomorrow's revolution.
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While we Americans contribute to global warming with overheated rhetoric (and little else) about 21st century competitiveness, our enemies around the world are employing a different strategy. Being sensible arch-villains, they know that the future is uncertain. (Just what exactly are all those green jobs anyway? And weren't we all supposed to have flying cars by now?)
So, they have concluded, "Why fool around with tomorrow when yesterday is a sure thing?"
That is the only way to explain the most recent move by Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Daniel Ortega -- yesterday's men, each and every one of them -- that proclaims loudly that those who repeat the past may not be doomed to be forgotten.
According to a story in Ha'aretz, Venezuela, Iran, and Nicaragua are quietly hatching a plan to build a competitor to the Panama Canal along an alternative route that was considered and dismissed roughly a century ago -- back when canals were the "plastics" of their era.
Given the megalomania of this trio, one can only imagine that they will soon join with like-minded maniacs elsewhere on the planet to boldly go where everyone has been before.
Among their likely next initiatives:
Fortunately, we have little to worry about. Because we are protected against the plans of this Axis of Nostalgia by our own advanced defenses and worldview, which, although firmly rooted in the last century, still place us decades and in some cases millennia ahead of our potential opponents.
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If one of the secrets to success in any job is choosing the right predecessor, then Dilma Rousseff may be starting out with one strike against her.
Her current boss and political champion Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could well be the toughest act to follow anywhere in the world. Despite the efforts of some commentators to take him down a notch or two (much like young guns in the old American west who used to try to boost their reputations by going after the fastest gun in town), Brazil's charismatic president has done a remarkable job. Confounding -- and consigning to the trash heap of history -- old distinctions between left and right, Lula has overseen an economic boom, major social reforms and the elevation of Brazil's standing to the top ranks of nations in the world. (See the excellent story in today's Latin Business Chronicle ... rapidly becoming required reading for anyone interested in Latin America ... summarizing Brazil's recent economic accomplishments. It's pretty dazzling stuff.)
The question is: What's a girl to do? Dilma, who almost certainly will become Brazil's first woman president -- despite a recent slight slip in the polls due to a scandal that doesn't in any way implicate; her one of those curiously timed dust ups that happen to come to light in the weeks before an election -- is going to inherit a country with very high expectations. Some critics expect that absent Lula's extraordinary gifts that she will falter. But read her story and you discover an exceptionally accomplished, tough as nails, politically canny, professional manager who will come to office much better prepared and equipped than some other leaders who have taken over major powers recently.
In fact, given that a centerpiece of her tenure will be the efforts to tap the enormous oil reserves off Brazil's shores -- thus making Brazil a major petropowerhouse -- her background as former energy minister is ideal. The fact that in that capacity she chaired Petrobras, the state's oil giant that recently completed a massive financing that made it the fourth most highly capitalized company in the world, gives her much more business understanding than many political leaders ... even if her views on the national responsibilities of that company make some market purists uncomfortable.
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This is U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) meeting week. That's extremely important news if you live in mid-town Manhattan, because it means traffic is going to be miserable. As for real relevance to the rest of the world, well, not so much.
While the UNGA festivities feature lots of high-profile speeches by world leaders and a panoply of parties, conferences, and lunches designed to showcase those leaders -- and local caterers -- while providing full employment to anyone on the eastern seaboard who owns a black Lincoln Towncar, the entire affair is much more show than substance.
The U.N. meetings are like Davos but without the important people. (Actually, come to think of it, these days Davos is like Davos without the important people.) Maybe it's better to think of UNGA as New York's Fall Fashion Week for Fat People -- all the same posing, strutting and camera flashes going off as during the anorexic version last week, the difference being that the fashion industry may actually be doing something practical for humanity.
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Once again, America's political pundits got it wrong in their analysis of this week's primary elections in the U.S. They immediately sounded the alarums regarding the big Tea Party wins, focusing on two of the most bizarre and extreme candidates to recently win victories -- Delaware's anti-masturbation advocate Christine O'Donnell and New York's porn-loving gubernatorial cartoon Carl Paladino. In so doing, they missed a far greater threat to the U.S. that was imbedded in the election results -- the success of the teachers' unions in defeating Washington, D.C.'s reformist mayor Adrian Fenty.
