Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: International Relations

Why Rudd needs to attend Obama’s Nuke Summit

Via The Lowy’s Rory Medcalf, comes this possibility that Kevin Rudd may miss Obama’s mid April Nuclear Summit:
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The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox’:

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Facts are sometimes the easiest thing to burn: The Indian attacks and the media

I somewhat understand why the Indian media is so keen to play up the idea that Indians are victimised in Australia. The government is pissed at Rudd over Uranium/NPT, and its always popular to play the nationalist card. What I don’t understand is why the Australian media seems to be aiding them:

INDIA’S high commissioner, Sujatha Singh, will return to Delhi for talks next week amid rising diplomatic tension over attacks on Indian students in Australia. Mrs Singh made a stinging complaint to the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, over the attacks in Melbourne, labelling Victoria a state ”in denial” over the severity of the problem.
Word of the envoy’s return came after India’s External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, issued a strong statement on the attacks, demanding they be “stopped forthwith”. Mrs Singh will travel to Delhi to explain her perspective on the violence, which threatens to seriously damage relations between the nations.

This sounds like a major diplomatic incident. Especially in an era of easy phone, electronic and video communication, recalling a diplomat to discuss a problem is a gesture heavy with meaning. Indeed my first thought on reading the story was ‘what has set off this new row’ that such a step would be made.

Only it turns out, Singh isn’t heading back because of the attacks, and this is all just routine: (From the same article a few paragraphs down)
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Resurrecting the idea of Humanitarian Interventions

Christopher Hitchens on North Korea:

Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city. (See this famous photograph.) Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.

But this is what proves Myers right. Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

While the Iraqi people have suffered due to the Bush Administrations botching of the invasion of Iraq, it is the people of the world who are still in abject dictatorship which have suffered the most. Designed as a giant confidence play to strike fear and the necessity of submission into dictators world wide, its controversy, bungling and cost have instead given ultimate re-assurance. Among the dead lies the idea of Humanitarian Interventions, a liberal idea of cautious military use to protect individuals, turned into a conservative rock tune of freedom and change by mid-afternoon.

While there were mistakes and setbacks in the 1990′s (in particular Clinton’s and other democratic leaders significant over-estimation of public unwillingness accept the loss of life towards such aims), progress had been made in establishing the idea as a viable policy option, with mechanisms and even discussion of standing forces to be dedicated towards the task rising. But that option has been fundamentally damaged, and the discussion returned to a taboo, both by liberals who now fear the underlying motives of any self-professed moral activity by government/the military and conservatives who either don’t see any rewards (those ungrateful iraqis!) or now out of office have re-found their worry about military over-reach and the power of government to affect societal change.

None of this is to say that we should invade North Korea, or that they’d be free were it not for Bush (obviously not). But the option for policy makers has been removed from the table, and is awkwardly side-stepped when brought up in polite company or the halls of academia and foreign policy commentators. Even now, nearly 7 years on from Iraq, the wounds are still too raw for us to escape the inevitable comparison: If you advocate humanitarian invasion you’re a Neo-Con with hidden imperialist motives, if you argue a better society can be brought about, few see anything but images of suicide bombs and IED’s filling their imagination.

Appropriately implemented Humanitarian Intervention I would argue is a fundamental element of a peaceful, democratic world society. Implementing the norm of Sovereignty in 17th century Europe may have brought us freedom from religious wars (well largely) but we also need to ensure that governments can no longer hide behind the security of their own borders to avoid responsibility for their crimes against their citizens and humanity at large. Many countries make the shift to democracy on their own, but some stubborn few have to be blasted out. Until we can return to a discussion about even that possibility (again in the context of full discussion and needing an appropriate process such as UN authorization) then the oppressed, shrinking slaves of places like North Korea will continue to suffer alone and in the dark.

Transparent Panic

I wrote last year that foreign policy disputes occur through events typically out of the hands of leaders, (ie that Rudd can’t make the 2010 election be about foreign policy in the way he can force a poll on Climate Change), but that rule really only applies to democracies:

Iran’s hardline president has ordered the formation of a team to study the damages the country suffered from the 1941 Allied invasion in order to demand compensation.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran suffered immensely after it was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II despite its declared neutrality and was never compensated.”A team has been assigned to calculate all the damages (inflicted on Iran) in the Second World War. This will be an invoice they (Allies powers) must pay to the Iranian nation,” he said in remarks broadcast live on state television on Saturday.
“You inflicted lots of damages to the Iranian nation, put your weight on the shoulders (of the Iranian people) and became victors in the World War II. You didn’t even share the war profits with Iran,” Ahmadinejad said. “If I say today that we will take full compensation … know that we will stand to the end and will take it.”
Ahmadinejad also warned that Iran may also demand compensation for the damages it suffered during World War I, the Western support for the former Pahlavi Dynasty and its hostility towards Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It’s not often you see leaders of nation states come up with such transparent diversionary policy efforts. No money will be paid, no attention (beyond the media hoping like Iran for a conflict) will be given, and this event will be utterly forgotten in two weeks let alone when it comes time to sum up 2010 in late december. But it is indicative of the panic within the Iranian leadership. To be sure the opposition green movement is leaderless, and divided on whether it wants to simply reform the theocracy or really revolt Iran into a new democratic era. However the legitimacy of the leadership is utterly gone.

For all that International Relations is dictated by calculations of material power, (how many nukes does that country have, who controls the military etc), intangibles such as legitimacy are often far more critical over the long term. In the last 20 years democracy rose, communism fell, a wall came down, and the US appeared to be weaken by a bunch of islamic fundamentalists all because of issues of legitimacy rather than any mathematical material calculation of power. The Iranian government has the guns, but it is clearly panicking and will end up selling out its young (as likely as revolution is the dismissal of Ahmadinejad) to keep in power. Long term, it is hard to see how the 1979 Islamic Revolution lasts beyond the next 5-10 years, and that is even assuming they get the bomb.

Bush’s wish to ‘drain the swamp’ with falling dominoes of democracy may yet come about. He may have got much of the implementation wrong, but I think he saw the end game better than many of his critics.

