Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Vote

Its the biggest political spectacle on the planet, and it only comes around once every four years, so I couldn't let the US elections pass by without a final blog post. There are three things I'm looking out for as the action unfolds this evening, outcomes which will largely set the tone of US politics over the next 2-4 years.

Firstly: which man wins the presidency. There are plenty of good reasons to back Obama, so I won't go into them here.

Secondly: the extent of (Obama's) victory. If McCain wins, he'll win narrowly and the bitterness which plagued the Bush years will be with us for four more. A narrow Obama win risks the same outcome. But if the Democrat can make signicant inroads in the south and west - if he can take Colarado, North Carolina, or even Georgia - then he will have a mandate to rule from beyond the liberal coasts, which will oblige the the Republican party in the short term to rapidly come to terms with a Democrat as President and in the longer term to build a policy platform broader than social conservatism. A healthy US political system needs a healthy Republican party, and a healthy Republican party needs time to heal without the distraction of believing itself a mere whisker away from the Presidency. An Obama landslide would give it the incentive and oppotunity to do so.

Thirdly: how many Democratic senators will the next congress have. The magic number is of course 60: a filibuster-proof majority. The Democrats are unlikely to get there, but if they can get to 58, they can count on 2 independents to vote with them on most issues to overrule any de facto Republican veto. If they can get to 56 or 57 - well within their grasp - Obama can appoint one or two moderate Republicans in states governed by a Democrat, who then appoints a new senator to fill the vacancy, and we're back up to 60 again.

But would 60 Democratic senators be a good thing? Parties with untrammelled power tend to play to the worst excesses of their bases; expect hostility to trade and union pandering if the Democrats get there. But the other option is two more years of a blocking Republican minority, able to filibuster bills to death and create legislative gridlock which will rapidly, and unfairly, tarnish Obama's credibility and whittle away Democratic support. The Republicans have shown over the past 2 years that they cannot be trusted with even the limited constitutional powers granted to the narrow minority. Its time to give the Democrats the power to overrule them; the closer they get to 60, the better.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Rallying 'round Russia

Belarus is. But China is not.

Russian rhetoric concerning the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation often plays on western fears. Moscow is wont to cast it as a vehicle for Eurasian anti-Americanism; the worry of some in Washington, London and Brussels, is of a nascent hostile military alliance to challenge NATO. The attitude of China towards its erstwhile communist neighbour continues to belie both images, however.

Rather than back Russia over the Georgian war and its subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, China has instead expressed its concern. It has too many of its own separatist headaches - nationalists in Taiwan, Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang - to indulge Russia's meddling with territorial sovereignty. The economic ties that bind it to the wider world are much more complex than those of Russia (which remains little more than an exporter of metals and energy), leading it to place a much higher premium on relations with the rich western markets on which its growth to date has relied. Suspicious of each other even when communism was on the march across the world, there remains little love lost between the two paragons of authoritarian development. Russia and China are unlikely to jump into bed together unless the open world locks them in the boudoir.

Which means that as talk of a new Cold War returns, we should resist proposals for an 'alliance of democracies' to contain a resurgent Russia. Pursuing one would needlessly drive China into its arms, and for now China seems quite content in the rules-based international order to which it has signed up with membership of the WTO. Military alliances and open values undoubtedly have a role in countering unwanted external aggression, whether in the Caucasus or anywhere else, but they should not be championed to the extent of hamstringing attempts to bring the rest of the world on board too. The world needs China to be responsible stakeholder, and while it has thus far disappointed in Sudan and on global warming, it has at least shown itself willing to stand up to Russia. Its a start.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Passing the baton

The XXIX Olympiad has drawn to a close having been quite the success, for 'Team GB' (with their 19 golds), for 'Team PRC' (with their 51), and for China itself, having hosted a Games on a scale which London has already given up trying to surpass.

China has marked its arrival at the highest echelons of the global order in spectacular style. Despite the odd hiccough, its primary aim in hosting the Olympics has been fulfilled; few can now doubt that when it so desires China can match the capabilities of almost any developed country. At the closing ceremony earlier today, the Mayor of London was symbolically passed the Olympic flag. All eyes now start to turn to the games of 2012 (although lets not forget Vancouver, South Africa, New Zealand, South Asia and of course the paralympics in two weeks time first).

