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.
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.
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).
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
In coming to office, Kevin Rudd is perhaps the most foreign policy focused PM since Gough Whitlam (Fraser had some good pet issues but wasn’t otherwise interested). Circumstances however have dictated that he has spent most of his Prime Ministership focusing on Economic issues, and he has published two essays on the issue. Thanks to The Age newspaper we now however have his essay on Foreign Policy, having been rejected in March by the journal Foreign Affairs. Given the timing it is of course heavily focused on the economic challenges of the international arena, but it also gives us some key insights into the Prime Ministers world view.
While the popular press has tended to focus on Rudd’s views on China and the USA, foreign policy scholars have been more interested in his support for regional and international institutions. Writing of the ‘inadequate’ response of global institutions Rudd warns in the essay that this may turn into a ‘crisis of government itself if political constituencies conclude their national political institutions are impotent’. To address this he calls for the urgent renovation of the global architecture. The full piece is worth a read (though the writing is easily mocked, and has a halting style, it is quite readable).
Rudd strongly supports international institutions, but he also clearly knows the risk posed in proposing more of them. We already seem to suffer an over abundance of them, and he contrasts the realist support for pure national sovereignty, to an idealist one advocating “unelected multilateral institutions staffed with wise men and women who, by some mystic process detected from real politics, will divine and deliver some form of the Platonic ‘good’ for us all”. It’s a cheap straw man for someone who does actually believe in expanding international institutions, but also shows his fear of being labelled an idealist/world government advocate. But he makes good on his scepticism and proposes only the encouragement of a ‘driving center’ mission for the G-20. This hasn’t quite been taken up, but having helped escape the worst of the GFC, we will likely see an enhanced role and prestige for it.
Australia has a pretty good record as an advocate of regional and international architecture, being a dynamic small power in the early days of the UN, fathering APEC, regular participation in other regional bodies, and even developing more informal groups like the Cairns group for trade negotiations. Rudd clearly wants to build on this, and his Asia-Pacific Community is his big contribution. Right now it seems the early preparation was rushed (Woolcott apparently had just 5 hours advance notice of his role as regional salesman), and the promotion effort hasn’t caught too many buyers eyes. But these structures take years even in the best of circumstances, and Rudd still needs to earn his stripes in the region as a long term leader if he is to have influence (it was this reason, along with his growing comfort that explains much of Howard’s improved regional foreign policy in the second half of his government).
Rudd’s essay, like all he does, fits Bob Ellis’s unbeatable phrase of ‘muscular timidity’. It demands significant change whilst decrying those who want to go even a single step beyond. It is sensible and pragmatic, but hardly as radical as it thinks it is or would like to be seen. Like Obama in the US, Rudd is a very centrist leader, if not a clearly conservative one in their joint desire to work within existing structures to achieve change.
We are already in a very different environment from that of Feb-March 2009 when the essay was written. Economics is back to being the most important issue, instead of the only one, and domestic pressures with an election next year are beginning to distract the Rudd government. Still we are seeing a bit more focus on Foreign Policy again, and should expect that to significantly increase in their (presumed) 2nd term. Where Howard wanted to be remembered for economics and industrial relations, it is in Foreign Policy that Rudd fancies his chances of having history honour him. Understanding how he views this and what he wants to see as an ideal outcome may give us some idea of just how he is going to go about seeking an actual outcome when the opportunity presents itself. It wont be for a while, but as they say in the serials, watch this space…
Conservative politicians and commentators regularly complain about the left wing bias of government run institutions such as public television and radio. But what they don’t notice is the institutions which are really promoting a liberal/left wing agenda: The Police and the Army.
From an Op-ed in the Washington Post by two policemen:
Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. Too often a flag-draped casket is followed by miles of flashing red and blue lights. Even more officers are shot and wounded, too many fighting the war on drugs. The prohibition on drugs leads to unregulated, and often violent, public drug dealing. Perhaps counterintuitively, better police training and bigger guns are not the answer.
Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.
Having fought the war on drugs, we know that ending the drug war is the right thing to do — for all of us, especially taxpayers. While the financial benefits of drug legalization are not our main concern, they are substantial. In a July referendum, Oakland, Calif., voted to tax drug sales by a 4-to-1 margin. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that ending the drug war would save $44 billion annually, with taxes bringing in an additional $33 billion.