Gillard’s need for an Indian summer

The recent whohar with India over the stabbing murder of Nitin Garg is a class A example of how foreign policy crises shape leaders rather than are shaped by them. Neither government initiated it, and whilst the Indian government is playing domestic populist and airing some grumbles over uranium, it would probably prefer the issue goes away quickly.

Though some like Gerard Henderson seem certain Australia has an anti-Indian race problem (he’d never have said that under Howard), for myself, like most of the community, the idea seems absurd. Indians are long standing residents of this country, who don’t cause trouble, seem closely integrated and love their cricket. There are racist elements in Australia who may target all non-whites, but that’s a far cry from the absolute rubbish being served up in the Indian media scaring many potential students and migrants away from the country.

This crisis however offers a potentially career defining opportunity for our Deputy PM Julia Gillard. While clearly highly competent, there is a perception that she is a little too thinly stretched across her responsibilities. Not only as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; Minister for Education; Minister for Social Inclusion, she is part of the governments gang-of-four who decide most policy issues, along with being a very politically important Deputy Prime Minister, and a regular Acting Prime Minister. Errors such as the spending of stimulus money on schools that had one student or were due to close were not errors of judgement so much as of editing. Gillard also needs to get some policy runs on the board given her past golden duck efforts such as Medicare Gold. Fixing the issue now would bring short term political benefit to the Rudd Government, whilst offering a point to be remembered in by colleagues in 5 or so years she begins to think seriously about becoming PM in her own right.

Having introduced the ALP’s new IR legislation on Jan 1, it might be a very good idea for Gillard to drop her role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations (and Social Inclusion) and focus on education, starting with international students. The Rudd Government came to office promising an education revolution. Even including stimulus spending, it has barely touched the issue, and this challenge is a perfect opportunity to make some big changes with public support.

As our fourth biggest export industry, worth $16.6 billion, the market for international students strangely came about without much government attention. Indeed it was the neglect (if not deliberate damage) by the Howard government of the tertiary sector which lead universities to seek substantial numbers of full fee paying international students as a way to cover their budget shortfalls. This turned into a boom industry, but it is one that has been badly managed and regulated, with the collapse of four private international student focused schools in late 2009 a too common story.Though already a huge industry, the potential for turning Australia into a SE Asia education hub is enticing.

Not only is this an industry that plays on Australia’s strengths in education, culture and brain power, and not only is it highly lucrative irrespective of global financial conditions, it also delivers key diplomatic and security advantages to Australia. By educating the youth of the regions elite (and up & coming leaders) we gain crucial leverage and understanding throughout the region. In 20-30 years time, these same people will be the business, cultural and political leaders, and their views of Australia will be closely shaped by their time here. A positive view could well be the difference between a key trade contract being awarded or even back channels to avoid war and conflict. That’s not hyperbole, in the case of E.Timor a large reason why there was no firefights between Australian and Indonesian troops was because of the personal links between the two armies, averting conflict.

Immediate action is clearly needed to calm the views of the Indian population in Australia, and the Indian government and media overseas. But long term, serious action needs to be taken to help improve the international student sector, as a starting plank for delivering an education revolution. This would deliver on the Rudd governments promise of an education revolution, improve and reform a key economic industry, and let Gillard and Rudd address an area that is clearly very important to both of them, both personally and politically.

For more on the India-Australia challenges faced, and potential responses, I’d recommend two publications by the Lowy Institute: After the perfect storm: Indian students in Australia by Janaki Bahadur and Troubled waters in need of oil by Rory Medcalf.

Doubting the wisdom of men who stick fireworks in their crotch

I’ve not paid much attention to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the crotch bomber who tried to blow up a flight into Detroit if only because it was a failed attack. That men are out there in the thousands trying to kill civilians of all faiths and creed as part of an anti-modernist religious nihilism is one of the defining but also definable threats of the decade past. All of us over the last 9 years have at some point surely felt fearful of an attack on ourselves and those we love. Whether travelling or simply attending populated areas, the thought has surely creped in. This latest case is no more significant than any other. Only the sensational way in which he was stopped, American right wing demagoguery and a story starved press have caused his actions to be seen as significant. And just as looking deep into the abyss lets the abyss look into you, voices have sprung up in the US demanding that AbdulMutallab be tortured:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

….The vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him, “You have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

I suspect (hope) the poll’s wrong and that those surveyed didn’t already know he’s already singing to the FBI, but what’s most interesting is the last line, “tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks”. Why does anyone think this guy knows anything ?

If the attack had gone to plan AbdulMutallab would be dead today, so why then would Al Qaeda tell him about upcoming attacks? Why would they entrust or even let overhear, sensitive details to someone who was so smart that he was incapable of setting off the crudely made device, and so obvious even his father tried to turn him in? Western special force troops with a decade plus of training and field work are still not told what missions other units are undertaking or if any are operating in nearby battlefields, so why would this guy know anything? What part of ‘terrorist cells working in isolation’ have they not understood as described in the literally millions of articles, journals, books and other publicly available analysis about the threat we are facing?

Richard Reid the failed shoe bomber was caught in December 2001 in a similar way, similarly ridiculed, and sentenced in a civillian court, and is now in jail for life. No different step needs to be taken in this case. Only given that this boys only real achievement was to ensure he can probably never breed again, a future-darwin award and extended mockery are his real reward. Attacks like this will probably occur for the rest of our lives, the only way to deal with it is serious sober police work and humor. I suggest more efforts like those below the fold (NSFW). Happy 2010.

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Making an impact: Middle Powers #1

A key focus of my PhD is on the topic of middle powers, so over a few topics I want to explore the concept and how it relates to Australia.

The concept of ‘middle power’ countries is as old as the middle ages, yet there still arn’t any clear definitions other than playing on the concept of ‘middle’ as in not great and not small. In the 1980′s and 1990′s the term was made popular by both academics and politicians. Academics noted that middle could refer to economic/population size, geographic size or location (such as position between two great powers). Another option was the slightly tautological choice of those countries who didn’t have the physical resources to demand leadership yet still managed to insert themselves into international affairs as significant players (tautological because its a self-selected role, with no clear requirements).

