For years the hackneyed joke about Brazil was that it was the country of tomorrow and always would be. But almost a decade ago, in the wake of the reforms of the Cardoso administration, and then thanks to the remarkable presidential tenure of Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva and the industry and enterprise of the Brazilian people, the joke was overtaken by events. As investors, CEOs, journalists and most of the world's leading powers have recognized, Brazil has arrived.
While U.S. leaders like Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have acknowledged the change, many in the U.S. policy community remained holdouts or skeptics. Yes, Brazil was on the rise they said, but they always found a way to qualify their views, to establish one criteria or another that Brazil would have to meet before it was finally seen as a "first-class power." While Asia specialists embraced the rise of China and India and quickly began to remake policy based on changing power relationships, Latin specialists clung to the past, to old formulations and prejudices.
In the eyes of these living museum pieces of Washington's small, inbred Latin American affairs community, Brazil might be the country of tomorrow, it might even be the country of later on today, but we would be sticking with the policies of yesterday until further notice.
Today, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has issued a new task force report on U.S.-Brazil relations that goes a long way toward breaking with the past by recommending the U.S. move toward a new policy stance with regard to Brazil. The central point of the report is that Brazil must be liberated from the Latin policy barrio and viewed as one of the most important global powers of today and of the century ahead.
On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM's plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.
Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates's comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe's influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.
The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.
The headlines in this morning's papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe's economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.
David Ramos/Getty Images
I will be happy to tell you how a host of the world's current problems will work out if you answer one question for me: How far will Germany go to solve other countries' problems?
From the European debt crisis to its knock-on consequences for Japan, the United States, and the World Economy, from stabilizing the Middle East to promoting lasting reform in that part of the world, from the future of environmental policy to the future of multilateralism, a very substantial factor in the outcome of each will be whether or not an overburdened, increasingly introspective Germany is willing to play the role of global leader.
Recently, the hints from the German electorate and from that country's political leadership have been that after the stresses and strains associated with recent problems from Greece to Libya, Berlin is once again divided. This time, however, it is not a wall but an idea that divides the German people. As the most important country in the world's largest market, just what are the limits of Germany's responsibilities to preserve the European experiment.
I sat today at lunch with a renowned economist and we discussed the fate of Spain. "That is the $64 billion question," he mused. If Spain falters a la Portugal, Greece, and Ireland, then the issue will be will Germany help foot the bill to bail them out? His sense was that they would ... reluctantly. However, he also felt that Spain would be the last straw and a bitter pill for the Germany people to swallow. Therefore, he felt, should a financial quake in Spain rattle Italy, which he did not feel Germany would or could dig down deep enough to help, that global debt markets would be in deep trouble. Japan and the U.S. would all of sudden look much riskier and while certainly the IMF and the G20 would circle the troops to try to solve the problem ... the damage done to global confidence would be huge and the consequences potentially far reaching.
Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images
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.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
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.
GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
In a single, unexpected stroke President Barack Obama may have made his trip to India one of the most important of his presidency. By announcing his support for Indian permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, Obama advanced a number of important goals.
First, he went a long way toward establishing a truly special relationship between the world's largest democracy and the United States. He embraced an issue that was important to Indians and, despite the certainty of Pakistan's public unhappiness with the decision and China's less public but nonetheless undoubted discomfort with it, he showed courage and vision in doing so.
Second, he found an issue that could measure up to or even trump the Bush administration's nuclear deal with India, thus ensuring a strong sense of momentum in a relationship that must move forward if both countries are to rise to the challenges of the new century.
Third, he underscored that his administration was serious about turning rhetoric about rethinking multilateralism, and working with a new set of powers, into action. While working within the framework of the G-20 was a step in that direction, that process actually began two years ago under the Bush administration. Adjustments made in the structure of international financial institutions were another positive step, but frankly were rather underwhelming, leaving behind serious representational imbalances.
