Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dem. convention - the last night: almost-real-time notes

10:10 Eastern Time: Obama is onstage after a rather pedestrian intro by Dick Durbin and a biographical video. Earlier, one of the "citizen speakers," Barney Smith of Indiana, delivers the best line of the night so far: "We need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney."

10:35: Obama pledges to end dependence on Middle East oil in 10 years. Repeats the now-familiar 5-million-new-green-jobs line. Goes on to education, health care, equal pay for equal work. Says will go through federal budget "line by line, eliminating programs that don't work," making others more efficient. No explicit pledges re deficit reduction, however; probably wise. Foreign policy: face "threats of the future," not grasp "ideas of the past." Is ready to debate McCain on who is best suited to be commander in chief. Patriotism not the exclusive preserve of one party. Repeats by-now familiar positions on "responsible" withdrawal from Iraq, more focus on Afghanistan, tracking down OBL, etc.

10:55: The conclusion begins by invoking MLK's 1963 dream speech; this is the emotional high point of the address, probably. Also interesting is the statement, somewhat earlier: "I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don't have the typical pedigree." Obama makes this sound matter-of-fact, neither boastful nor falsely modest. This is really the only even oblique reference in the speech to the historic character of the occasion. "This campaign is not about me; it's about you." Now this formulation I didn't like quite as much; it is a bit too pat.

In sum, the speech mixed some programmatic detail, substantive but not personal criticism of McCain, calls for civil campaign discourse, and, frankly, fairly standard rhetorical appeals to common purpose, individual and mutual responsibility, 'the American spirit,' etc. In this last respect it was a bit too exceptionalist for my taste; see this earlier post. However, that was only to be expected.

Let Richard Norton Smith, commenting on PBS, have the last word: "This may not be a speech that will be carved in granite, but that doesn't matter if Obama gets to give the inaugural address next January."

Dem. convention (2)

Some people are making fun of the alleged replica of a Greek temple that will be the backdrop of Obama's speech tonight, but as someone points out at The Weekly Standard's blog, it's more likely that the columns are intended to evoke the Lincoln Memorial, this being the anniversary of MLK's I Have a Dream speech.

p.s. As Treehouse points out in the comments, the colonnade also references Soldier Field in Chicago.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dem. convention

Although the Clintons' speeches were effective (Hillary's especially), of the main speakers so far, John Kerry, surprisingly, has delivered the most effective critique of McCain. Kerry was outstanding. Too bad he didn't display that kind of oratorical form more often in '04.

And I must add a word about Jim Leach, former Republican congressman from Iowa, whose speech on the first night was excellent (and the text of which would doubtless repay reading).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The bumpy path of development in West Bengal

The Indian company Tata had been going to build its $2,500 Nano car in the state of West Bengal, which has been governed since 1977 by the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist). Now, however, the leader of the state's Congress party is threatening to stage a siege at the Tata plant until some land seized from local farmers is partly returned. The BBC reports:

Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress party, is not a woman who looks like she is about to change her mind. In spite of the threat by Tata's owner, Ratan Tata, to move the plant from Singur if the agitation continues, her party has announced an indefinite siege of the factory from Sunday. She wants 160 hectares (400 acres) of land returned to local farmers and she told me that she is not in the mood for a compromise.

"We are not interested who is Tata or data," she said.

"A good industrialist has also to be a good human being. The road is very clear - we are in favour of positive development. But if someone tries to blackmail us we will not bow our heads."

As the uncertainty over the plant continues, a number of other states in India have come forward and said they are more than happy to build the Nano.

Quelle surprise.

Added Aug. 25: Martha Nussbaum's interesting piece in the Spring 2008 issue of Dissent,
"Violence on the Left: Nandigram and the Communists of West Bengal," gives a lot of background on politics and society in West Bengal and discusses the volatile issue of land seizures and industrial development, the dimensions of which are only hinted at by the Tata story. One paragraph from Nussbaum's article:

The first sign of trouble for the CPI(M)’s industrialization strategy came last year, when the government announced a deal to set up a Tata Group car plant in an agricultural area near Kolkata. Although the government claims (controversially) that it offered fair market value for the necessary land, the local inhabitants protested vigorously. The government’s basic idea, though contested by those who unduly romanticize agriculture, has won wide support from development thinkers (including [Amartya] Sen, for example), particularly in light of the fact that the Tata Group, an India-based corporation, has a record of sensitivity and decency on employment issues. The protests, moreover, were clearly staged by Mamata Banerjee to at least some extent, in a grab for personal power after a bad electoral defeat. Singur’s population is not overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture. Still, there were ominous signs for the future, such as the government’s lack of attention to transitional skills training and to public debate. Many people wondered why the government had selected this fertile tract of land for industrial development, rather than nonarable land closer to the city; the government refused to answer such questions.
She goes on to discuss CPI-M violence against villagers in Nandigram, site of a planned chemical plant that drew protests. Click the link and read the whole thing, as they say.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden

I predicted it: find the relevant post and thread at The Monkey Cage. Of course, so did ten gazillion other people.