Australia, (along with canada, brazil, israel and india) has been consistently identified as a middle power, going back as far as the 1940′s. The Hawke/Keating government strongly endorsed such an idea. Being a middle power to them seemed to express a significance of power to Australia that could be achieved in spite of our lack of economic/military/material power. The Howard government ridiculed this approach and whilst occasionally using the term sought out slight synonyms such as a “considerable power” whose status as 6th largest in land mass makes us important. But this was a minor debate, largely ignored and inspired by a petty anti-intellectual attack of the howard government on the Keating government’s foundations.

Yet such sideline intellectual spats have a real-world significance. The Rudd government has picked up the term in its documents and self-identification, and scholars have respond. Scholarship on the term middle powers peaked in the early 1990s and has largely ceased since 2000. (save Ping 2004 on south east asia). What’s more while the politicians don’t read such papers, their advisors and the media occasionally do, leading to language such as Tony Abbott’s last week:

Mr Abbott attacked Mr Rudd’s belief he may have been able to influence the outcome of an agreement struck at Copenhagen. ”I think that it was always a great conceit to think that Australia could save the world on its own,” he said.

”The Australian voice should be heard in the world but I think it’s wrong for people like Mr Rudd to imagine that they can be much more than the mouse that roared.”

This is a logical outcome of the Howard Governments abandonment of the term middle power. Yet instead of it leading to a ‘realist’ assessment of Australia’s status, in the hands of Abbott, it seems a requirement to cower and hide our laurels. That Australia ought to recognise and keep to its place in the world in a ‘mouse’ like response to the giants wandering above. Such sentiments are similarly found out on the libertarian fringes of the Aus blogosphere over at catalaxyfiles:

Our Prime Minister has returned from Copenhagen, triumphant in having performed his role as Friend of the Chair at COP15 to almost universal acclaim… Admittedly, the Conference achieved nothing much of substance but we know that the Prime Minister will have done his duty with distinction. Without him it would probably have achieved nothing at all…..
Remember when the Keating government produced a series of policy pronouncements called things like “Working Nation” and “Creative Nation”? My guess is that the Prime Minister might be motivated to add to these with “Good Nation”: a plan to make our country Good, in fact to become the Goodest nation in the world. He will have been inspired by the feeling he got in Copenhagen when a grateful meeting greeted his arrival with a standing ovation: “You are the only one who can rescue this” they cried.

Yet both these responses beg the question : What is the alternative?

Take Copenhagen. It certainly didn’t deliver the response which Australia wanted. But take a look at those countries who were in the final critical meeting: USA, China, India, Brazil, South Africa. Of these countries, only South Africa has a lower GDP, and that liut excludes 10 countries with bigger economies than Australia (and thats including all EU countries as one). So what should Rudd have done instead ? Reticence? Apathy? Denialism (as some of Abbott’s colleagues would have us do) Though he has not the courage nor conviction to take a clear stand on the issue.

What other approach than Rudd’s creative middle power diplomacy would have earned Australia a significant role at the Copenhagen conference? We may not have been at the final meeting, but Rudd and Wong had significant roles both before (as close advisors to US president Barack Obama) and at the conference as friends of the chair and leaders of a country respected for its actions on combating climate change.

Wait. I tell a lie. Had Australia passed its CPRS legislation it would have been a developed country who had committed to wear the economic cost to ensure protection of the environment, yet instead thanks to Abbott’s reticence, the critical bargaining chip that Australia had to play: our ideological commitment was denied to the rudd government for nothing more than a short term partisan black eye by the opposition.

While Downer in 2003 tried to claim that labor was an isolationist party that undermined Australian strength with it’s label of middle power, it’s the conservatives who more often seem to underestimate the position and power of this country. While the support for the USA as a great protector is straight out of a realist IR theory playbook, the unwillingness to challenge any elements within the relationship, and the general reticence or interest in international affairs is a common feature of conservatives in Australia. It was not until the events of East Timor that the Howard Government gained the self-confidence to seriously engage with the Asia-Pacific. It’s first years were halting and unsure, a far cry from the end of the Keating years under Evans, and even Rudd’s confident first term. Realism as a theory of International relations plays a critical role in ensuring countries protect their own survival first, but its rigid hierarchies can lead to countries forgoing opportunities for increasing their wealth or status, roles that can eventually increase their chance of survival.

None of this proves the worth of a middle power concept or a country taking on such a role. But it is a worthwhile starting point noting that the main criticisms of the concept of ‘middle power’ countries are either based around (consciously or not)denigrating the country as a ‘mouse’ in world affairs -whilst denying it useful bargaining chips-, or attacks that simply to mock the idea that anything but powerful a-moral strategies can work in international politics. They are shallow and partisan, and none actually engage the real question of how much influence a country like Australia an have in world affairs.

Next week, I want to engage the views of serious academic commentators such as Hugh White and others on the topic of Middle powers, but given this is Boxing day, it seems a fitting time to throw the first punch in rejuvenating the concept at an academic and public level.

Can Australia play a meaningful role in nuclear disarmament? Pt 1

Water+nuclear+bomb+-+by+AlifaanTomorrow, December 15th, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be in Japan with his counterpart to launch the new report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament(ICNND). Co-Chaired by Former Keating Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, this report is Rudd’s first (and perhaps biggest) shot at making Australia a key player in ending the proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and planning for their eventual disarmament.

Once the report is out, I’ll do an assessment of Rudd’s approach, but for the time being I want to quickly look at the Hawke and Keating Governments actions on Nuclear Weapons and how they should inform Rudd’s actions.

While the Hawke Government was significantly concerned about the issue of nuclear weapons, it’s power to achieve any change during the cold war was obviously limited (Although this was a period of significant disarmament successes). Instead it set about addressing issues like Chemical Weapons, via a range of non-politicised conferences and workshops, building a coalition of major chemical exporting states, and extensive engagement with expert advisors who could both run the education campaigns, and bring the chemical industry onside for aiding negotiations and export controls. The Hawke Government also managed to sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, or South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, an approach that has been replicated in Asia, Africa and Central-Asia. Interestingly domestic concern over nuclear weapons peaked during this period (such as the Nuclear Disarmament Party lead by future ALP minister Peter Garrett), however it was largely dismissed by the Government who wanted to continue supporting Americas nuclear shield and related alliance issues.