Admittedly, what the president said in his speech to the Indian Parliament -- "in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member" -- is rather open-ended. Especially when taken in the context of, for example, the extended period of unproductive support we have offered for Japanese permanent membership. Still, the president's statement implied that without permanent membership for India on the Security Council, the United Nations would not be seen as "effective, credible and legitimate." That is not just true (which it is) or an important point from India's perspective (which it also is), but it has major implications for other countries that have a legitimate claim to a similar role.
These other countries, as noted in a quick but insightful commentary from Stewart Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations, would certainly also include Brazil and Germany. This would make the first tier of new candidates a class of what Patrick calls "four great democracies." Others will cavil and some will argue their merits. But what Obama has done with this statement is to move U.N. reform forward in an important way.
Now, of course, the real work needs to be done. The United States should, at the earliest possible moment, begin a renewed push for translating these words into actions. This will take diplomatic deftness and will require a willingness to begin a process of major-power horse-trading that could well have repercussions across the entire international system. Ideally, the United States will undertake this with a clear vision of how it would like to see the system remade, and with an express willingness to alter, and in some cases diminish, the role of the great post-World War II powers. This is not only the path to a more just and effective system, it is also the path to a system offering fairer burden sharing, a point which may make these changes easier to sell both in Washington and among a group of cash-strapped Atlantic allies. The view should be holistic and represent a sense of where existing institutions need to be strengthened or revamped, and where new institutions need to be cultivated. Virtually no major international institution should be exempted from such a reassessment. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the regional development banks, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, etc., must be reviewed during this process.
Though it is also true that everything cannot happen at once, Obama boldly and appropriately found an issue that could be a lynchpin of such a process of reform. What will make today's remarks a true watershed -- and thus make the current trip a true success -- is if they lead to tangible progress soon, a worthy goal for the remainder of Obama's term.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The main thing he succeeded in doing with the speech (besides making it clear that he learned how to pronounce the word "Jakarta" during his boyhood days there) was upstaging the hapless Republican leadership as they unveiled their "Pledge to America," an agenda featuring promises to keep the Bush tax cuts, "freeze spending" except for national security, and somehow (perhaps this is where Christine O'Donnell's witchcraft comes in) reduce the deficit. Oh yes, they also announced their intention to undo the Obama health care reforms on the very day when a number of its most appealing benefits -- allowing children to stay on plans longer, limiting lifetime caps on spending, limiting pre-existing condition exclusions -- came on stream.
To me, the contrast between the two events -- one televised, the other off camera in a Virginia lumberyard -- beautifully depicts the choice confronting Americans this fall. Earnest, articulate, intelligent but not terribly effective or inspiring Democrats vs. bumbling, idea-less, Republicans offering up the very best ideas of the Goldwater for President campaign to solve the problems of 21st century America. I think I'll swear off cable news for a while and escape to the worlds in which I'd rather be living, like those of "Nikita" or "Covert Affairs."
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Although it's hard to believe, there have actually been developments this week that were more difficult to understand than the finale of Lost -- which is saying something since the show was roughly as incomprehensible as a boozy 3 a.m. chat with Lindsay Lohan.
If all that's confusing to you, brace yourself -- the summer ahead may prove to be a real head spinner. And more on that note in tomorrow's offering. Stay tuned...
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In a thoughtful piece in today's Financial Times about how the anti-European impulses of David Cameron's Tories may lead to a chill with Washington, Philip Stephens writes that "[President] Obama is unsentimental about alliances." I think it goes further. I think that Obama is just plain unsentimental about most aspects of his professional life. (One senior administration who compared Obama's "synthetic intelligence" favorably with that of Bill Clinton, said Obama was one of the "coolest characters I have ever seen in that kind of job. He places an exceptional emphasis on rationality and calm analysis.")
