Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: International Relations

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.

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.

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.
obamaumbrella_china
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.

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:
obama_hope

[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.

Market State ? How about My State?

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen and Hugh White have been discussing their views on the work of Phillip Bobbitt, author of ‘The Shield of Achilles‘ (on the 1914-1990 war between Parliamentary Democracy and Fascism/Communism) and ‘Terror and Consent‘ (on fighting in an era of globalised Terrorism).
world_marble
Both are important books, and worth reading, though as Sam notes difficult to finish without perseverance. There are moments of brilliance in each. Bobbitt is very good at noting the importance of structure to the actions of agents, both of the state (from city states to Market states) and its challenges (from pirates to terrorists). But as Hugh White notes, it’s sometimes too easy to grant a predictability to established structures. Yet if anything I don’t think that White goes far enough, in that he still talks of states reacting to circumstances, rather than the other challenge that Bobbitt’s Market State idea seems to introduce (though he leaves it aside), that states functions may be outsourced to economic institutions and so reduced from geographic structures to metaphysical identities. If we are entering a period where the states role is less protection, but more about providing opportunities, then why should the place I seek identity from and within, be the same place that gives me economic opportunities?

With economics destined to be handled at the continental (witness the EU/NAFTA) or perhaps even global level, individuals are freed to move, shape and argue for much clearer and more delineated cultural, ethnic and social re-organisation. Rather than the era of enlightened cosmopolitanism capitalists hope for, but rather one where as economic trans-national groupings grow in size and compete, with citizens seeking to join those with the best opportunities, the identity groups we attach ourselves can safely shrink without sacrificing wealth.

Until now, the greatest peril any group seeking homogeneity faced was how to provide for itself. Most groups have dealt with this via the practice of slavery, explicitly in Ancient Athens, implicitly under the Third Reich. But with this outsourced (and assuming hostility between identities remains low) groups can successfully exclude and restrict as pleases them.Why stay in a conservative area when the same jobs are on offer in a liberal one? Why stay in a area where you are a minority than in an area where you are part of the group. Indeed why even share a group with anyone at all unlike you. We will increasingly see people say they are economically citizens of the EU, but identity wise from a very very specific location, or ethnic basis, or even political background, that admits no diversity within.

One interesting term that has been thrown around in International Relations theory papers is that of Neo-Medievalism. Popularised by the great Australian academic Hedley Bull, the changing nature of states suggests a revival of competing lines of authority compared to the clear supreme state sovereignty we have been used to since the mid 17th century. In the Medieval period before this time, the states (as they existed) were content to regularly invade each other on questions of identity (either to convert, or to reclaim isolated fellow believers), and there were multiple sources of authority claiming ownership of the peasants, with Fiefdoms, Monarchies, Churches and Tribal/Ethnic leaders all demanding allegiance. This began to be reduced to just one overarching source with the rise of the modern nation state, which reached its logical conclusion in Fascism with the state being responsible for every single element of social organisation in peoples lives, and even the choice of which of those they would join or be excluded from. Modern democracies par the state back somewhat, but with the rise of international organisations and economic regional groupings, there is a re-emerging overlapping of authority facing individuals. And with that comes reduced group loyalty, or multiple group loyalty. Except where early history relied only on humans natural inclination to differentiate ourselves into groups, the rise of democracy and the idea of self-determination has transformed that desire into a god given right.

The idea of self-determination was by far the most powerful idea of the 20th century. It is one of humanity’s greatest, and also one of our most dangerous. It was necessary to help throw off the colonizers, and integral to the spread of democracy, but it also gives every identifiable group in the world a moral check to be cashed in whenever they want. We are now up to 192 nations and growing. But these are somewhat limited as each of these new states needs economic stability or control of important resources in order to be viable. But as the economic blocks to which we belong grow, there emerges the possibility that identity groups can and will shrink. They will be able to exclude because far less mutual dependence is needed. And so if anything whilst we are breaking down the restrictive walls of the geographic state we are likely to become far more closely tied to the metaphysical binds of identity (however constructed, based on physical or mental differences).