The Keating Government came to power with the end of the Cold War imminent, unleashing ‘unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable opportunity’ for change in the eyes of Paul Keating. It continued the Hawke governments desire for Australian involvement in stopping the flow of nuclear weapons and disarmament, however there was a more conscious question of identity involved in the governments actions. Keating & Evans wanted Australia to ‘be and be seen to be a good international citizen’, and no cause was more clearly in line with this than preventing the development, testing, sale or use of nuclear weapons. However in 1995 when the French announced a series of Atomic Tests at Mururoa Atoll in the pacific the government suddenly had to make good on its nice sounding words. The actions of the French outraged the Australian population, and little the government did seemed to satisfy the public. In part prompted by recent events, the Keating Government set up the Canberra Commission to report on the elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which the Coalition reluctantly pledged to support if they won office.

While waiting for the report, the Keating Government also participated in an International Court of Justice case on the legality of Nuclear weapons. Represented by Foreign Minister Gareth Evans Q.C, Australia argued that it is ‘illegal not only to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons, but to acquire, develop, test or possess them’. (Evans however, like Hawke before him was careful to argue that any views Australia had should not be taken as offering commentary on the alliance with the nuclear armed USA). The court was not quite persuaded, and in a split decision held that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’. However they could not rule on the legality of their use as a tool of survival or self-defense. Little was expected from the case (the Nuclear Weapons powers states would ignore even a unanimous decision against them), but it showed the range of arenas in which the government was willing to act to push their case.

The voters had other issues on their mind and in March 1996 Keating and Evan’s were tossed from office, and the Canberra Commission report emerged into the arms of a very reluctant step-father. The new foreign minister Alexander Downer went through the motions launching the report and taking it to the Convention on Disarmament in 1997, but without strong Australian backing, it was hard for other countries to get excited.

However – The Canberra Commission report of 1996 is still one of the pre-eminent documents on addressing the question of nuclear weapons ever produced. In the coming years it received strong support from India, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Austria, Sweden and Brazil. To the Nuclear Weapons states, it offered a pragmatic and sensible recognition of their core security needs, to the non-nuclear weapons states it offered a clear draft with viable steps for taking action. The Canberra Commission centered around three main proposals: a cut-off convention; no-first-use agreements; and support for nuclear weapons free zones. Unfortunately without any significant Australian government support the effort spluttered out of energy, and the Clinton Administration, having previously embraced the new found optimism of the post-cold war period was distracted by domestic issues. Still, a look at any of the major commentary on nuclear weapon control and disarmament will show you finger prints of the Canberra commission.

Finally, while the Howard Government effectively ignored their predecessors efforts to eliminate or even reduce nuclear weapons (except in the case of nuclear terrorism), they did recognise one asset in the effort which this country has above all others: Uranium deposits. While Labors internal debate prevents any real use of this resource (even under Rudd), the Howard government realised the role which Australia as a leading world supplier of Uranium could play in both controlling and influencing the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear power was developed in the world. While still early days, (even they ran into significant domestic complaint), this is an asset which gives Australia a unique strength amongst the many other middle power countries who want to see an end to nuclear weapons. As yet, we have not had either an opportunity to exploit this resource diplomatically, or a government with enough popular support in the area to do so, but it remains a valuable potential.

In re-starting Australia’s efforts towards nuclear disarmament, Rudd showed his strong desire to learn from the Hawke-Keating governments in choosing Gareth Evans to Co-Chair the commission (along with Japans former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi). But as this quick survey shows, it needs to go beyond just Evans. Having studied some of this for a chapter in my PhD, it seems clear that the following requirements of Australia’s promotional effort will have to be in place:

1) The report has to be pragmatic and offer concrete suggestions.
2) It has to bring both Nuclear and Non-Nuclear weapons states along and recognise the different needs of both.
3) The further it can be de-politicised the better. Involving experts (again linked to suggestion 1) is critical to credibility and making it an issue of management and specifics, rather than grand empty principles.
4) The continued activity of the Australian government to push this will be critical. While few doubt the energy of Rudd 24/7, this is something where he may,perhaps, just, see initial results for in his final term. Continued pressure rather than once off launches are key (and why is it being launched during Copenhagen & at the end of the year??)
5) The Labor party will need to resolve division on uranium and seek ways to strategically exploit this resource, or at least let other countries know we could.
6) The US alliance and nuclear shield for Australia somewhat demonstrates Australia’s hypocrisy, however, and this is a big however, our clear understanding of the security needs of nuclear weapons states gives us an increased credibility. Important to all this will be the views and actions of Barack Obama and perhaps even moreso the US Congress. Obama gave a great speech in Prague, but unless he can convince skeptical conservative democrats like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and sees changes to the destructive minority veto of the filibuster, all his support in the world wont see political change. Australia needs to stay in the alliance, and ahead of the US helping to guide its path along, without getting so far away that Obama can’t see our lights.

So, cautiously, we can say that Australia already has a strong reputation as a country that is both serious and committed to address the proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons. A serious effort by Rudd, building on this success could return momentum to a path that stalled in the 1980′s & 1990′s. To do that, we need to lead with experts rather than politicians, be relentlessly pragmatic, and maintain a determination to keep at it for as long as it takes.

Later in the week, once i’ve digested the new ICNND report, I’ll come back and discuss how Rudd’s doing on that score.

Abbott boxed in by climate change rhetoric

Pollution_Factory There is a tendency when it comes to political rhetoric to always go nuclear. To deploy the most strident, attacking, and damaging language you can to label an opponents position or policy. And no word has more power today than ‘Tax’.

Case-in-point: In the US 2008 election, the Republicans attacked Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ and saw no electoral traction. Yet when they caught him saying he wanted to ‘spread the wealth’ to Joe the Plumber, their spirits soared. It didn’t help their cause that Obama had a tax cut for about 95% of the country, yet McCain still devoted almost the entire second Presidential debate to claiming Obama wanted to raise people’s taxes, causing a few wobbles from Obama’s campaign.