Without the drug war, America’s most decimated neighborhoods would have a chance to recover. Working people could sit on stoops, misguided youths wouldn’t look up to criminals as role models, our overflowing prisons could hold real criminals, and — most important to us — more police officers wouldn’t have to die
Whilst most left wing politicians are still a full decade away from even beginning a debate about legalisation, here is an authentic voice of the police pushing for it immediately. To them it is not an abstract question of the morality of condoning drug use or being ‘soft on crime’ but clearly evident that only with legalisation and regulation will we be able to tax and protect users, whilst financially destroying criminals from misguided youths through to bikie gangs and mob types.
A similar point can be made about the army, which is equally taken for granted by conservatives to be an institution on their side in foreign policy debates. Whilst many soldiers do relish the fight, just as many and their more experienced commanders prefer to be sent in only when and where they can make a significant difference or are undertaking their core responsibility: defending their country. Instead of being the first option as a way to respond to a problem, most in the armed forces would prefer that as a country we focus heavily on aid and development so as to prevent other countries from sliding into failed state/civil war conditions. Rather than being sent to be shot at whilst trying to stabilize and re-build in places from the Solomons to Afghanistan, it would be better to have focused on stability and long term development before these countries became problem children in the worlds eyes requiring a police or military solution.
Likewise idea’s such as ‘Human Security‘ which change the way we think about security from a national focus to a question of the individual, (including their right to food, shelter and basic liberties, along with their physical safety) have been picked up quite strongly by thinkers within the defence forces. These liberal/left wing ideas are often ignored by a lot of civilian International Relations/Security scholars, who are keen to prove their bona fides and toughness. Yet it is the very people who have to put their lives on the line for these concepts are coming to see their correctness and worth.
Conservatives often take for granted that police favor harsher measures against criminals, and that the defence force wants to cruise the globe in search of foreign monsters to destroy. Though obviously some join these institutions seeking such a struggle, many more have come to see that their chance of coming home alive, and making a real contribution to the world (the reason for which the vast majority undertake these risky careers) require that we move to different strategies and policies. They know first hand the costs of our current failed policies, even if todays political leaders are too weak (or afraid of being labeled weak) to advocate for real change. Liberals and the New Left need to begin to work to give voice to these institutions, to encourage their contribution to the debate. We need to show that policies such as preventative development, and drug legalisation are not abstract feel good ideas, but instead practical, hard headed responses that are coming to be endorsed by those on the ground with the strongest knowledge of our current failed approach. It is time we started listening to them. It is time we on the left dropped these cowardly half-way measures for fear of being called weak, and instead recognise the real strength that comes from open and honest advocacy of policies that offer genuine change and improvement for our fellow citizens both at home and in the wider world.
Photo used under a creative commons licence by user Army.mil
It is not news that swaths of Afghanistan — particularly rural Pashtun areas in the south — now fall under the influence of the Taliban’s “shadow government.” What has been overlooked is why. Force certainly plays a part as the Taliban conquers new territory. But it’s the insurgents’ management structure — one that supplements rather than supplants existing tribal structures — that explains the Taliban’s staying power. NATO and Kabul aren’t being outfought in Helmand; they’re being outgoverned.
If NATO and the Afghan government want to cement any future military gains in the south, they will have to offer an alternative to justice à la Taliban. The official answer is to build up the nascent Afghan court system — a near impossible long-term task unlikely to win hearts and minds anytime soon. Realistically, another option would work far better: accept informal local and tribal courts as reality and explore new avenues of interaction and, possibly, support. …Relying on traditional mediation under tribal or religious elders is hardly a radical idea; the U.S. military in Iraq has been doing it for years. In areas with strong tribal authority and sparse government representation, U.S. military units have been walking a tightrope — implicitly allowing tribal law while halting any excesses. In Afghanistan, the existence of local courts is a fait accompli — the only question is who will influence them, NATO or the Taliban?
– Patrick Devenny is an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.
The line in Italics rather overplays the comfort of the US with such behaviour. Outside isolated Special Forces working on their own initiative, for most of the past 6 years tribal groups have been seen as hostile and contrary forces to be overcome in the development of a modern, democratic, capitalist Iraq. It was only in mid 2006 that the US began to include tribal groups as serious partners, and recognise the role these groups played in Iraqi society. The error for this process was not just the army, but came from the top down, where so strong was the desire to present the occupation as an easy task that Iraq was painted as a modern society, just caught under a brutal leaders control. Well it was, but even in cosmopolitan Baghdad many still identified with tribal groups, and out in the sticks the tribe was far far more important than any supposed border line on the map or identification on the passport.