Bobbitt doesn’t walk down this path, in ‘Terror and Consent’ his focus is on the more immediate concern to help preserve states during this transition period from the inevitable backlash each era produces. But if the Market State is the future, or at least we will come to see state membership as akin to a commercial deal, then the pressures to make identity groups much more exclusive will similarly grow. The implications and risk of this are vast and confronting, but we must face them head on. It is pretty hard to argue against the idea that the Kurds or Uighur don’t deserve an independent say over their own affairs, but what about when it is a group of evangelicals, or homosexuals, or conservatives who then want their own area, whilst still remaining fully participating members of the greater regional economic groupings.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user j / f / photos

Ending the Slave Trade

A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Slave_Mauritana
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”

Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.

The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.

This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.

The virtue of forgetting history

This morning brings with it news that Israel’s Government is invoking Hitler in its cause to build in East Jerusalem

Israeli officials said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem.
One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would “embarrass” Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Some diplomats opposed Lieberman’s move, arguing it could earn Israel stiffer world criticism for seeming to sidestep the wider conflict it faces with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state, another official said.
Asked why Lieberman issued the order, a spokesman said: “because it’s important for the world to know the facts” and would not elaborate.

Winston Churchill, (a historian of great merit in his own right), once commented that the peoples of the Balkans ‘produce more history than they can consume’. The same so easily applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict. To most people it would seem that putting up such a photo is a meaningless distraction, but to Israeli’s, especially those aged 50 or so, born to parents who survived/witnessed the Holocaust then the history and historical importance of such a photo must resonate strongly. History we are often told by learned men must be learnt so as to prevent us repeating the mistakes of the past.

What they don’t mention is that reading it often incites people to try and emulate the successes too, only in very different circumstances and with very different outcomes. No better example of this can be found than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Led by a generation of men who also had parents in WW2 (only their memories are of great victory and liberation instead of brutal slaughter), George W Bush, a man with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk, Tony Blair, living in Churchill’s house and 500m from his war time bunker & memorial, and John Winston Howard set their countries in motion to liberate Iraq from Tyranny. Whilst Iraq had made zero antagonistic moves against the west in recent years (and even half-truthfully accepted UN weapons inspectors), those who disagreed with the war were instantly labeled appeasers, ala Chamberlain’s 1938 blunder, with Saddam Hussein helpfully playing along in the role of mustachioed dictator. Here was the chance for these three to emulate their hero’s and live up to the merits of the ‘greatest generation’ who had defeated the Nazi’s and made great inroads against Communism. The weight of this history must have been heavy on these men from their positions of power to help the Iraqi people from what was one of the most brutal regimes in the 20th century.

Iraq of course had very little actual military might and was thoroughly defeated in less than a month. And far from the ease and praise of post-war Europe and Japan, Iraqi’s quickly soured on the invasion and began to attack their supposed liberators. That the analogy of 1939 had failed in every single way possible in helping understand the circumstances western governments found themselves in at the start of 2003, has not stopped similar conservative forces today declaring that Iran is the new Nazi Germany and cannot be appeased. As Fareed Zakaria points out, (again bringing pesky current facts into the debate), far from being Germany 1939, Iran who has 1/68th of the US military, is more like Romania. Indeed some US Senators have even taken to calling their own country “about where Germany was before World War II”. So long as the Baby Boomer Generation, born to fathers of the Second World War -with all its myriad and contradictory lessons- have power, analogies from that distant moment will continue to have an impact on our current political discussions. As Andrew Sullivan wisely noted in his 2007 essay for the Atlantic Magazine ‘Goodbye to all that’ the true radicalness of Obama for the USA is not in his policy (he is largely a cautious moderate) but rather that he is beyond the debates of the baby-boomers that have ripped America in-twain over the last 40 years. On race, gender, abortion and war Obama offered the US a chance to let go of its history and begin to build something new.

History it seems far from granting us wisdom seems time and again to be preventing us from seeing the world as it actually is, rather than in patterns of the past. One cause of this perhaps may be the staggering rise in popular histories amongst the reading public. Recently released, though yet to appear here in Australia, is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games:
The Uses and Abuses of History
which charts the many ways in which history is mishandled, distorted, politicized and mis-used by historians. After this great catalog of sins, the author, (a professional historian herself) poses this question:

MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all…. “I think the answer would probably be yes,” she writes, a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians’ manifesto.