Among those things impacted by Obama's cool rationality are all of America's international relationships ... and in particular the role of history in those relationships. While cognizant of historical context in an academic sense, Obama seems not to place much stock in old traditions be they of friendship or of enmity. The stirring shoulder to shoulder images of the Second World War, while rhetorically rolled out for suitable occasions, are not part of his life experience. This is a guy, after all, who entered high school after the Vietnam War was over and who did not begin his professional, post-law school life until after the Cold War was over. George W. Bush, by contrast, is fully 15 years older than Obama, son of a World War II veteran who was a traditional Atlanticist and cold warrior. Obama is a very different breed of cat from what we have seen before.
That's not to say he's indifferent to alliances. It's not to say he doesn't appreciate the importance of NATO or old friendships. But the impulse to engage former and current enemies, to sign on to the G20 as a replacement for the G8, to seek a different kind of relationship with Israel, to give the Cairo speech, to travel early to Africa-all these steps suggest a willingness not to be captive of the mold of his predecessors. Imagine ... right now the United States arguably has a better relationship with French leaders than with the leaders of the U.K. or Germany.
As Stephens rightly points out in the FT, as far as the U.K. goes, this trend is only likely to grow more pronounced once David Cameron takes office as he presumably will. Cameron and Obama got off to a bad start, they are from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, and to the degree Cameron and his colleagues undercut the Lisbon Treaty and push back from the table of Europe, they will be both making life more complicated for the United States and all their allies and pursuing a very different world view from the U.S. president.
When asked by other colleagues in the diplomatic community who has the U.K. brief in the U.S. government, the current U.K. ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has jokingly replied that he hardly knows because it doesn't seem to be a top priority for anyone. This is no doubt due to the fact that the relationship works pretty well and there are few sore spots crying out for immediate attention. But should Cameron come to power and behave as he implies he will, Sheinwald's successor could feel even more neglected and the Cameron administration is likely to get a cold shoulder that makes Gordon Brown's need for five pleas for a meeting with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly before he got one seem positively warm and inviting.
U.S.-U.K. history and cultures are such that the relationship will always be different from that we have other countries. But it seems quite possible that with an unsentimental post-modern president in the White House who seems destined to have a chilly partnership with the odds-on favorite to be the next Prime Minister of the U.K. the special relationship will be considerably less special in the future than it has been at any time in recent memory.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Shortly after 10 a.m. this morning, Barack Obama delivered an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations that the world has waited decades to hear. Other presidents have offered many similar policy prescriptions. Others have spoken of the desire to be better partners within the international community. Others have singled out the challenges identified by Obama. Others have even delivered addresses with similar amounts of elan and periodic power.
But taken as a whole, the Obama address was as close in temperament and priorities to what might be considered the mainstream views of the international community as any delivered by an American president in recent memory. It was clear Obama is a true believer in a central role for the U.N. and the importance of strengthening it as an institution. He is a committed multilateralist. He seems to genuinely seek partnerships and solutions that lie within the bounds and among the original objectives of international law. He was strong and yet he conveyed a sense of openness to multiple views. He identified specific American interests and reiterated they are his foremost priorities but he also sent a message that he would advance them in a way that was sensitive to international concerns.
More than any president in my memory, he seemed to embrace ... and indeed embody ... the idea of the "human community" of which Roosevelt spoke and to which Obama referred this morning.
It is easy to note that many of his goals -- from bringing peace to the Middle East to taking effective steps to combat climate change, from shepherding the world economy back to health in ways that truly creates new opportunities for all to reducing the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons -- are just aspirations at the moment. But it is also only fair to observe that he and his administration have been active in their pursuit of each such goal after only 9 months in office.
No, pay attention citizens of earth, if history is any indicator, this is probably about as good as you are going to get out of an American president.
Consequently, now would probably be a good time to heed Obama's core message:
Make no mistake: this cannot solely be America's endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone.
Translation: "You may like what you are hearing from me today, but I am only the President of the United States. While it's not a bad job and I am almost certainly the most powerful man in the world because I lead what is the most powerful country in the world, we're not going to get anywhere unless you see my limits as well as my capabilities."