But that aside, Devenny’s point is a good one and gratifying to see expressed publicly. Not only is this a battle of that boring old cliche ‘hearts and minds’ but this is in fact the main battlefield for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrary to the views of many Iraq (and Afghanistan) were always winnable fights (and still should be). There was nothing automatic about the stumbles, violence and failings exhibited by the US in these countries. And whilst some on the left might urge adoption of such a view so as to help prevent further foolish Neo-Con adventures, it would be wise to remember such a view would do more to prevent and stop humanitarian interventions from occurring, than it would to stop wars which the right will always seek to sell as existential threats (and words dont even begin to explain the strangeness of seeing the proliferation of the term ‘existential’ amongst arch conservatives. But such are the small laughs of life).
The US will win in Iraq and Afghanistan when the average citizen decides that their best interests in food, shelter, security, services and economic opportunity lie with supporting the west. Until then, they will happily (and wisely) give their support to whoever can best provide (or intimidate away from an alternate choice). That is why so many in Iraq went from supporting the invasion in the early days of 2003 to taking up arms in 2004. They felt betrayed and abandoned by a occupying power which cared naught for governance or service provision (instead it assumed a combination of exiled leaders and a ultra-free market could resurrect a broken society). They were not pre-formed terrorists but often ‘accidental guerrillas’
This isn’t an easy choice morally or ideologically. Tribal groups will use measures we can’t endorse, and will at times lead their people and countries away from the ideals of democracy and capitalism which we seek. But whilst these are our ideals, they can only be achieved once the country has stability and security. We have to have faith in the power of ideas that we can allow countries to wander from the path in search of the essentials until the inevitable rise of the middle class will demand public involvement in the political process and a higher standard of prosperity. Until then, we just have to do what we can to aid and supplement the systems the locals want, rather than imagining that we can replace then and leave. The alternative, never expressed but oft thought of just shooting until the system works can never work. For all the power of violence, no country has ever or at any time been ruled through it. This is the mirage of material power. Whilst the dominant view of power in International Relations, read carefully any of the major realist thinkers like Carr, Morgenthau or Waltz and you will find whispered agreement. Even tyrants like Stalin and Saddam can not bring a fist against every single individual who might object to their rule. Instead they use violence in a complex network of power that acts to legitimise their rule, provide clear lines of authority, and most importantly justify and persuade people that this rule was in their interest. In the end these forces work to convince the people themselves that this is the right way to run a country. Countries are socialised to tyranny, not brutalized. It is through governance, not guns that you bring a country under control, and good to see the US recognising that.
When social historians look back at the first decade of the second millennium, they are likely to judge it an era of demand for hyper-respect. A generation of kids raised not on rote learning, but on the belief that self-confidence would make them all could be ran a muck on the streets, whilst in the White House old men demanded that the world pay them the respect they wanted:
Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed…. “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama adminstration believes.”
Such sentiments were a common refrain during the Bush Administration; most notably in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, designed to impress once and for all the creation of a New American Century. By invading Iraq, they hoped to show that America was to be always respected. That it would never bluff, never back down, and not accept contrary regimes. Respect was its by word and end goal. In this way, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others brought to the hight of state power, a street like demand for power.
Cheney, and the street punks like him, want a system where they, and they alone have power. That is the end game of respect. Only one can be respected, it is not divisible or able to be partitioned. You are respected or you are not. And that is power.
Obama it seems, operates on a different understanding of power : Authority
Via Andrew Sullivan on the new presidents style:
If Bush was about the presidency as power, Obama is about the presidency as authority. It’s fascinating to watch this deep difference in understanding slowly but unmistakably realize itself in public actions…. This is an understanding of the president as one node in a constitutional order – not a near-dictator outside and superior to other branches of government.
As an authority, it is necessary to be one above many. Authority is meaningless unless in a social setting, unless in a system where others recognize your role in that setting.
That is the fundamental philosophical difference. Bush and Cheney still envisage a world where nation states are alone, in a brutal, Hobbsian world. Where every other competitor could be destoyed, and the power of your state would only be enhanced.