The primary aim of the London Olympics is supposedly the regeneration of East London. This is undoubtedly a worthy goal, but it is far from clear why the addition of a two week jamboree will radically amplify the effects of the money to be thrown at the area, money that could anyway have been allotted to community development if the case for such funds was convincing. Hosting major tournaments has long ceased to be about simply providing sporting spectacle and is now an exercise in country and civic branding. But London already has a global reputation, and spending the vast sums needed to match Beijing is politically untenable. There is no reason why the London Games cannot be a great success, but if they indeed are, London has not proved anything that people did not believe already, and if they are not, then the renown of a great city has been needlessly sullied. There are many countries (such as Russia in 2014) and cities (such Manchester, which submitted a bid to host in 2000) that can benefit a great deal from running a tight Olympic ship and advertising their competence to the world. London is not one of them, and 2012 will not match the brilliance of 2008 without billions in extra funding which simply are not there. Now it is host, the best we can hope for is for brand London to emerge
in 2012 unscathed.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The origins of autocracy

Thomas L. Friedman (via Free Exchange) argued in the New York Times on Wednesday that NATO only has itself to blame for Russia's recent assertiveness and aggression.

The humiliation that NATO expansion bred in Russia was critical in fuelling Putin’s rise after Boris Yeltsin moved on. And America’s addiction to oil helped push up energy prices to a level that gave Putin the power to act on that humiliation.

Friedman wants us to believe that Russia would have become a normal neighbour to its near abroad and a partner of the west, had but NATO stayed where it was in 1991, or even ceased to exist altogether. This is to entirely misread the origins of Putin's autocracy.

Russia in the 1990s was never a liberal democracy. It could have become so, like much of the rest of the former soviet bloc, and it still can. But the key episodes that prevented it from doing so before now have little to do with NATO, or indeed with the world beyond Russia's borders at all; they can only be understood within its own domestic context. Boris Yeltsin failed to use his popularity and constitutionally mandated extraordinary powers to craft a balanced constitution in 1992. He ended up shelling the Russian parliament when it defied him in 1993 and imposing a new constitution with an irresistibly powerful presidency later that year. Having undermined liberal democracy and the rule of law, events conspired to tarnish the reputation of the market economy as well, with Russia suffering from rampant inflation, following the price liberalisations of 1992, and then the financial crisis of 1998. Putin's ascent to the Presidency was a result of his astute handling of the Second Chechen war, but his success since is down to the Presidential powers bequeathed to him by Yeltsin, and genuine popularity due to the stable society - in comparison to the economic chaos of the 1990s - over which he has presided.

American and European demand for natural resources has undoubtedly helped the Russian economy, and thus indirectly helped solidify Putin's grip on power. But you cannot blame NATO expansion for Russian autocracy; nor for the current imperatives of Russian foreign policy. It is untenable to suggest that Russia would have contained itself had NATO never crossed the Oder. Russia's regional assertiveness stems from a desire for recognition as a great power rooted in its continuing autocracy; an autocracy shaped by its domestic trajectory rather than its geopolitical position. Were it not for the NATO membership of a great number of Russia's former satellites, the situation in Europe would now be a lot worse.

What just happened?

After months of tensions: war in Georgia, and an overwhelming Russian victory. "Both sides are to blame" for the recent conflict, argues the Economist, "but it ran according to a Russian plan". Why? "Given the scale and promptness of Russia’s response, the script must have been written in Moscow."

Russia won the war through a combination of sheer numbers and air support. The 58th army had been parked in the Northern Caucasus for months. But had it been Moscow's plan all along to make a point about Russian capability and regional might, it could have done so with a technological as well as numerical edge. Instead, as Jane's, the military intelligence group, points out, "Russia did not appear to use its more modern weapons in this short campaign, as the units nearest to Georgia were equipped with older equipment, much of it fielded over 20 years ago". The technological backwardness of its units at times got them into trouble, and despite the comprehensive nature of its swift success against an inferior foe, the campaign served to demonstrate to the rest of the world the continuing inadequacies of Russia's post-Soviet military machine. Russia could have had a much cleaner victory had it brought its technological superiority to bear. That it did not suggests that this was a war that Russia did not necessarily expect to fight.

Unless we assume that Russia remains incapable of deploying the more sophisticated tools of modern warfare at its disposal - not inconceivable given the sclerosis of much of modern Russian armed services, but still not likely - or take the paranoid view that it was simply keeping its gunpowder dry for bigger battles to come, it remains a real possibility that Russian forces were in the region in such substantial numbers as a deterrent to Georgian actions as much as a threat. Moscow found itself obliged to deploy them once it became clear that the conflict in South Ossetia was nevertheless escalating, and an outright Georgian victory was potentially in sight.

I remain of the belief that had NATO offered Georgia MAP status - with the greater western commitment to its defence that this entailed - a conflict on the scale witnessed in recent weeks would likely have been avoided. The prospect of facing the American military itself would have given Russian generals a much larger headache than 37000 partially-American trained troops. But perhaps Moscow in the run up to this war was merely hoping to influence the calculations of Georgian generals in a similar way. By taking the recent war far past the break-away enclaves and into Georgia proper, Russia has once again underlined the malign nature of its post-imperial pretensions in the region, and has sought to foster instability for its own ends. But that does not necessarily mean that this was a desired war.