On the one hand, this all means Obama leads just one country and if the world wants America to be a partner rather than a hegemon, then it's going to have to start pulling its own weight.
In addition, however, my point about his "only" being president carries another implicit message that might be lost on many of those who were sitting in the U.N. today or watching around the world. While Barack Obama may have looked statesmanlike at the U.N. podium today and while his rhetoric soared, he is still just an employee of the American people who works in a system of robust checks and balances. (Which is just a nice way of saying he has a Congressional albatross around his neck, a screwed up political climate and a skittish constituency that is ill-informed on many vital international issues.)
On a wide range of the issues he discussed today -- from global economic policy to climate, from arms controls to the role of the U.N. itself -- Obama can lead but he cannot easily make his country follow him any more than he can make the world line up behind him just because he wishes they would. Indeed, the very fact that his views align with the rest of the world on key issues may make them anathema to many Americans.
As a consequence, he will need the international community to help him at home as much as they seek America's help with their issues. In short: Without some early international wins, the world may see the promise of this new era in foreign policy fade quickly away.
This is a hard lesson for foreign leaders to grasp. I have been in meetings in which they requested the United States "make" the Congress do one thing or another. Some simply can't or won't understand how our system works ... or how dysfunctional it is.
It has even been a hard lesson for Obama himself to grasp. I recently asked a very senior White House official, a long-time unabashed Obama loyalist, what the lesson has been toughest to learn since coming to the White House from the campaign. The individual thought for a moment and said, "Well, he was out of Washington for almost two years while he was campaigning. I think coming to grips with the culture of this town and how hard it is to change it has been the biggest surprise for [Obama]."
If it has been that hard for a guy as savvy as Obama to come to grips with, it is easy to imagine how hard it is for the rest of the world. But those who were stirred by Obama's words today really need to understand it ... and to understand that if they don't work with Obama to help fulfill some of those areas of common vision ... they are not likely to find a better partner in the White House for some time to come.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
The speech by China's president, Hu Jintao, to the U.N. pledging to meet "carbon intensity targets" should be a wake-up call to the United States on several levels.
First, it shows that while the United States dithers, China has not only moved ahead in green technology, they have also moved ahead in terms of shaping the global debate about how to reduce carbon emissions and enhance efficient energy use. We can argue about the level of their targets. (They, predictably, are far too low.) We can argue about their methods, their desire to shift responsibility elsewhere or even their sincerity about aggressively pursuing their goals. But we can't argue with the fact that with Hu's comments they edged ahead of the United States in terms of seizing the initiative at this week's climate talks.
Second, in a related vein, it shows that where the United States fails to lead, others are willing to step in. In fact China, whose leaders were visibly discomfited when earlier this year it was suggested that they were now part of the G-2 with the United States, seems to relish both being out front on this issue ... and leaving the U.S. stammering about the problems of having to work with the Congress.
Third, it just shows how out of touch the U.S. Congress is on climate. The scientific world gets it (see today's FT piece on the weight of scientific studies.) The governments of most of the rest of the world's countries get it. But we keep making up excuses as though somehow Mother Nature would slow down out of respect for Senate protocols. These do-nothings are great at coming up with excuses and with compromises that suck the meaning out of any legislation. But in this case, the consequences are global -- impeding progress in combating a critical threat and, at the same time, dramatically undercutting American prestige.
That China's formulation of "carbon intensity targets" is not the emissions caps that we and the Europeans have been urging on them is of consequence, but it is not central. Their commitment to reducing the output of carbon associated with each dollar of GDP is at least a respectable initial proposal. At least their words and their body language ... not to mention their quarter trillion dollar national investment in green technology ... say they are taking this seriously. They are not simply fiddling while the atmosphere burns (or at least warms up measurably) as are their counterparts on Capitol Hill.