Daniel Benjamin on U.S./Russia/Georgia

A pretty good column, on target in its criticisms of Bush's policy of trying to rush through NATO membership action plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest summit. My only criticism is that he is too lenient on Clinton re NATO expansion (but then, he did serve on the Clinton Natl. Security Council).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Musharraf departs

Manan Ahmed has a good post on this, perhaps a bit too euphoric, but why not. One minute of euphoria will not hurt.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Slightly-off-the-beaten-path news

A couple of items:
1) The Japanese p.m. has decided not to go to Yasukuni shrine to mark the 63rd anniversary of Japan's defeat in WW2. (A few members of his cabinet did go to the shrine, however.) The decision is seen as part of his effort to mend fences with neighbors who were ruffled by his predecessor Koizumi's shrine visits (among other things). See here.

2) Complying, six years late, with a 2002 decision of the International Court of Justice in the Hague (a/k/a the World Court), Nigeria handed the Bakassi peninsula over to Cameroon. The peninsula, which juts into the Gulf of Guinea, has oil reserves, though activities by several armed groups in the region may prevent Cameroon from getting the oil out. See here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Rome, Babylon, Scarsdale: Does U.S. decline (or the debate about it) matter?


"...Niall Ferguson has observed that American IR scholars and analysts tend to choose alternative words for what is arguably the same imperial behavior, words such as 'unipolarity,' 'great power,' 'superpower,' or 'hegemon.' In contrast to the American empire debate, there has been little political and scholarly debate over whether it is appropriate to characterize the United States as a 'power' both during and after the Cold War. Instead much of the debate about the 'power' label has revolved around its qualifiers. Is the United States a 'great' or 'super' or the 'only' power relative to others? Could it be...a 'hyper' power? Or is it a (gasp!) 'declining' power?"
-- Jennifer Sterling-Folker, in International Studies Perspectives 9:3 (August 2008), p.321



"The great wars of history...are the outcome, direct or indirect, of the unequal growth of nations," declared the British geographer Halford Mackinder in 1919. The principle of uneven development, as Lenin called it, means that one should expect the material power of nation-states to ebb and flow as they seize upon (or, as the case may be, fail to exploit) economic, technological, and military innovations. Leading or hegemonic states that have benefited from such innovations must expend large resources to maintain their position, producing economic strains that over time undercut them. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it in a 1994 essay ("Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy, 1990-2025/2050"): "The rise and decline of great powers has been more or less the same kind of process as the rise and decline of enterprises: The monopolies hold for a long while, but they are ultimately undermined by the very measures taken to sustain them. The subsequent 'bankruptcies' have been cleansing mechanisms, ridding the system of those powers whose dynamism is spent and replacing them with fresher blood."

In the United States, however, a significant current of opinion has never accepted that this principle applies to the U.S. On this view, the U.S. is not a "normal" country and is therefore not subject to the historical forces that govern the fates of other societies and nations. The strength of this "exceptionalist" belief accounts for much of the intensity that has accompanied the long-running debate about U.S. "decline".

Roughly two decades ago, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers helped bring concerns about the erosion of U.S. power into public consciousness. Kennedy asserted that:

[I]t has been a common dilemma facing previous "number-one" countries that even as their relative economic strength is ebbing, the growing foreign challenges to their position have compelled them to allocate more and more of their resources into the military sector, which in turn squeezes out productive investment and leads to the downward spiral of slower growth, heavier taxes, deepening domestic splits over spending priorities, and a weakening capacity to bear the burdens of defense. If this, indeed, is the pattern of history, one is tempted to paraphrase Shaw's deadly serious quip [in Misalliance] and say: "Rome fell; Babylon fell; Scarsdale's turn will come." (p.533)
Kennedy emphasized that U.S. decline would be relative and that the changing power balances probably would affect the USSR, as it then was, more than the U.S. He called for American policy makers to "recognize that broad trends are under way and that there is a need to 'manage' affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States' position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage."

Not terribly long after Kennedy wrote these words, the USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended, and the first Gulf War took place, all of which appeared to many (though not all) analysts to signal a period of unipolar U.S. dominance, if not the "end of history." Decline was out; triumphalism was in.