While there was certainly a strong case for Tax Cuts in the 80′s & 90s, today when there isn’t much fat left on the revenue side of the budget, the social stigma applied to the word is impeding our political debate. Of course this criticism has been mounted before by social democrats who want to spend more on infrastructure or key social services, but it’s also damaging the way Liberals and Conservatives develop their policies too.

A few months ago when The Nationals were the only party against the ETS in principle, Barnaby Joyce took the obvious rhetorical step of calling it an ‘Emissions Tax Scheme’ (clever guy huh). As the vote got closer, he increased the volume calling it a ‘massive tax on everything’. A theme picked up by a number of other opponents of the scheme, and instantly adopted by Tony Abbott when he took over as Coalition leader and defeated the Governments’ policy. This was not the only rhetorical attack on offer against the governments CPRS (it could also be called complex, confusing, ineffective, counter-productive, special-interest laden, bureaucratic etc etc) however “Tax” was the leading punch. To Abbott’s reckoning he had given the Government a black eye (a defeated policy), a cruel new nickname (big taxer) and was now the hero who had saved the people from a major tax. Only, and annoying for him, the people still want something to be done. However, nothing that looks or sounds like a tax can possibly be advocated by the Coalition, leaving very few options available.

If Abbott had avoided dropping the Tax bomb on the governments scheme (and he did not need to do so to have it voted down the bill) he could have offered a much simpler and attractive scheme: A Carbon Tax.

By Jeremy Hansen in the NYT (Who Paul Krugman calls “a great climate scientist. …the first to warn about the climate crisis”)

‘Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.

All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.

For example, when the fee reached $115 per ton of carbon dioxide it would add $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline and 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity. Given the amount of oil, gas and coal used in the United States in 2007, that carbon fee would yield about $600 billion per year. The resulting dividend for each adult American would be as much as $3,000 per year. As the fee rose, tipping points would be reached at which various carbon-free energies and carbon-saving technologies would become cheaper than fossil fuels plus their fees. As time goes on, fossil fuel use would collapse’….

Emissions Trading Schemes were preferred because they let governments set a limit on emissions which can be reduced over time, giving assured levels of pollution reduction. Carbon Taxes are more elusive in this area, but the same logic of a rising price = less use of carbon emitting fuels/products/technology applies. This offers a wiggle room would perfectly suit a coalition party which both wants to look serious on the issue, but doesn’t want to be too tied into international deals and wants to be able to regulate Australia’s actions in line with economic circumstances.

Carbon Taxes have the advantages of being more economically efficient, and ‘just’ in a Liberal sense of being applied equally across the population. While small refunds could be applied to some industries (such as agriculture), it likely wouldn’t be the hodgepodge of deals and allowances & exceptions that the Government has set up with its ETS (which for the Greens make it now useless). And given that a carbon tax would reward individuals who act positively to reduce their own carbon footprints, it would also be in line with the parties preference for individual responsibility and reward. Not only that, but the Coalition could even piggyback some of the potency of the tax argument, by offering to sharply reduce all income taxes in line with the CO2 taxes. Just like the GST, not all taxes are equal, and given the public demand for action, this would be strongly in line with their past actions.

Finally, if they chose to keep back just a small part of that revenue, it could be invested in what is perhaps the real and only solution to climate change: better technology. This was an argument John Howard made consistently during his final years in office, and one the Coalition could pick up and run with. Australia has the minds, the education system, and the incentives to be the ones who create the next big breakthrough that fundamentally changes how we create and use energy. We’re doing it already, but with a big injection of funds imagine what we could create, what industries would come to call Australia home, what economic returns await us.

Of course Carbon Taxes are not a new idea, and I think Paul Krugman is somewhat right that having spent so long building up a Cap&Trade system, to throw it away and start down a different path just means too many delays to accept. But it’s worth noting again, how the rhetoric we use in one area, deamonising all taxation as bad harmful policy, if not outright ‘theft’ has left Conservatives (and many liberals) unable to offer sensible alternative policies in other areas. A Carbon Tax might not be considered as effective environmentally as an ETS, but it’s just as effective (if not more-so) politically for the Coalition. But it’s now off limits.

Instead, because Abbott accepted the rhetorical framework of calling a market based system a tax (thereby ruling out both) he is left with prescious little other than Command-and-Control type regulations. Not only does this also run up against 30 years of liberal and conservative economic thinking in Australia, it may well be at least twice as expensive(p152) if not even more so. But Abbott has no real options left if he wants to propose a policy that at least looks serious.

As Al Gore has said, what is ideally needed is to ensure we “tax what we burn, not what we earn”. Gore is another who has long supported a carbon tax. If the Copenhagen Summit succeeds, then to cap and trades we must committ. But if it fails, if it is all smiling handshakes with no commitment behind them, then a Carbon tax is an alternative we need to have a serious debate about.
If only we could get over the rhetorical stigma of the word ‘Tax’.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the Constructivist approach in International Relations. Everyone wants to be a ‘realist’ about the world and how to respond to it, but when you mentally close off avenues through certain rhetoric, then your options can be utterly distorted, even harming your own interests.)

For a more details explanation of Carbon Tax (and fully sourced), I recommend having a look at this testimony to the US Senate by Ted Gaynor of the Brookings Institute

The mundane is the message: Obama in China

Over at The Lowy Institutes Blog, The Interpreter, Raoul Heinrichs makes the case that Obama was rolled in China

President Obama might have bowed in Japan, but it was China where he was really humbled. Beyond the countless diplomatic formalities and expansive, but typically platitudinous communiqué, the most striking thing about Obama’s recent trip was his inability to wrest a single, meaningful concession from Beijing.

Here’s the problem: since at least the mid 1990s, US China policy has been built on the dubious expectation that China, as it became more wealthy and powerful, would become more cooperative and accommodating of US interests, and more reluctant to upset a regional order that accorded, however imperfectly, with China’s national interests. An increasingly prosperous and secure China was expected by many to be indefinitely satisfied with US primacy in Asia.
Although it’s become de rigueur to pay homage to a shifting distribution of world power, leaders in Washington, including Obama, have never actually grappled with the consequences of that process for America’s power and role in the world. Last week in China, however, it could not be avoided.

What began as an exercise intended to restore confidence in American leadership in Asia culminated, over the course of a few days, in the quiet humiliation of an administration that came face-to-face with a competitor over whom it has very little leverage, and with the uncomfortable reality of its own hegemonic decline.