The unions didn't like his tough schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her policies holding teachers accountable for their students' performance. So they poured money into the campaign of Fenty's opponent, D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. The spin on the election was that Fenty lost touch with the city's black voters, but behind the scenes it was another victory for special interests that care more about their job security than they do about America's economic future. The side that seems dedicated to ensuring that the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries in academic performance -- and thus in terms of competitiveness, growth and by extension, national security, scored a big victory … if anything so cynical and counter-productive could actually be called a victory. Sadly, within hours of this setback for education reform in the nation's capital, it became clear that another courageous reformer -- with Rhee, one of the two or three most notable in the country --, New York City's Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, was also under growing pressure to suspend some of his trail-blazing accountability practices. The argument the critics made was that some New York City students were underperforming on one measure of English and Math proficiency, even while they conveniently overlooked a wide variety of national and state-level achievement gains made under Klein's stewardship. They also ignored the fact that the areas in which the setbacks occurred were ones in which standards were only this past summer revised upward (as Klein himself had urged for a long time).
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We are not in Kansas anymore. More importantly, Kansas is not even where it once was.
Once upon a time and in the minds of most living Americans, Kansas was more than just a synonym or a metaphor for America's heartland, it was the actual geographic mid-point of the United States. You could debate whether the exact location deserving of this honor was closer to Lebanon or Grenola, but at the end of the day, all would agree that by virtue of the power and position of the United States, somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere was the center of the world.
No more. America may be the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But the world's economic center of gravity is shifting away from Kansas much more rapidly than anyone had any reason to expect it would even a decade or so ago. (I know this for a fact -- as a senior economic official in the Clinton Administration who helped put together and run the first U.S. inter-agency effort focused on the world's largest emerging markets, I remember how officials would smile patronizingly and roll their eyes, "Yes, China, India, Brazil, yes... important, but not in our lifetimes.")
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This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
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Today, President Sarah Palin convened a meeting of Middle East leaders to resume the search for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. "It has been President Palin's knowledge of the players, the issues and her exceptional diplomatic skill that has made this event possible," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There is a reason you will never see the preceding paragraph written in a news report. Hint: It has nothing to do with Palin's commitment to seeking peace.
It is precisely because it is unimaginable that Sarah Palin could play the role of honest broker on the international stage on an issue such as Middle East peace that she will never be president. For better or for worse, being president of the United States requires individuals who can assume such a role. Indeed, the success or failure of many American presidents has turned on whether or not they have risen to the challenges of international statesmanship. The American people recognize this fact and with very few exceptions look for character traits in winning candidates that translate into presidents who can hold their own with top leaders on vital issues (although sadly, international experience is not one of them).
This week, with the renewal of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Obama's test in this defining crucible will begin. There have been hints of his aptitude for such challenges before -- in the late night session at the global climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, during which he showed skill and drive. But there have also been warning signs, such as his comparatively weak showing when confronted with tough Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nothing he has yet done, however, will be as important as his role in these upcoming talks in revealing to observers around the globe whether he is the real thing or a pretender when it comes to being in the first ranks of world leaders for any reason other than the title he holds.
While the odds are against a breakthrough in these talks, any hope of progress is likely to be directly linked to whether President Obama becomes directly engaged, places his political capital on the line, and is willing to work the issues and the other leaders participating in the talks.
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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.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
There is an element of lonely self-gratification to blogging that calls to mind Woody Allen's description of masturbation as "sex with someone I love." Of course he also said the same thing about one of his children. But I digress. My point is you don't need a partner to blog either. But here at FP there are some great ones (partners...not Korean stepchildren that you would consider marrying) and so when I want a little stimulation, like anyone else I just point and click around my home site. For example...
Laura Rozen has a piece referencing Joe Nye's assertion academics are increasingly irrelevant to policy. While this is certainly true, it misses the bigger point: policy is increasingly irrelevant to government. Government is reactive to a world is so complex and fast-moving that it may be that policy itself is an antiquated concept. That's not to say that we don't have policies...it's just to say that almost no one in government ever really thinks about them, they're too busy spinning the headlines, stroking constituencies and trying to keep the news cycle from blowing up in their faces.