How not to respond

British opposition leader David Cameron has been playing at foreign policy - and again making the holidaying Gordon Brown look flat footed - with a trip to post-conflict Georgia. He advocates a robust response to Russian aggression: cogent condemnation, diplomatic efforts to secure the ceasefire agreement, the investigation of reported atrocities and a price for Russia to pay. But while it is tempting to conclude with Cameron that "we must make clear that the path [Russia] has chosen leads to isolation and contempt", we should refrain from egregious isolation simply for its own sake. All of Cameron's specific proposals will be seen as provocative in Moscow. Some are enlightened if unlikely; others will simply make the task of rebuilding confidence between Russia and the open world even harder.

Cameron's good ideas concern international organisations. He wants NATO membership for Georgia. This indeed remains the best insurance against another Russian attack, but is now a more distant prospect than ever. Having already blocked Georgia's MAP in April, Franco-German concerns at the seeming ease with which they might be dragged towards a conflict with Russia can only have been exacerbated by the recent war. He wants Russia kicked out of the G8. This would be a largely symbolic move since the G8 has turned into a largely symbolic forum, but to reduce the G7 back to a democratic rump would at least make the point that Russia does not belong in the clubs of the open world, without significantly impacting upon vital negotiations over climate change and nuclear proliferation in which Russian involvement is crucial. But such a dramatic step is unlikely ever to be taken unless a President McCain makes good on his promise to tear up the order of international institutions as we know it.

Cameron's bad ideas concern the people of Russia themselves. He wants to derail negotiations for a new EU-Russia Partnership Agreement. Granting the Kremlin a diplomatic success by concluding an accord in the coming weeks would indeed seem strange retribution for attacking a European ally. But such a scenario is not on the table; negotiations, which only began in June, are still on-going, and are unlikely to produce a finished document for some time. Deferring talks now would simply push further into the future an opportunity for freer trade with Russian companies and people. Cameron also wants to tighten the visa regime for Russian citizens. "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges" may sound like a nifty turn of phrase, but why do we wish to penalise those Russians who are enamoured enough with the EU that they wish to come and visit it? Why do we wish to externally assist the forces in Russian society that wish to keep it closed?

Opening up Russia and expanding the opportunities for its citizens to travel and trade are things the open world should foster, not oppose. NATO boots on the ground might be a short-term fix for Georgia's current predicament, but the only long term solution to Russia's estrangement from the West is for it to embrace the values of the open world. This is best achieved through dialogue; through building on the channels of communication that already exist, not through closing them down. David Cameron is right to advocate a robust political response to the Russian government's latest actions. But needlessly alienating the Russian people will serve only to necessitate further such responses in the future.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Beyond Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi is back in power once more. Less than two years after he was ousted from office in favour of Romani Prodi's leftist L'Unione coalition in May 2006, Italian voters have granted the billionaire media magnate a third crack at the prime ministership, with sweeping majorities in both upper and lower houses at the head of his new Il Popolo della Libertà party (PdL) and his broader tripartite rightist coalition. The election produced a greatly simplified political scene, reducing the number of Italian political parties represented in parliament from 39 to 9, wiping out both the Communists and the Greens in the process. “Now we'll govern like major western democracies, with one major party in power and one major party in opposition" announced Berlusconi after the election, "With the extremists gone...we'll operate extremely quickly in parliament and get to work modernising this country.” A worthy goal, no doubt, but it is hard to believe that Berlusconi is the right man for the job. Indeed, with his hegemonic grip on Italian television, his myriad judicial entanglements and his listless previous records in government, il Cavaliere is simply unfit to lead a modern open society. Beholden to the protectionist and xenophobic elements in his coalition, his government looks set to adopt a heavy handed and populist immigration policy whilst dodging the painful reforms of which the Italian economy is in dire need.

Of course, had the new centre-left political party, the Partito Democratico (PD), instead emerged victorious after the April 14th poll, there are no guarantees that their candidate for prime minister, Walter Veltroni, would have administered enough of the structural medicines which most economists seem to prescribe to fully revive Italy's ailing economy either. But shorn of a dependence on the hard left, which had served as a check on Prodi's reforms during his latetest period in office, it is a safe bet that the PD would have pushed such an agenda with much more vigour than the current government, whose economic priority seems to be a vain attempt to save Alitalia, the dying national airline, and whose finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, blames globalisation rather than structural deficiencies for Italy's woes. There is even less doubt that had the left held onto power, Italy would now be safe from Berlusconi's promise to force unemployed foreigners into specially constituted camps. But they did not, and they suffered a further setback on April 28th when they lost the mayoralty of Rome to the post-fascist component of the PdL, the Alleanza Nazionale (AN).