The charge that Obama’s trip was useless (while certainly it wasn’t spectacular) suffers from two problems, first real achievements were made, and secondly it’s also a question of the hyped expectations we seem to have in our time short world.

The Atlantic’s James Fallow’s has been on a bit of a bent about the first point, noting that this trip achieved firming agreements on containing Iran, Climate Change and increased currency flexibility. None of these are game changers, though the worth of the first two are certainly significant, and timely considering Obama’s overall agenda. Fallows argues that while US reporters had an image of a meek Obama, Western reporters living in China saw it very differently, as did the (Republican & Mandarin speaking) US Ambassador John Huntsman:

“I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao,” Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. “I’ve got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren’t talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings,” he said.

Ok, so being positive about the president is in Huntsman’s job description, and I’m sure those critical of Obama’s actions could just as easily provide links saying China’s support for censuring Iran and 40-50% targets on climate change are meaningless. The problem however is that we are not really arguing about any of these things.

Instead take a look again at Heinrichs criticism, namely that the US has lost its uni-polar moment and is having to face up to a real challenger. This criticism could however have been made of the US any time over the last decade, what’s more important is how the US deals with it. American (misplaced) triumphalism in 2001 aside, China has been slowly emerging as the biggest threat to the US for a long time. This relationship could very easily (and may still) collapse into rivalry, hostility and even warfare. Instead the US under Clinton, Bush & Obama has carefully tried to position China as a distant but stable number#2 in the world system. This need not be the accommodating/hegemon-supporting image of China that Heinrichs lays at others feet, but instead a clear heirachy of the world system which helps, in the best realist fashion to maintain the peace. Realists love to talk of balance of powers, but clear imbalances often provide far greater peace dividends.
The problem with almost all the analysis thus far of this trip is that these days we expect every single world trip to be a great game changer. Every time a leader sets off overseas it’s supposed to end with the signing of a grand treaty or bargin, guaranteeing wealth, safety or control. But much as our history books focus on and celebrate events like the Congress of Berlin and Nixon’s venture to China mid-cold war, these are the rare exceptions that occur years after these leaders first met. This was Obama’s first trip to china. In all likelyhood he will be President for another 7 years. The Chinese leadership isn’t going anywhere in that time (with future leaders already known to the US). Instead the real worth of this trip was about getting to know, and trust each other. In countries that lack the historical ties of alliances and joint sacrifices of blood for a common cause, the good will and strength of a relationship is intimately tied to the individuals in the leadership. Hu Jintao and others want to learn what Obama is like as a man, and he want’s to try and understand them. For the moment, there are no great crisis’s (certainly not of the type that is usually needed to precede historic deals), so as continuation of the status quo is actually a victory of sorts for both countries. That was the aim of the administration prior to the trip, and seems to have been met.

International Relations attracts a lot of people because it involves the great events of world history. Grand bargains, bitter hostilities, great personalities, war and peace. But much of it is also routine interaction, of the type found in every business deal and human interaction. As IR scholars we may spend our evenings reading about the great events of history, and as commentators we often want to be the ones to first label these great events, but we must remember that much is mundane and that’s ok. Right now the US just needs China to keep on keeping on, and slowly build the links for when it really needs its help. At such a time, if Obama’s check from China bounces we can look back and call such trips as this a failure, but if it succeed’s, then history will record this last weeks effort a critical building block. So for the moment not reading too much into it is wisest reading.

Why we need to forget WW2

This is a rather unique use of the far-too-commonly invoked analogy of Hitler’s Nazi Germany to modern times:

The [proposed WA] legislation would allow police to search people for weapons and drugs in areas such as Northbridge without having to prove grounds of suspicion.
Last night Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz spoke in support of the legislation and used the example of Hitler.
He said the dictator gained support because he provided people security in a time of anarchy.
“When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom,” he said

I didn’t want to post this on the 11th, as it is important that every society set aside at least one day (Australia also has ANZAC day) where they pause to remember and honour those who served their country. Whether they spent only a few months on the home front, or years if not the last moments of their life in the horrors of battle, we owe it to them and to those in uniform today to do so. If anything this was made even more poignant by the senseless murder of 13 US servicemen by a man whose day job was to heal their wounds. This November 11th marks 64 years since WW2, a fight which is the most wrongly but commonly invoked analogy in western political dialogue and political thinking, and one we urgently need to move on from.

Comparing current events to The Nazification of Germany, the appeasement of Hitler, and of course the horror of the Holocaust is the nuclear option of public discourse in the west (especially the Anglo-sphere). But more than just odiously affecting our dialog, and dividing us internally, it affects our strategic thinking, putting us at risk externally. Since the turn of the century, there have been four major comparisons of current events with Hitler’s Germany, all factually inaccurate, and all to the greater harm of the society.

1) Bush is like Hitler in pushing the Patriot Act in response to 9/11

Unlike the Reichstag fire, 9/11 most certainly wasn’t an inside job. Terrorism was a very real and still present threat to the USA. Similar legislation to the Patriot Act was introduced in many other Western states around the world, though even that didn’t prevent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. Bush’s acts were certainly invasive and the argument can be strongly made that it was an over-reaction, but it was a legitimate response to help protect his society. Something that has evidently worked in that there have not been any terrorist attacks inside the USA since 9/11. The left instantly delegitimised itself by making the analogy and destroyed it’s capacity to sensibly contribute to and moderate the legislation.

Net effect = Less political influence, stronger public support for measures they rejected. Legislation is still in place.

2) Iraq/Iran is akain to Nazi Germany and ought not to be appeased.