FP ran a piece by Nestor Carbonell saying it is too early to give up on the embargo with Cuba. Yuh. Also way too early to say whether or not television will catch on or to stop hoping for a comeback by native Americans against the conquistadors. There is not one defensible reason for the embargo. In fact, it is one of the best illustrations of that definition that describes insanity is doing the same thing over and over again-for almost half a century -- and expecting a different result. (Although the technical foreign policy definition of insanity-unilateral sanctions-also applies.) Frankly, the only thing making Cuba policy worth discussing any more is the fact that it is so out of whack with reality. (I must say though, that I did like the FP Passport story about the Cuban regime poisoning diplo-pets...it's pathetic and nasty but on the level of a crazy old coot who lives in the dilapidated house down the street. Which is roughly right...if the old coot had a record of human rights violations and keeping nuclear warheads in his back yard. Still, he's an old guy, not really threatening anymore and it's time to accept change is in the wind.) The best we can hope for is that once America's Cuba policy becomes more rational...and the recent steps by the Obama administration on travel and remittances are, I feel, an irreversible step in that direction... with some luck Cuba will assume the importance it deserves among our priorities...somewhere between Curacao and Sao Tome and Principe. (I kid...it belongs between the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.)
Tom Ricks says Slate is wrong about Israel bombing Iran anytime soon. He may be right about that. But there are those in the Israeli military who don't think bombing is the way it will go. They have quietly been speculating about an approach from the sea. Now, I know there is a whole group of Israelis who feel they're making an important contribution just by ginning up some speculation. Still, I'm just sayin'...
I reviewed carefully all the lists of books on international relations. Most fall into the category of I'd-rather-stick-my-hand-in-a-Cuisinart-than-read-this. Why is it that most books on the intersection of money, power, ambition, and human drama are so damn boring? Hint: it's not the subject matter.
Important breakthrough: All is right in the Jewniverse. (This reference is to my very own blog.) The powers that be at my daughter's high school have relented and restored the swastikas to the spring musical. It really will be springtime for Hitler, after all. Pause to daub away tear of joy. Reason has prevailed. Bad taste has triumphed again. I couldn't be prouder.)
I'm so delighted in fact, that when I turn to Steve Walt's piece on the Somali pirates in which he cautions that the weekend's triumph may be only prelude and that in any event, the issues of piracy off the African coast pale in comparison to the bigger questions confronting the world, I find I am actually in complete agreement with Walt. See what a few swastikas will do for a guy's outlook. (Mine, mine. You guys are so sensitive.)
Since I am flipping around the FP site, let me say that Net Effect is a great addition and I encourage everyone not only to visit...but to click on his links. Many are fascinating. By the way, that's a broader rule of thumb. Click the links. Some of them will surprise you. My pieces here are regularly made better by genius linksmanship from the FP editorial team.
So click the links...and remember the national anthem of bloggers everywhere...
Hey, hey- - they say I better get a chaperone
Because I can't stop messin' with the danger zone
No, I won't worry, and I won't fret
Ain't no law against it yet
Oop -- she blog -- she blog"
She blog -- he blog -- we blog...
The most important outcomes of the G20 Summit had to do with symbolism, process, and the evolution of international ideas. The specific actions taken were less important and, as we will likely see, less significant than they could or should have been. The monies allocated to the IMF represent a good step in a healthy direction and will help the neediest nations but do not address the larger growth issues associated with the world's largest economies, the ones that created the crisis and will lead the way out. As for those economies, commitments to stimulus were soft and the follow-through on them is destined to be spotty. The regulatory steps outlined -- focusing on hedge funds, bank secrecy and executive salaries, for example -- don't cut to the core issues associated with risk-laden global derivatives markets or the other larger causes of the recent crisis and they fall far short of the global regulatory structures we will ultimately need to manage truly global markets. And it is unclear just how much of the $250 billion announced for trade finance is actually new money.
But just as it would be wrong to overstate the specific outcomes of the meeting, it would be wrong to dwell on the output of one such meeting or the fact that it did not produce every desirable change. The reality is that the meeting is meaningful on many levels. It was sufficiently productive and harmonious to suggest that the G20 may be the vehicle of choice for high-level international economic policy coordination at least for the foreseeable future -- certainly through and likely beyond the next meeting, already scheduled for the fall on the edges of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Not only was the outcome moderately substantive but it afforded leaders like President Obama an efficient means of interacting with all his key counterparts on a wide range of issues. This de facto ratification of the idea of adding the largest emerging economies to the steering committee for the global economy is important as is the semi-official recognition that henceforth when the United States and China meet, they comprise the G2. Related to this, the acknowledgement that emerging powers require more voting authority within international institutions is a good and meaningful step and reflective of longer-term changes that indicate a shifting global balance of power.