How galling must it be to be U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern, a dedicated, earnest agent of change, a guy who really wants America to lead, who is held back by "realistic" estimates of what Congress will permit? Hopefully, the Chinese action and the efforts of other countries this week will cause the administration to shift strategies. They too should have a proposal on the table and they should push for what they think is needed. And then, they should go sell that on the Hill. If Congress won't lead, they must.
Fortunately, Congress's primary excuse on this front -- that China will drag its feet -- is now gone. They will no doubt quibble with the Chinese method and intent. But watching from this seat, they will seem mighty small in doing so and many, whose goal was really to cater to special interests like that minority of businesses who are still not taking this seriously, will seem utterly derelict in their duties.
China will need to do much more than Hu will promise this week. But he and his government deserve credit for reminding the U.S. Congress what leadership can be about.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
So, I don't know about you but I am clearing my schedule for the end of September. If the Obama administration is to be believed it will be a turning point in modern history.
First, at the time of the G8-plus-1-plus-5-plus-3-carry-the-1-times-everyone-minus-the-ones-we-don't-like meetings in Italy, it was announced that the U.S. was going to give Iran until the next gathering of the G-whiz kids to make a move in the general direction of progress on their little problem with all those centrifuges and all that enriched uranium. The next such meeting is in that renowned center of global statecraft, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 24 and 25. (Last known outbreak of diplomacy: when charitable Steelers fans chose not to actually drink blood out of the skull of the most recent Cleveland fan to accidentally wander up to the wrong tailgate party in the parking lot of Heinz Field.)
That's a busy time of year for diplomacy as it is what with the UN General Assembly meeting scheduled for the last week of September not to mention the first annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative since Clinton also became the name of America's Secretary of State which is scheduled for the 22nd through the 25th. Both of these events are to take place in New York City.
Now, yet another event to which to look forward: during a press briefing following yesterday's meeting between Barack Obama and Egyptian Pharaoh...er...president -- whatever they are calling their autocratic rulers these days -- Hosni Mubarak, Robert Gibbs responded to reports the U.S. will be presenting a more detailed plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process by saying he felt the time of the UN General Assembly meeting would be "an important opportunity to continue to make progress on comprehensive Middle Peace." (I'm sorry for the shot at President Mubarak. I can't help it. Yesterday at the Four Seasons I was having breakfast, minding my own business among the scores of giant, armed thugs with squiggly wires in their ears and when I got up to leave I was told we were in "lock down" and that we would not be allowed out of the restaurant until Mubarak and his entourage decamped and gave us the word we were free again. Imagine my surprise. I thought Passover had taken care of this problem.)
Could it really be that things are going so badly with regard to the health care debate that the White House feels compelled solve all the major intractable problems faced by the world at once just to provide a distraction? And on top of that the premiere (and quite possibly the last episode) of ABC's new show "Cougar Town" starring Courtney Cox is slated for September 23d.
Peace. Disarmament. Another member of the "Friends" cast being wrestled to the ground by middle age. It's why I love back-to-school time more than any other season of the year.
Michael Smith/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
I'm one of those guys that the conspiracy theorists love to hate.
I not only believe that we need stronger global governance mechanisms, I believe that the reinvention of our global governance system is one of the great shared missions of the world for the century ahead. Whether it is strengthening institutions that regulate trade or climate, finance or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or whether it is creating multilateral enforcement mechanisms with real teeth, the international system of nation states and very weak multilateral mechanisms we currently have is showing its age and is simply not up to satisfying the obligations of the social contract in the global era. In the eyes of the conspiracy maniacs ... weakened by too much time staring at anti-Bilderberg, anti-Davos, anti-World Jewish Conspiracy Web sites ... this makes me a world government guy and a threat to the natural order. (Which apparently is manifested in a libertarian fantasy land of white guys living in shacks and RVs far from the influence of any cultural tradition but their own. The notion of one nation under Toby Keith seems a little dubious to me, but then again, most of these guys think people like me would best serve as hood ornaments.)