While Bush was the victim of a false the Nazi analogy in early 2002, he was quick to invoke it against his enemies by late 2002/2003 as he lead the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq. Any and all who opposed, in the US, UK, Australia, and especially France and Germany were seen as akin to appeasing Hitler in their rejection of removing Saddam Hussein. Saddam was just as odious personally as Adolf, and terrorised Iraqi society, but Hitler in 1939 was a threat because of the strength of the German army. WMD or no WMD, Hussein was a contained threat. Strategically invading Iraq was a massive blunder, wasting blood and treasure for almost no comparative security benefit to the major coalition partners.
In this case, the desire to positively emulate WW2 (in playing Churchill and correctly foreseeing looming threats) was as, if not more damaging than the negative comparison, of our enemies to Hitler. This is the ultimate problem with the analogy to WW2. It can not be made positively, or negatively with good sense these days.
The more recent, though far more low key comparisons of Iran to Germany in 1939 have largely been dismissed because of the failure of the Iraqi comparison, but they refuse to go away. (Or perhaps it’s due to the fact Iran has 1/68th of the army of the US). The rhetoric used against opponents of the war (or proposed action on Iran) is ugly, however the way the comparison has damaged and perverted the way the premier military nation in the world, and defender of the west conducts itself is inexcusable.

Net Effect = 4300 dead US soldiers in Iraq (with another 300 of allies, and 50-100’000 Iraqis), and about $1 Trillion spent, with more to come. The US has wasted its perceived unipolar moment, and is very restricted in the future conduct of its troops against threats such as Iran/North Korea, and the larger strategic game of China/Russia et all.

3) Climate Change Deniers are akain to Holocaust Deniers

This comparison has popped up in recent months, including by authors I previously respected. Even if the worst-case scenarios for Climate Change are true, they do not in any way mirror the insidious nature of the Holocaust. One deliberate, the other unexpected (with those responsible now attempting to solve it). One was industrialized and clinical, the other natural and unpredictable. One has happened, the other yet to, with a possibility of preventing the harm without actually stopping the problem.

Worse, given that there already are perceptions that the horror and trouble of Climate Change has been overplayed, the decision to deploy the most strident possible denunciation possible at this time has simply re-enforced the perception advocates were not driven by the science but other unrelated factors. The effect of such a claim has not persuaded anyone to change their view, and divided the two camps, re-enforcing the energy of denialists who see this as one-more-battle.This analogy unfortunately is going to be rolled out more and more in the future. It’s bad rhetoric, bad history, and divides our society right at the time it needs to pull together to address this serious issue.

Net Effect = Nothing yet, but if (and perhaps when) Copenhagen fails to reach agreement, and cap & trade systems falter in the legislature in the UK, USA and Australia, it will be in part because supporters hyperbole managed to destroy the good will of many cautious supporters who would have given bipartisan support to this policy.

4) Obama introducing Healthcare is akain to the Nazification of Germany.

This is perhaps the most laughable of them all. The Nazi party despised the idea of social welfare, taking a strictly Social Darwinists approach to society. Hitler’s Mein Kampf demonises charity and philanthropy as evils to be eliminated for a stronger Germany. Political fixes to maintain their domestic control were of course introduced, largely along the lines of what the Weimar Republic had pursued. The party may have been named the National Socialists, but actual Socialists and communists were amongst the chief enemies of the Nazis (which is why many conservatives in the west liked Hitler). These comparisons between Obamacare and Hitler have been made by media figures, congressmen, culminating in this odious picture at a recent event, which has fortunately been rejected by at least some in the Republican caucus.

Net Effect = As I noted a few weeks ago, the debate on Healthcare turned in Democrats favour in August when Conservatives were actually at their loudest in demonising the proposal at town halls. The legislation should hopefully pass (though will be a weak compromise), but the effect has not been limited to health care. The willingness to deploy the analogy in relation to healthcare has spread to other issues as well, damaging the political fabric of the US’s democratic system. Good will has been utterly destroyed between the parties, the dialog debased, and the people cynically turned into service by people whose motives are more personal gain than anything else.


I was going to quote Churchill’s great line that the people of the Balkan’s had “more history than they could consume”. But such is the effect of Churchill on our western psyche that its even easy to bring to mind quotes of him to say we shouldn’t listen to him anymore! That we shouldn’t memoralise and hero-worship the west’s victory, or demonise modern enemies as like those he faced. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future

It’s time to honour, and for the good of those involved, and those yet to come, return WW2 to the history books.

Picture by peterme used under a Creative Commons Licence

The Ease and Evil of Oil

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen muses on a recent interview by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

“Medvedev: Trading in natural resources is easy, it leads to the illusion of economic stability. Money flows in — considerable sums of money. Acute problems can be effectively resolved with it. You don’t need any economic reforms; you don’t need to deal with diversifying production. We could rid ourselves of this lethargy if we would only learn the right lessons from the crisis.

You hear this in relation to Australia as well. It’s the idea that you can disguise a lack of economic reform if you just have enough natural resources to pull out of the ground. But how true is this, really?

Australia and Russia are both blessed with a great many valuable natural resources, but these resources don’t extract themselves. There’s an array of technological, regulatory, economic and infrastructure factors involved in extracting, processing and transporting these resources at a competitive price.

None of that is ‘easy’, as Medvedev would have it, and Russia’s under-performance as a resource supplier seems to prove that point. Russia would be doing a lot better out of its natural resource sector if it improved its infrastructure and reduced corruption.

Roggeveen’s perhaps right that an efficient industry needs development and hard work, but that simply re-enforces the unique ease of oil, as you can have a very inefficient industry and still be wealthy and powerful. The initial scouting, expertise and establishment can all be hired or outsourced from private companies (Or European colonizers may have already helpfully set it up for you). Once the process is established, countries can either start to take-over some of the industry (as Argentina and Venezuela have to varying degrees) or simply regulate & tax a fair slice and leave the rest in industry hands. There are very few nations today that have large reserves that they arn’t using, and that is usually more due to modern environmental concerns (such as drilling in Alaska in the USA) than practical difficulty. Indeed some of the most unstable and undeveloped nations in the world have been able to produce a sizable oil industry.