Obama however, lives in a world where nation states compete within a community. Where getting ahead, does not necessarily mean success at the expense of others. Obama, as the head of the most powerful and idealistic nation in the world is seeking authority. Authority to advance American ideals, protect American lives, preserve American industries.
From such a distant perspective as this bloggers keyboard, no final judgment can be offered. Cheney & co preserved US soil from further terrorist attacks for 7 years. But by every traditional calculation they made the country weaker and poorer. Less respected and more open for attack. Obama’s approach is new. It has yet to have time to work, yet to see any results (indeed we might not well into his second term). But in fundamentals, Obama’s ideal of power is different, in a way that his opponents will never recognize. Either Bush/Cheney are right; Or they will spend the next 5 years gasping and spluttering about the change and incomprehensibility of that change. Because of this fundamental divide about what power is, no public debate really is possible, between the former administration and the current. All over one little word.
In 2007 I wrote an honours thesis on Iraq and Post War Reconstruction. Trying to work out why it had all gone wrong, I came to the conclusion that the idealistic vision for Iraq held by the NeoCons and Bush Administration was significantly to blame in restricting typical post-war reconstruction and stabilization. The effect I, and an increasing number of voices came to argue was that because the Iraqi Government was seen as American/corrupt/incompetent, the people naturally turned to other groups to provide security and basic services. These were the sectarian religious groups (such as Sadr City in Baghdad ruled by the rebel Shitte cleric Muqtada al-Sadr), tribal groups (up to 80% of Iraqi’s, including cosmopolitan Baghdad types identified with a tribe prior to the war), and of course, criminal elements (including foreign terrorists and local insurgents) who forced their way into power over the people.
In short, government, and the idea of Iraq was in such disrepute, people had looked to other sources of authority to survive. But, whether the horse or the cart, as Iraq has stabilised we have seen this (Via Matthew Yglesias) positive change in the people’s outlook:
Thus with faith beginning to be restored IN government, this should come as little surprise (though still quite pleasing)
“Initial results from Saturday’s landmark voting are not expected for days. But reports by Iraqi media and interviews by The Associated Press suggest candidates backing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had strong showings in the crucial Shiite heartland in southern Iraq.
If the indications prove true, it would strengthen al-Maliki’s hand ahead of national elections later this year and reflect a shift away from the more religious parties dominating the country”.
Iraq will always be a “false” country, in the way that Australia or Britain never have to worry. The people’s history, culture and lineage form orders that run far above, and far more powerfully than the lines in the sand drawn up to mark Iraq’s official borders by the British and French as they carved up post WW1 Middle East. This is one of the most potent and dangerous by-products of the territorial nation state. Its demand for certainty in geography means an often arbitrary divide of people with sudden new demands for a new identity as “Iraqi” expected to immediately and seamlessly replace the old. Saddam may have been an actual Iraqi as leader (in that he is almost unique), but as soon as his thugocracy fell, so did people’s conception of themselves as Iraqis.
This is not the whole answer. Government will have to keep delivering services and security in order to maintain the trust of the people, and even if 95% of iraqi’s tell pollsters they are Iraqi’s first and foremost, it wont mean they always serve those interests above others. Such a change wont come officially, but in a generation like mental shift towards the nation and its place. But it’s great to see the country moving in that direction if it is to ever realise the dreams of the NeoCons as a free and democratic society.
Next time: I want to return to this theme, and link in with one of my earlier posts on the role of government to show just why Liberals should continue to defend the importance of government for the well being of society (and why so called “Conservatives” should know better)
Update: Turnout looks about 51%, with problems for the millions of dispossessed Iraqis and only slightly improved turnout for Sunni’s (who abstained from the 2005 elections in protest). The Musings on Iraq Blog has some interesting data comparing this election to the 2005 results. Iraqi’s it seems are still apathetic about the role of politics to improve their lives. Again Bush’s misguided anti-government ideology must bear some responsibility. So determined were they for a minimalist government that their first few efforts broke the fundamental trust needed between a people and its government. That it would provide security, services and supplies. Bush & Co thought either the market would solve it, or Iraqi’s would simply return to their desks and make their own government, leaving the US free to do a victory lap and leave.
Still, it seems Iraq is now finally on the right track. All the best of luck to them.