MacMillan argues that history’s greatest tool is to provide us with humility. To learn how often wrong and misguided past generations were in their efforts, and perhaps how we can use it to begin to doubt the basis of our own certainty. But in a hyper-connected and digitalized world, if anything history will be more and more with us. Where pub disputes about a past war or politician were forgotten with the purchasing of the next round, now someone invariably whips out a internet connected phone and checks that holy source Wikipedia for an answer. As more and more key moments are captured on film (witness the outpouring at the 40 year anniversary of the Moon Landing), the more history will be brought into current media streams to supplement and fill in time. Former Prime Minister John Howard may for this reason soon get his wish that young students are better exposed to history, but whether this is equal to an education in history is a completely different matter. Whilst memories imparted from books and film are never quite as strong as those gathered whilst sitting at the knee of a parent, this upcoming generation will likely not be able to escape the onslaught of history in their everyday life. 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. Looking these days to places such as Israel/Palestine you can’t help but feel the people there also desperately need an act of wide scale amnesia, if they are ever to find peace.

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.

Donald Rumsfelds big day

Yesterday on July 1 2009, Iraq experienced the second of it’s three major steps towards sovereignty.Today is rightly being held as a great victory for Barack Obama. But one person will also be smiling along side him today: Donald Rumsfeld.

The first major step towards a free Iraq occurred on June 28th 2004. It was intended for June 30 like this venture, but had to be moved two days earlier and presided over inside the Green Zone, such was the fear of insurgent attacks. On that day, Paul Bremer head consul of the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred authority to an all Iraqi, though appointed interim government under Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. On the right you can see President Bush’s reaction to the news, in a note passed by Condolezza Ricebush_let freedom reign

Over the next few years there was an uneasy dynamic. Iraqi’s began voting in their own leaders, yet it was ostensibly US troops who provided the security, stability, and in some cases operated the basic infrastructure that kept the country running. It was certainly US money that turned the electricity back on, and re-bought Iraq a place in regional and world trade. But whilst all agree’d that the troops were needed, there were many great debates as to how to best use them. Indeed the now famous term “surge” is a misnomer. What was critical about the 2007 efforts was less the addition of a small number more of US troops, but the change in how all troops were to be used in the country. The US employed several strategies over the years of occupation:

As infamously acknowledged the first few days in Iraq after Saddam were chaotic and lawless. US troops viewed themselves as liberators and were not going to shoot ‘free’ Iraqi’s for venting their frustration against the former buildings of their tormentor or helping themselves to it’s resources (indeed so much copper wiring was stripped from the buildings of the Iraqi government that the price of copper in the region went down!). Eventually Jay Garner & the Neocons imagined Iraqi founding fathers never materialized and US dreams of a handover within the year were given up. US soldiers then got down to the business of providing security in the country. There was great differentiation during this period in how particular units approached that task. Some, especially special forces troops integrated heavily into the local population hoping to bring the locals on side and keep out the insurgents. Other commanders sought to keep their troops in the big bases as much as possible, reducing the ‘footprint’ of the troops and giving Iraqi’s an impression of independence.

For most of the period of 2004 to 2006 the ‘light footprint’ approach won out. But curiously it was not actually the supported view of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld felt, (like many neocons, though they couldn’t say it too loudly) that the presence of US troops in Iraq was denying the Iraqi’s the necessary motivations to take over control of their own security and country. Drawing on a domestic analogy, Rumsfeld felt that US troops were keeping the new nation infantile and dependent. Bush recognised that US troops could not simply leave Iraq during this period (50-100 US soldiers were dying every month in this period). Resigned to keeping troops in Iraq, (When it comes to a desire to leave Iraq, the anti-war movement has nothing on the inner Bush Administrations unrelenting desire to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible) the troops were kept in their bases and sent out only occasionally on patrol in heavily armored and armed vehicles, or in large numbers so as to dissuade any and all from thoughts of attack.

In late 2006 when the death toll number was closer to 80-120 a month for US troops, the US adminstration decided on a new tactic. It had become convinced (in large part through the under appreciate efforts of Condolezza Rice) to move towards a “take, hold, rebuild” strategy. Following the US Congressional elections, Donald Rumsfeld was unceremoniously fired, taking with him his still earnest belief that the presence of US troops in Iraq was preventing Iraqis from ‘stepping up’ and taking control of their own country. The Surge brought in General Petraeus, and coincided with the USA’s first real lucky break, the Sunni Awakening where Iraqi Tribal leaders began to switch sides and support the USA. This brought sudden and real gains in security, and with the new counter-insurgency doctrine in hand, the US troops moved back amongst the Iraqi population, driving insurgents and terrorists from the cities and bringing some security (For a good account check out David Kilcullen’s new book Accidental Guerrilla. He was effectively Petraeus’s n#2 in authoring the strategy, and yet as an academically trained Australian is able to offer a sober, informed judgement on the period’s successes and mistakes).