Which leads neatly to Medvedev’s second and more important point, the flow of money from natural resources like oil allows governments to paper over difficult challenges in many areas. As Larry Diamond has noted, of the 23 nations which derive a majority of their income from oil and gas, not a single one is a democracy. Why bother giving the people what they want (a say) when you can simply buy them off. Why bother educating them, or raising the role of women when welfare keeps all content.
Likewise Michael Ross had an interesting paper in 2001. (1)

… uses pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 to show that oil exports are strongly associated with authoritarian rule; that this effect is not limited to the Middle East; and that other types of mineral exports have a similar antidemocratic effect, while other types of commodity exports do not.
The author also tests three explanations for this pattern: a “rentier effect,” which suggests that resource-rich governments use low tax rates and patronage to dampen democratic pressures; a “repression effect,” which holds that resource wealth enables governments to strengthen their internal security forces and hence repress popular movements; and a “modernization effect,” which implies that growth that is based on the export of oil and minerals will fail to bring about the social and cultural changes that tend to produce democratic government. He finds at least limited support for all three effects.

Ross’s conclusion is clear: “A states reliance on either oil or mineral exports tends to make it less democratic”.

500x_Dictator_Car Indeed this is a very good week to be talking about the effect of oil on dictators, for while the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the real final blow to the USSR’s scope came not from Reagan’s labeling of it as evil, but the fourfold rise and then sudden collapse of oil prices. Beginning in 1985, changing oil prices wiped over $20b a year from their economy. Oil went up to $70, then crashed to $10 in the late 1980′s. See the Graph. No economy could survive such a rapid change for an industry worth 40% of their total exports (2). Naturally foreign aid to satellite states like East Germany had to be dramatically reduced, undercutting those countries economies, and the rest as they say, is history. While Russia was always going to re-insert itself into the world’s affairs, the amazing speed with which it has done so in the 21st century is again a reflection of growing oil prices. In a similar vein the internal resilience and regional influence of the Iranian regime is a function more of oil than the US’s removal of their former competitor Saddam Hussein in Iraq. You can even predict the chance Hugo Chavez will appear on your TV screens by watching the oil price. High prices let him thumb his nose at the ‘great donkey’ of the USA and shower the poor in funds. Dropping prices means he has to turn his attention back to actually governing the country, and put on hold his dreams of regional organisation and change.

Talking about Australia in such context does seem relatively absurd, but John Howard certainly was able to take advantage of the extra wealth from our resource boom to seek to buy back popularity and smooth over issues rather than having to confront it. After all why talk about race relations or have to think up an future agenda when you can just hand out a tax cut every single year. Just as Keating turned to cultural issues in part to avoid mentioning a bad economy, Howard focused on economic issues to avoid harder cultural questions. Smart politics, but the issues are still there and unresolved.

Finding oil is perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to most countries. & certainly to their populations Its great wealth could be used well, but likely it will just be used to pay off various interest groups in order to maintain the status quo. So modernization, development, education, reform, and forward planning are all abandoned as unnecessary struggles. Just lie back and sip another oil martini and keep signing the checks. Wealth and stability is only a phone call to Shell away.

(1)Ross’s paper can be obtained on the Project Muse database if your university institution has subscription. Or if you can’t get it that way email me if you want a copy & I can send it through.
(2) Friedman, T (2008) Hot, Flat & Crowded p.105 Victoria:Allen Lane

Why Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Pretty much everyone in the world has had a rant on Obama, and outside the choosing committee it has been a resounding NO. But though my immediate reaction was like almost all others ‘really? Why so soon?’, I’ve come to think the pick of Obama is an inspired choice. I’d been meaning to post about it, but thought a few days reflection worthy (if nothing else to avoid the Obama-worship claim) and then this comment seemed to pick up an important point:

[Max] Weber states [in "Science as a Vocation"] that in an increasingly rationalized society there is a “disenchantment of the world,” as “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”

It would appear that the Nobel committee at least partially picked Obama for his renewed faith in public discourse to bring about peace and change in the world. Tim Rutten argues in the Los Angeles Times that the award was rightly given to the President for “words” rather than “deeds.” I would further argue the prize most appropriately went to Obama for finding a midway through Weber’s predicament in the above passage. Obama’s rhetoric has sought to enchant the political realm through sublime values that no human being can live without—for example, through the trope of “hope”…. In one of his speeches, Obama espouses a faith in public discourse: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? … At a minimum, Obama’s prior speech-actions have performed a role to which all those who love peace can aspire—enchanting the world with sublime but accountable words

Obama has not achieved as much as many other worthy candidates (though the timing works against them, the numerous quasi-leaders of the Iranian resistance, or more appropriately Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai), but it is impossible to argue that any one person has had as much impact in changing the international atmosphere in recent decades. America’s standing in the world has radically rebounded, beginning even before his inaguration, and well into his term. Even closely allied (and militarily dependent) Australia has seen a 23% increase in trust of the US from 2006 to today. Which reveals a guilty secret of modern International Relations. The world wants to like America (though it prefers the cultural/political to the military side, however much it sleeps easy under its protection).

The biggest problem Obama faces is simply the cynicism of the modern world. He is the inheritor of not just an administration which launched two deeply unpopular wars, but did so under the blanket of freedom. The National Security Strategy of 2002 declared that:

“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise..These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages..”

Despite the obvious set backs of the first term, Bush’s second inaugural speech is a case study in utopian rhetoric:

“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty”.

Given how far apart Bush’s rhetoric and record have been, is it any wonder that when an ambitious, idealistic, young US president speaks grand words to the world they immediately turn and demand action first, words later.

Obama is seen by most of the world (though not his domestic opponents or international partisans) as trying hard, moving in the right direction, honest in his dealings and speech, and potentially a source for future break through’s that had once seemed impossible. In North Korea, Kashmir, Palestine, Pakistan, Obama is seen as a new hope for change. In China, South America, and Eastern Europe people are looking to a reinvigorated America that can slip under the defences of their elites and spread if not democracy at least prosperity. In the west, the people of the british isles, the commonwealths such as Australia, and even in the heart of ‘Old Europe’ France and Germany, people are looking for the West to once more be proud and on the advance, rather than defensive and embarrassed about its own record.

The world has had too much of fine words from unworthy mouths. Obama may have thus far just offered words, but the world has judged him worthy to speak it. And these are words we so desperately want to hear. Peace is not a condition of material resources. Not when the there are potentially 23’000 nuclear weapons in the world. Instead, it is a state of mind. A state of acceptance, tolerance and good will. And that is begun, and ended, with words. Obama may be judged by history as unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but right now, he’s the best shot the world has for peace. Cynics aside, that ought to mean something.