That said, among the other symbolic outcomes of the meeting worth noting was the reassertion of America in a leadership role that was broadly accepted and indeed encouraged by other participants. Obama may not have gotten just what he wanted in terms of specifics on global stimulus and Gordon Brown may have announced the end of the "Washington Consensus," but contrast the reaction to this U.S. president to that to the last -- and contrast his tone and that of his senior aides. It was night and day and, make no mistake, the Obama era is the one shining more brightly in the eyes of the international community.
As for the evolution of ideas, the meeting further solidified the sense that hyper-capitalism and unfettered markets are things of the past. So, too, is the idea that economic problems are national problems. Brown, who has had a rough few months and for whom the event should be seen as a considerable achievement, referred to the indivisible nature of our economic interests and fates. Does this mean we should now believe that the G20 leaders are more committed to, for example, open trade than they were the last time they professed such views? Of course, not. National politics will continue to bedevil international coordination for the foreseeable future. But it does mean that meetings such as this one will be a fixture throughout that future and that, more than anything else achieved in London, is a net positive of the most profound sort.
In conclusion, it can be said that meetings like the just-concluded G20 work more on the level of metaphor or political theater than they do as functioning working sessions. And while this one may have come up slightly short or individual leaders may have gotten slightly less than they wanted on one issue or another, we shouldn't miss the really primary outcomes in terms of messages. And those are that the world sees itself very differently than it did just a year ago, that there is even among very different countries evolving agreement about what has changed and that this will have significant repercussions for many years to come.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Today, President Obama is following in the footsteps of great American diplomats like Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco. Our 47-year-old foreign policy virgin, like those who went before him cinematically, is experiencing the exhilaration, high highs, low lows and comedy (intentional and otherwise) of speed dating. In Obama's case, this first full day in London for the G20 Summit has produced a round of diplomatic hooking up with...
With whom Obama had a very public, rather hard-to-watch quickie in Washington not too long ago. While perhaps not quite as awkward as movie speed-dater Paul Rudd's desperate attempt to fix his battered relationship with old flame Amy (the incomparable Mindy Kaling), like Rudd, Brown had a lot riding on this meeting turning out better than the last one between the two. According to reports, it did, with the two of them providing the media highlight of the morning with a question and answer session with the press. During the session, the two said that they were highly compatible, enjoyed long-walks on the beach and wanted to turn what Obama called "a sense of urgency" into "working alongside the United Kingdom in doing whatever it takes to stimulate growth."
Dmitry "Call me Gina" Medvedev
This meeting was probably the diplomatic high point of the day. With an outcome that involved an invitation to go back to Dmitry's place this coming July, they also agreed to see whether they could reach an agreement on missile defense and trimming back their nuclear weapons to mutually acceptable levels. It is easy to imagine the exchange:
"You're a good lookin' man."
Barack: "Thank you."
Dmitry: "Very pretty. Real soft, delicate features. They're real feminine, you know, which is good for me, because that would be a simple sort of transition. You know what I'm saying? Maybe throw a little rouge on you... maybe tuck back your SAC (Strategic Air Command)?
O.K. Maybe it wasn't exactly like it was in The 40 Year Old Virgin but I'm working a metaphor here and you have to bear with me. And it does capture some of the hopeful innocence and yet manipulative desire that no doubt infused the scene as Medvedev sought a brand new type of relationship with the United States -- one in which he felt he might be able to take advantage of the man across the table's eagerness to strike a deal, an eagerness that might lead this president, given our circumstances, to consider the kind of partnership between the two countries his predecessors might have ruled out.
By this point, Obama's charm offensive was producing impressive results, with the two leaders exchanging digits to ensure an on-going Strategic Economic Dialogue and cooperation on North Korea and Iran. And because Obama neatly sidestepped a discussion about human rights (which is just never appropriate for a couple's first meeting), tabling it for a future date, he got another invitation: the chance to visit Hu's Forbidden City sometime later this year.