President Obama famously opposed the war in Iraq, declaring that “I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war” (The line about patriotism is noteworthy, -placed right in the middle of perhaps his key soundbite-, such was the fear all shared of being called unpatriotic or treasonous for not supporting the invasion of Iraq back in late 2002). When Obama took office in 2009, he made one of his first priorities for US troops to leave Iraq, beginning with a withdrawal from US cities, beginning on July 1. While Obama championed this move, it was actually codified under the dying days of the Bush Administration’s State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq. (So look out for any hypocritical/ignorant Republican attacks on Obama and the withdrawal).

After numerous revisions, Donald Rumsfeld’s ideal is finally seeing it’s implementation. US forces are pulling out of the major cities, with a full withdrawal scheduled (with some wiggle room for circumstances) by the end of 2011. Now we will finally be able to see if the NeoCon’s assumptions about humanities eternal yearning to be free will lead Iraqi’s to risk themselves for their country, or instead turn inwards and seek (as many did in 2003-2004) alternate sources of protection (tribes, gangs, mercenaries) whilst their country burns. Today there are 500’000 very Brave Iraqi Police and 250’000 equally brave Iraqi soldiers responsible for the security and safety of the population and Government. The differences in quality, equipment and training vary widely amongst these forces. Only some will ever meet the standards we in the west expect for our troops and police, but perhaps it will be enough. As David Kilcullen delights in pointing out, local troops not only dont have that stigma of occupation, but their very presence at home and off duty is it’s own form of counter-insurgency at work. Whilst US troops need to be rotated regularly and require 5x their number to cook, communicate, co-ordinate and supply. It is burdensome, costly and slow, all the while an Iraqi policeman simply returns to his home each night, discouraging by his mere presence anti-government or insurgent forces, and knowing far far more about the local dynamics that are so crucial to ensuring law and order (advantages as basic as simply speaking the language which far far too few US soldiers ever learnt).

Already 33 people have been killed in the new post-US Iraq. There will sadly, be many, many more. But perhaps this now truly begins to mark the emergence of an Iraq, just like any other country with it’s own issues and problems to deal with, rather than a major international conflict and distracting challenge for a superpower tasked with so much else in the world today. It also raises once again within me those conflicted feelings of how to understand and position myself on the question of the war as a whole. I have never wrestled with a decision as much as I did that to support or oppose the invasion of Iraq. I eventually came down on the negative, feeling that while Iraq probably had some old decrepit WMD (i was wrong), it wasn’t enough of a threat, and worse would distract the US from the fight against terrorism and provide a massive properganda boost for the enemy.

iraq fingersAnd yet as I look at pictures of Iraqi’s voting, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something deeply noble about the whole misguided adventure too. There is a universal desire for self-determination, which the tyrant Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed amongst his people for over 20 years. American boys and girls have given their lives in far too high a number, and American tax payers have paid (and will continue paying) a tremendous cost so that the people of Iraq might have that same freedom they enjoy. All the conspiracy theorists who made the anti-war movement so repellent have been proven frauds. The oil was not stolen, muslim’s have been protected not slaughtered, the US isn’t setting up a regional launchpad for taking over the region. All are lies. The US in it’s shaggy dog style risked much in staggeringly naieve idealism, seeking to pass their great inheritance to all denied it around the world. It bounded into Iraq, smiled and then wondered why it was not able to simply bounce out with applause. Nation building however is perhaps the toughest task imaginable to mankind, one we continually fail at, and in this the Bush Administration was both the only group willing and the group least qualified to undertake such a mission. Those great voices for Humanitarian Intervention at the end of the 1990′s almost universally disagreed with the effort, but what else can you call it?. Certainly such idea’s have taken a heavy body blow, particularly on the left as domestic politics and anger over-rides long held principles. Should the war now be supported in hindsight ? I dont know. I still think it a mistake, but boy it’s hard not to be taken by the enthusiasm and bravery shown by Iraqi’s to make their country into a flowering democratic, modern nation deep within a region still beset by medieval views, and a history of harsh authoritarianism and crack downs. I wish them the greatest of luck. They will certainly need it.