Having said that, watching the UN continue its kabuki theater concerning North Korea makes me want to shut the place down, convert it to condos and remit the funds to the former member states. Even in a down New York real estate market it is almost certain to be a better return on investment for the dollars poured into that white elephant on the East River than "outcomes" like the proposed sanctions on Pyongyang. This is particularly tragic since containing and ultimately eliminating the threats posed by states like North Korea and other proliferators seems to me a vital role for the UN or at least for some international mechanism. But you can't stand up to the bad guy without a spine and the UN has been an invertebrate by design since it first crawled out of San Francisco Bay in April 1945. No one wanted anything like a strong world governance structure back then and so they built a talking shop that makes most freshman philosophy seminars look like decisive drivers of global change. Basically the organization was designed along the lines of the conflict resolution sessions my daughters' elementary school used to use when students got into a fight. The combatants would be sat down in a room, asked to explain the problem, and then told to apologize and make up or else. Of course the "or else" was the equivalent of the great parental technique of counting to three, you didn't know what might happen once you got to the point of no return but you were sure it was bad.
To my eldest daughter's credit at one point she got into a fight with a budding bitchlet from the grade ahead of her and when asked to say they were friends, she refused. She sensed that there would be no repercussions. Who knew that my adorable little cupcake and Kim Jong-Il would have that much in common.
He must be sitting there with his 26 year-old son, Kim Jong-Un, his recently anointed successor, in their badly paneled rumpus room full of tapes of old American movies playing their favorite video game (Grand Theft Plutonium) and cackling at the wimps on Manhattan Upper East Side. Seriously, I can hardly understand how in a city in which every cab driver is prepared to get all up in your grille about the most casual comment, these UN folks can manage to negotiate the basics of daily life. It takes more gumption than they have ever displayed to get a waiter to bring you a menu at most Manhattan coffee shops. (I've seen "Gossip Girl." I know how that part of town works. Blair Waldorf would have Ban Ki Moon braiding her hair and carrying her books to school within seconds of their first meeting.)
In essence, the new tough stand of the UN, orchestrated by the United States, has two parts. In the first, we essentially reiterate what we've said in the past about interdicting shipments of weapons materials. But this time, folks, we say it with feeling. There is no commitment by anyone to actually stop or inspect North Korean ships and there is no UN mechanism obligating or even sanctioning the use of force. We also plan to cut off financing options for the starving country ... except those that pertain to humanitarian or development needs. Of course, money is fungible and the government has shown a real willingness to spend on arms in the past while letting its people eat grass, so why we think this tactic won't just produce more humanitarian and development needs ... which in turn will be met ... is beyond me.
In all the articles on these developments, the usual suspects at think tanks and in the diplomatic community say all this matters because this time the Russians and the Chinese are really pissed off. Yes, maybe. But apparently not pissed off enough to actually collaborate in the production of anything that might actually change North Korean behavior. (Their approach, written on the package every North Korean bomb comes seems to have been lifted from a shampoo bottle: Threaten...negotiate/buy time for program development...win aid packages...repeat as necessary.) How was it all described by that UN expert from Stratford-on-Avon? "A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (They didn't call it the Globe Theater for nothing.)
Oh yeah, by the way, I'm still in India. I'm writing this while periodically looking up to watch the small fishing boats come into the Back Bay from the Arabian Sea. Great people, great meetings, great food and yes, if you must ask, I do keep my mouth closed in the shower to avoid becoming the host to any local bacteria (with whom I have had bad experiences in the past.)
Also, for the record, on the broader point of this blog, despite my being a very big fan of this wonderful country and a big supporter of it having a much bigger role on the international stage and in America's foreign policy priorities, I don't like the nuke deal we cut with them either. I've said it before and I will say it again, the world's complacency on proliferation will produce one or more of the great tragedies of the century ahead. (As in the North Korea case, the international community has developed and seems to be sticking to a three-speed plan on proliferation these days: cooperate with proliferators, cut them a lot slack or cut them a little slack. Just in case you wanted to know what was responsible for that ticking sound you hear...)
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/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.