This was a threesome, joined by wife Michelle, who has spent the day dazzling London. Obama indicated how enthusiastic he was about the meeting earlier in the day at the press conference with Brown when he said, "There's one last thing that I should mention that I love about Great Britain, and that is the Queen." And who doesn't really? Although Obama did add an element of decorum to his public statement of love for the monarch when he added, "I think in the imagination of people throughout America, I think what the Queen stands for and her decency and her civility, what she represents, that's very important." He showed her what she meant to him by giving her an iPod that had on it video and pictures from her last visit to the U.S. and one can only imagine what else. A special playlist is always a nice gift. Anyway, it's a technological cut above the DVDs Obama left Brown with on the PM's walk of shame away from their DC meeting a couple weeks ago.
Then, tonight, a romantic dinner catered by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. All in all a perfect, love filled "Date-a-Palooza" for Obama, aside from the screaming mobs in the streets outside.
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
At least there is no disputing that we should all find unsettling the World Bank report indicating that 17 members of the G20 have already broken November promises to quash protectionism. Right now everything is worrying. This is the moment my neuroses have been training me for all my life.
The question is what does the World Bank report signify? According the Bank, the report reveals a "worrying" drift toward protectionism. But to me, the report reveals an equally worrying drift toward rampant bullshit. Not that bullshit is anything new in international relations. It is clearly the fertilizer from which all diplomacy grows.
The big emerging question is however, whether bullshit is the only thing the G20 will actually ever be able to produce. It could, in fact, be that the single biggest achievement of the G20 has already happened. In fact, it happened even before the group was first convened on November 15th in Washington. It came the moment the invitations for that meeting were sent out revealing a new international consensus that the G8 was no longer the right group to serve as the steering committee for the global economic Titanic. The big emerging powers had to be in the room. They were too important to any solution not to be.
That said, the subsequent meeting of G20 financial ministers, the actions of the countries involved and the statements of their leaders, and the pre-April 2nd summit buzz all seem to be suggesting that while the G8 may not be the right group, the G20 may not really be such a great improvement. First of all, in addition to their apparent inability to stick to their commitments (or worse their willingness to make commitments they knew they weren't going to honor), they don't seem to be able to count. Apparently, if you count the participating delegations, there are 26 members of the G20. I have far fewer voices in my head and I have a heck of a time making important decisions. Imagine what it's like to be at a meeting of 26 delegations all primarily comprised of people who make a living speaking rather than listening. Who don't speak the same language. Who don't face the same kinds of problems and challenges because their economies are all so different. Some of whom are jet-lagged. Some of whom might be drinking their after-shave. (I know that was a Japanese minister at a G8 meeting...but it needed to be remembered.)
It's enough to make the judges table of American Idol look coherent.
In addition, a parade of leaders from the group seems to want to use the platform to be chosen to be the next geopolitical idol. Gordon Brown hopes that his star turn as host will save his career...or at least end it with a flourish. Sarkozy sees a chance to have the world dancing to a French tune. Vladimir Putin is offering two approaches. First, as a solo act, the Russians are proposing a new global reserve currency. (It can't have crossed their minds that this might be damaging to the United States. But, hey, don't let this dissuade all you Russo-philes out there from the idea that they're just champing at the bit to be America's best pal.) Then, in what is probably the most meaningful twist in the competition for the global limelight, the BRIC countries are doing a pretty good job of harmonizing their quartet, meeting regularly, making coordinated proposals and managing thus far not to be sidetracked by their substantial differences.
While there is a growing consensus that the April 2nd meeting will support a call for recapitalizing the IMF and other development institutions as well as launch a process to improve global regulatory coordination, big differences remain over issues like whether big national stimuli are a good idea (with some, like the Germans, actually suggesting that fiscal prudence makes sense and others, like the United States, voicing concern that the group as a whole is falling almost 50 percent shy of the IMF's recommendation of stimulus packages equivalent to two percent of each country's GDP). As a consequence, the meeting is likely to produce modest results in the way of agreements, lots of words and process and then a real question, thanks to evidence to date, as to whether or not any of them meant any of it in the first place.
In fact, based on all this, there are only two things we can predict with a high degree of confidence. One: The G20 like any other would be star, needs to drop a few excess pounds. In the end, we only need the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, India, and Brazil. Gee, eight. (The World Bank's Bob Zoellick has suggested a G14. No more please.) And two: No matter how bad it is, Barack Obama and Tim Geithner are likely to be much happier over in Simon Cowell country than they are here in the good old USA. (Sorry...it's country and western week on Idol.)
(This post has been updated.)
Peter Macdiarmid/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.