Around the Traps

Too many pieces deserving attention, but with a chapter due in soon I should be doing other writing:

Hal G. P. Colebatch in The Australian argues the contradictory evidence that some countries went communist in 1975 (Cambodia, Laos) and some countries didn’t go communist (Everywhere else in SE Asia) proves the domino theory. From here he proceeds to resurrect the theory for fighting Islamic extremism, and claim that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will somehow lead to great chaos in Indonesia. I guess we should call this the zombie domino theory, considering the Taliban has already ruled Afghanistan (well as much as anyone can) from 1996 to 2001 whilst Indonesia was slowly moving towards secular democracy….

Speaking of ignorance: The Australian now seems to think random grabs from punters who don’t actually follow politics counts as serious commentary. I love democracy as much as Churchill, but 3 voters ignorantly whining is not news or even an ‘insight’ into the Australian political psyche. There is a reason pollsters cost money and regularly argue over methodology, this kind of analysis should not be done in such an amateurish fashion.

Then again, maybe they come from Barnaby Joyce Tech where Joyce teaches that “universities were not just learning factories but had a role to “develop the person as a whole”. Sport was sufficient to achieve this, he said.”. And so Joyce is supporting a mandatory $250 student fee, but the money can only go to Uni sporting groups. Anyone needing anything else on campus (like communal services, advocacy, child care, health services, or non-sport social groups (movies, debates, or degree based) can pay for their own needs and subsidies the sports. I see students free’s as a very localised form of taxes, where everyone pay a little bit to ensure the health of the community. Labor shouldn’t accept Joyce’s demand which would be a worst of both worlds for all but a small few (And speaking of which, Labor should take some of the heat out of the issue by allowing the fees be charged to students HECS debt (ideally along with essentials like text books), rather than forcing already cash poor students to cover it today)

And finally Chris Bowen is making seriously smart use of his regular SMH column. He is definitely one to watch. Is it too early to doom him with the anchor of ‘future PM’ ?

Soft Power

Over at The Interpreter, a debate has arisen about the concept of ‘Soft Power’ in International Relations, as pushed by self-proclaimed sceptic Raoul Heinrichs. Raoul is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute, and former foreign affairs advisor to one Kevin Rudd.

He writes:

Soft power refers to a state’s ability to achieve desired objectives through attraction rather than coercion or inducement – to get others to ‘want what you want’. According to Nye, soft power arises not from the accumulation of capabilities that can affect the behaviour of other states, but from the magnetism of a country’s culture, values, ideals, and the style — as well as the substance — of its domestic and foreign policies.

Two problems come to mind. First, even if a state is full of admiration for those elements of another society that supposedly give rise to its soft power, it is not clear to me why, when divergent interests are concerned, that admiration might lead the first state to subordinate its own objectives to the other’s.

And second, the concept seems to imply that a state can be powerful, and capable of attaining its preferences in international affairs, by virtue of its goodness, and not just its strength. This is a nice thought, though one that does not square with reality, as demonstrated by the need to create ‘smart power’, which seeks to integrate all elements of national power.

Yet this is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of how soft power. As Joseph Nye notes early on in his famous article that kicked off the subject ‘Proof of power lies not in resources but in the ability to change the behavior of states.’, yet soft power approaches this task differently to normal power. Material power takes interests as constant and uses coercive means (or the mere threat of) to force actors to subvert or overcome their interests to the good of the superior power. This is a once off action, each time the behavior is needed, material power has to revisit the threat to overcome the others actors interests, occurring a second and third time and so on.

Soft power on the other hand works to subvert the very interests of the other actors to have them believe their interests accord with the interests of the superior power. Instead of each time vaulting over the high wall of another’s interests to achieve your aim as material power does, soft power breaks down and rebuilds the wall in another location to benefit the influencing power and hopefully the receptive power too. That is, once successful, soft power does not need to be revisited, but should allow such behavior time after time without significant effort (indeed if truly successful the other actors may even return to encourage you or a third party to also engage in such behavior)

So contra Heinrichs, states under the influence of soft power don’t believe they are subordinating their interests to the others, they believe their interests correspond. This links his second complaint, the unfortunate normative link between soft power and “goodness”. That is, soft power is often seen as being simply a way for virtuous but weak ideas (like peace, co-operation and tolerance) to claim influence through association with the tag ‘power’. Yet, this is only because of the limited ways in which soft power has been studied and promoted in the last few decades, than a problem with the idea itself. Actually, that’s not quite true, significant scholarship has gone into the deliberate proliferation of idea’s which don’t meet such heavenly virtues. We just call those ideas ‘Propaganda’.