But since 9/11, decline has been "in" again. Observers have discerned an "end of the American era" (Charles Kupchan) or what Fareed Zakaria more recently called a "post-American world." Parag Khanna sees the emergence of a tripolar world (China, EU, U.S.). Whether U.S. relative decline is thought to have begun around 1970, as Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, or more recently, the prescriptions tend to be similar, and very close to Kennedy's two-decades-old prescription: in a nutshell, graceful management of an inevitable reduction in power and influence.

This does not go down well in certain quarters: witness, for example, this article by Robert Lieber in the current issue of the journal World Affairs. Rooted as it is in an exceptionalist worldview, Lieber's article not surprisingly dismisses those he calls the 'new declinists'. He argues that China is "America's most serious, and in many respects only true, competitor," but says its emergence as a genuine great power rival "seems very, very unlikely in the near or medium term." This is a questionable judgment, as is Lieber's view that the EU will not be able to arrive at a cohesive foreign and security policy.
Let's step back a bit, however, from the volley of charge and counter-charge. In a review of Parag Khanna's book The Second World ("Guess Who's Coming to Power," New York Times Book Review, 3/30/08), Raymond Bonner writes that "the notion that the United States will not be the world's only superpower, that it will have to share power with Europe and China, will horrify many Americans." It shouldn't. As Paul Kennedy pointed out 20 years ago, the size, population, and resources of the U.S. suggest that its "natural" share of global wealth and power (however "power" is defined -- an issue I defer here), is somewhere around 16 or 18 percent (a figure that might be lower today). A reversion to this "natural" share, Kennedy observed, will still leave the U.S. as a major actor. Moreover, as Wallerstein notes (here), "erstwhile hegemonic powers have not suffered that much in their declining years. They have lived off their accumulated fat, provided they have adjusted to new realities."

Seen in this light, "decline" is perhaps an unnecessarily emotive word for what has been occurring. In a world where the leading powers compete in ways that do not involve war, Mackinder's "unequal growth of nations" is not cause for undue alarm. The notion of "the rise and fall of great powers," suggesting as it does a quasi-apocalyptic fate to be avoided or a titanic struggle to be engaged, is somewhat misleading. This imagery obscures the messy, prosaic daily bargaining that occupies those who run the machinery of the current world order. The needed reforms of this machinery (expansion of the UN Security Council, to take one of many possible examples) will not be advanced by worrying about or debating U.S. "decline." If "hegemonic decline" is part of a cyclical rhythm driven at bottom by economic forces, then it will occur regardless of who says what about it; if it is not, then perhaps it does not merit the ink being spilled over it.

The weight of the evidence suggests that, contra Lieber, a slow erosion of the U.S. position is occurring, but whether this represents a pressing problem is doubtful. If a new administration reorients U.S. foreign policy in a way that now seems likely, many of the issues surrounding the decline debate may begin to appear somewhat less urgent.

p.s. added Aug. 15: For somewhat different perspectives on U.S. decline (though not ones I especially endorse), see Gary Becker and Richard Posner at their blog. Becker posted on the topic Aug.3, Posner then added his own post. (N.B. Chicago School economics rules there.)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Spectacles

Broadcast networks in the U.S. are for-profit enterprises, needless to say, but they are also required by law to serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity," in the words of the federal Communications Act of 1934. How did ABC discharge this obligation on the Friday night that has just turned into Saturday morning? By giving us the bathetic spectacle of John Edwards confessing to his extramarital affair. Episodes of this kind bring out some of the worst aspects of American public life, in particular its faux-puritanical, hypocritical, sensationalist, and generally repulsive focus on the private (and usually irrelevant) conduct of public figures. (I say "usually" irrelevant because in isolated cases, such as that of Eliot Spitzer, it can be argued that ordinarily private conduct does have public implications.) In this case the spectacle came complete with the host of ABC's Nightline intoning his words as if the fate of the republic hinged on the details of the Edwards matter. A quite revolting performance by Nightline and ABC News.

Over at NBC, which carried the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics (occasionally stunning even on a very small screen), things were better. Better but not perfect, as some of the commentary seemed to have been lifted from a bad junior-high school textbook: e.g., one announcer saying that Swaziland is called the Switzerland of Africa "because of its mountainous terrain and its neutrality in international relations." Is this really the most important thing for Americans to know about Swaziland? (In fact, without an explanation of what "neutrality" means in this context, the comment doesn't convey much of anything.) What kind of weed are they smoking in the NBC research department? All in all, quite a night on the airwaves (and I've only scratched the surface).