Ever since humans became able to have abstract thought, we have engaged in efforts to try and convince each other of these ideas and perceptions. Yet because Idea’s can not be counted, measured, or any other of our usual quantifiable approaches to scholarship, the field has been largely seen as ‘too hard’. Therefore it is not much surprise that the people who finally turned their efforts towards such a task did so because of some wish to promote or understand how highly held ideals could be promoted or work. There had to be some benefit beyond mere understanding, and indeed there is self-selection at work prior to scholarship, in that the people most interested in these higher ideas, will be the ones to most justify the time and effort it takes. Only when it comes to the effect of the worst of the worst ideas (such as totalitarian propaganda) do bad idea’s have enough of a power to attract scholars and thinkers attention.

There’s a second problem within the academic literature of a related nature, the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ problem. That is, having been studied for the best part of 20 years, the scholarship still hasn’t quite extended beyond looking at ideas which successfully transferred from one actor to another (ie the acceptance of democracy, or anti-landmines, or anti-chemical weapons), but that is starting to change. We don’t yet have a good criteria for why some idea’s do succeed and most don’t. But we are working on it.

For my own part, my research is on how the Australian Government over the Keating and Howard Government’s tried to use soft power to exercise leadership in the Asia-Pacific and achieve our national interests. That is, in converting the regions countries to share our interests (such as supporting multilateralism, democracy, counter-terrorism measures etc). Yet I take a slightly different spin, in that I am more interested in how countries can spread ideas, using both ideational and material power, rather than simply ideational power to promote ideas. For example: when Howard sent troops into East Timor to help stabilise the country, he was using material power in support of an ideational goal (self-determination and democracy) which are deeply held Australian values.

East Timor is currently a surviving democracy, something in the national interest of Australia. But one that only works so long as the East Timorese believe democracy is in their interest too. The aim of soft power in short is not to have the other actor feel they have been coerced to accept your interests over their’s, it’s that they think your interests correspond, and therefore can positively join you on the effort. It’s still a new field, but it’s also the oldest and most important element of power within human societies. Weapons and violence is incidental and rare, but the flow of soft power is constant and dominating. We’re just only beginning to find ways to understand and chart it.

The Economics of Peace

There’s some interesting new research out on an idea which is as old as the idea of free trade economics: More Trade = Less chance of War

In a recent paper (Lee and Pyun 2008), we assess the impact of trade integration on military conflict based on a large panel data set of 290,040 country-pair observations from 1950 to 2000. Results show that an increase in bilateral trade interdependence reduces the probability of inter-state military conflict between the two partners. If bilateral trade volume increases 10% from the world mean value, the probability of military conflict between the two trading partners decreases by about 0.1% from its predicted mean probability, other variables remaining constant. The peace-promotion effect of bilateral trade integration is significantly higher for contiguous countries that are likely to experience more conflicts. For example, an increase of 10% in bilateral trade volume lowers the probability of military conflict between two contiguous states by about 1.9%.

More importantly, our study finds that global trade openness also significantly promotes peace. An increase in global trade openness would reduce the probability of military conflict as it leads to an increase in bilateral trade interdependence. However, when the level of bilateral trade interdependence is held constant, the effect of increased multilateral trade openness on the probability of bilateral conflict is not clear. Countries more open to global trade may have a higher probability of dyadic conflict if multilateral trade openness reduces bilateral dependence on any given country, thus lowering the opportunity-cost of military conflict. In a recent paper, Martin, Mayer, and Thoenig (2008) find that an increase in multilateral trade raises the chance of conflict between states (see their Vox column). In contrast to their findings, however, our study finds that multilateral trade openness in fact lowers the probability of dyadic conflict with the bilateral trade partner, and by a larger magnitude than bilateral trade does alone. An increase in global trade openness by 10% from the world mean value decreases the probability of the dyad’s military conflict by about 2.6% from its predicted mean.