And by the way, as long as this post is degenerating, what was the U.S. Olympic team wearing? Designed (I think I heard) by Ralph Lauren, the white berets and grayish-dark-bluish outfits looked horrible. Especially the berets, worn by both the women and the men. Michael Phelps did not participate in the opening march because the swimming events are early and I guess he needed to rest -- lucky guy, he missed having to wear that stuff. And finally, the happiest-seeming athlete I saw in the "parade of nations" was Rafael Nadal -- not surprising, considering what he's accomplished lately.
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p.s. To anyone who may be wondering why I haven't posted anything on Georgia/Russia/S. Ossetia, it's because I don't have anything to add to what is being written elsewhere (e.g., Duck of Minerva, among others).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I never thought I'd see Charlton Heston as Moses in a campaign ad

Looking at some of the posts and threads in the blogosphere about recent developments in the U.S. presidential campaign, I have reached the following tentative conclusions:
1) Obama's so-called 'dollar bill statement' ("McCain will try to tell you I don't look like other presidents on the dollar bill"), which was apparently a response to a McCain ad that ran back in June, was justifiable but perhaps not politically astute.
2) McCain's ads targeting Obama will backfire. I have just watched a video of the ad called "The One" on youtube. This ad, according to this post, is supposed to lead evangelicals to draw a connection between Obama and the anti-Christ. To me the ad just seems ludicrous -- especially the clip of Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea -- but then, I'm not an evangelical Christian. Still, I cannot believe that this ad will sway anyone except a certain percentage of those who buy the best-selling novels about the end times and Armageddon. (One hopes that many of them do not vote.)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died. The works of his that I've read are The First Circle, which I don't remember a lot about except that it impressed me (it was a long time ago), and August 1914, the first volume of his trilogy The Red Wheel. It's not in the same class as The First Circle, but there is some very good writing in parts of it (again, it's been quite a while since I read it). I also tried once to read The Gulag Archipelago, but for whatever reason could not get going with it.

Solzhenitsyn's politics, to me, were mostly very unappealing (to use a mild word), but he will be remembered as an emblematic figure of the twentieth century and, at his best, a very gifted writer. (And yes, I do remember the controversy surrounding his speech at the 1978 Harvard commencement denouncing the West's moral flaccidity, though I note that the BBC obit did not find it worth mentioning -- probably a pretty just assessment of what is important and what is ephemeral.)

Friday, August 1, 2008

David Brooks misses Dean Acheson; I miss sanity

In a column called "Missing Dean Acheson", David Brooks mourns the passing of the days when the U.S. rebuilt Western Europe and, in concert with a few allies, created the institutions of the global 'liberal' economic order. The rise of new powers and new actors means that collective action on pressing issues, from world trade (see the collapse of the Doha round) to climate change, is hard to achieve. More actors mean more 'veto players,' more 'narrow interests' who are able to stop collective measures that might serve the common good.

Although his basic point is straight out of a polisci textbook, Brooks conveniently neglects to mention that the Bush administration's failure to sign the Kyoto protocol, refusal to join the International Criminal Court, insistence on pursuing a ballistic missile defense system based in eastern Europe, and lack of interest in seriously reducing the U.S.'s overbearing global military presence (more than 700 bases scattered all over the world) have not exactly helped further the sort of collective action he discusses. (Not to mention the invasion of Iraq, which Brooks does at least nod to at the end.) Rather than shed tears for an era that is not returning, and that was hardly as rosy in the first place as Brooks seems to think, one should accept that the age of multipolarity (or 'nonpolarity') has arrived and that it requires a different way of thinking about foreign policy. The solution is not a League of Democracies, as Brooks suggests. This is a terrible idea that will further strain relations with Russia and China and alienate everyone who isn't included, in return for supposed benefits that will almost certainly prove to be chimerical.

The far better course is to start by revamping the UN Security Council to make it reflective of today's realities. Making India and Brazil and perhaps some other 'new' powers permanent members -- as well as Japan and Germany -- would give more states a stake in finding collective answers of the sort Brooks wants. It is ludicrous that the structure of the Security Council (5 permanent veto-wielding members: U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain) still reflects the geopolitical situation of 1945. Second, the U.S. should get its own house in order: breaking its oil addiction and reforming its sclerotic and increasingly dysfunctional political system, for starters. Third, the global economic system should be changed in ways that increase the penalties for irresponsible speculative capitalism and decrease the unprecedented and indeed obscene levels of global household wealth inequality (see the recent American Political Science Assn. report on inequality for documentation of this: www.apsanet.org).

David Brooks should be using his bully pulpit at the New York Times to write about these sorts of issues, rather than proposing useless and counterproductive ideas like a League of Democracies. David Brooks may miss Dean Acheson; I miss the days when the op-ed page of the country's 'newspaper of record' reflected thoughtful consideration of serious problems, rather than recycled pablum from the latest neocon manifesto.

p.s. see James Goldgeier on Brooks' column here.