The most interesting point here is that multilateral trade reduces the chance of war far more than bilateral trade. Which seems slightly-counter initiative if we look at this as a pure economic consideration, as going to war with a bilateral only partner risks the entire trade relationship, whilst if they are just one within many in a multilateral deal, their importance to you is significantly reduced.

Yet here Constructivism offers an important insight. Relations between countries are not governed by the market value of the wealth/materials traded, but by the value placed on that trade and relationship by both participants. Take the case of China and Australia. Our export of Iron Ore is worth 2.4 billion, a sizable amount, and critical for China’s development. Yet, whilst worth much less, Australia also exports 300 tonnes of Uranium to China, and has 23% of the worlds supply under our soil. Australia could harm China’s nuclear power supply, and perhaps its nuclear weapon capability one day in the future (we only export for power purposes currently). As such, China has a great interest in increasing its relationship with Australia, and maintaining peaceful conditions with us. (Of course the ANZUS alliance & EU condemnation are the main determinants against China invading Australia). So it is less the dollars or numbers, than the value placed on that trade

But this goes much further when several countries are brought in to interact: Not only is there the material value of the multilateral trade, but countries are careful to be seen by their fellow nations as acting in an appropriate spirit and character. Just as you may observe your friends offering to buy the next round at the pub, or being nice to someones new girlfriend -who no one can stand- countries interact in a social fashion and shape rules or “norms” about those interactions. Gradually those ties can bind countries together, such that the mere realist thought of pure power domination for material advantage is never even considered (Australia could for instance invade New Zealand, but i doubt it has ever seriously come up in a Cabinet discussion in this country, despite the potential advantages and the ease of such a victory).

Thus, even if countries were confident that other nations would continue to trade with them despite going to war with one of the mutilateral trade partners, they would still be dissuaded due to the socialisation that had built up between all of the countries, and brought them to think of themselves as part of a common group, with common ways of interacting. (Of help here is also the fact that most multilateral trade deals are regionally based)

As I’ve said, this is one of the oldest ideas in classical economics and seemingly a common sense one, whether we take an economic or a constructivist view. Yet surprisingly, this was also an idea that met with significant student resistance when I was lecturing a unit on International Relations last year. Whilst the classes were largely young and left wing, there was a fair amount of diversity in their midst, and realist and conservative arguments could be regularly expected to be raised and debated. Yet, in spite of even my own publicly professed support for the idea, it met with strong disagreement, through both tutorials and written assignments.

It was only when I came to look again at who the public faces for this claim were that, I began to see perhaps why such a seemingly common sense idea is rejected out of hand; and just how trashed the free trade brand has become. Whilst the student body hasn’t suddenly gone socialist let alone communist (there literally are no alternatives!), the marketing of these ideas is in an incredibly bad state. The idea’s are strong, the evidence around, but people have become very skeptical that this is anything more than the big end of town favouring its own. Despite the billion plus brought out of poverty by Globalisation (though now at risk thanks to the GFC) and the general prosperity of the last 30 years) the public tend to see such ideas purely within an individual gain/loss prism. They see it as an incentive to increase their income, participate in the stock market, or begin a business, but almost never connect these to the wider social idea. The workchoices reforms suffered a similar issue. Both the advertising for the policy, and the union response against concentrated on what these changes meant for YOU. You’ll have more flexibility/You’ll get less rights or higher/lower pay. Almost no where was there a discussion about the benefits to the economy, the increased employment, flexibility in tougher times. I’m a skeptic of the workchoices reforms, so I don’t think the wholescale benefits overcame the individual negatives, but to see the government accept such a framing amazed me. This is also something that I think many Libertarians simply do not get in their support for such ideas and bewilderment that the wider public look on them so negatively.

The evidence may be there that increased trade reduces poverty and reduces the chance of war. Yet the Baby Boomer generation has abjectly failed to sell the idea, and I dont see the Gen X’ers doing any better (if anything they are more arrogant and less capable). Instead I think it will come through members of Gen-Y who have grown up within the free trade bubble (ie Born after 1982 when such ideas were in the ascendency) and who have experienced the benefits (prosperity and peace being the mainstays). We have in short been socialised to these ideas, and thus more able to see them for the potential they are, rather than the fictions of a ‘perfect market’ vs a ‘bastardy & Greed’ meme’s that dominated past generations of ideologues thought.