Two hefty defeats in as many weeks have left Veltroni under considerable pressure. But despite a lacklustre parliamentary campaign, the Italian centre-left should probably bear with him, for an analysis of the PD's defeat gives grounds for optimism as to their medium-term prospects of power. Berlusconi's victory was not due to a groundswell of support for the PdL. It came as a result of popular disillusionment with the outgoing Prodi government, rooted in the state of the economy and its half-baked attempts to remedy it, and of the protest votes which thus accrued to the bigger of the two junior partners of the new coalition, the regionalist Lega Nord (LN). Back in power almost by default, Berlusconi is much more vulnerable than his large majorities (68 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 33 in the Senate) suggest. He will also, at 71, almost certainly not contest the next election, whether the current administration serves out its full five year term or not. Berlusconi has no coherent plan to kick-start the Italian economy, and without one he will struggle to avoid the wrath of an electorate impatient for an end to their economic decline. His coalition is held together by little more than the power of his charisma, and as his authority begins to wane - as he ages further, as the weaknesses of a lame-duck prime ministership begin to tell, and as his personal ambitions turn to securing for himself the (largely ceremonial) presidency - he will struggle to contain simmering tensions between the LN and the AN, who have long been bitter rivals divided by both ideology and clashes of personality at the top.

Patience, then, may well be rewarded for the PD. But this is not an excuse for inaction. With the far-left ousted from parliament, the PD has emerged as the national voice of the Italian left, and Veltroni has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge it into potent political machine. Within days of his defeat Veltroni began talks with the centrist Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro party about forming common fronts in opposition, and made clear his desire to "start discussions with those forces that have not made it into Parliament" on the far left. Whilst harnessing a broad swathe of the political spectrum behind it is probably essential if the DP are to best the right next time around, tempting both Catholic-centrists and communists over into an alliance is not without risks, for in doing so the PD blurs its own identity and diminishes its chances of implementing a reform agenda should it find itself back in power. Veltroni is perhaps better off positioning the PD where it can hope to tempt across members of the PdL, should their own current coalition begin to falter or they find themselves chafing under the influence of the LN or AN. But more importantly, Veltroni must stake out clear political ground for the PD. He should make it clear that a new centre-left coalition would not be afraid as it has been in the past to tackle the conflicts of interest inherent in Berlusconi's media empire, and to remedy his attempts to evade the law. He should make the economic case for immigration, and attack the xenophobic 'law-and-order' scaremongering of the right. And, perhaps most difficult of all, he must make the centre-left case for a more economically-liberal Italy. Sooner or later, Italy's new government will begin to falter under the weight of its tensions and contradictions, and the Italian left must be ready for when they do. Unlike Berlusconi, they deserve to bounce back.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Evil 'empire'

Despite the debacle in Iraq, the rise of China, and the threat of terrorism, America wields global power on a hitherto unforeseen scale. But it is not an empire, and it is misleading to cast it as one. It undoubtedly possesses influence over many peoples and places; holds double standards linked to a belief that the 'rules' don't apply to it as hegemon; and exhibits a crusading sense of mission in the world. But so have many other non-empires. Its influence must become recognised authority, and its dominions permanent rather than transitory, before we can start discussing Washington as a new Rome. 'Empire' requires more than just an idea - more than, say, the (now-somewhat-tarnished) notion of democracy-promotion - whether or not this idea is articulated through the barrel of a gun.

In an attempt to make sense of the modern world it is natural to look to the paradigms of the past. But to talk of America as an empire is at best unnecessary and a worst a distraction from understanding the roots and consequences of American power. Take Dimitri Simes' 'lessons' from past empires for America's current 'imperial dilemma', for example. Empires "generate opposition", "have never been cost free", and "often alter their pre-imperial forms of government and ways of life". All of these conclusions are, indeed, true. But we do not need to invoke empire to come to any of them. All societies are susceptible to external pressures and impulses, America included, but of those it feels today, none are especially 'imperial'. Simes links illegal migration to his putative 'American empire', and thence to the experience of the British Empire and immigration from its former dominions, but today people move to the United States because of economics not empire, in flows shaped by geography (across, say, the Mexican boarder) and personal circumstances, not the global structures of American power. Foreign policy and power politics are not cost free for empires and non-empires alike. Indeed, warfare is often easier to bear for imperial powers who can draw upon resources beyond their own, than for states who must carry their burdens alone. Opposition, meanwhile, is intrinsic to politics, and even the smallest power can annoy its neighbours. The crucial distinction between empire and influence is how this opposition is dealt with. Even in Iraq today, with 140000 troops on the ground, America cannot simply call upon Governors and Viceroys to enforce its will, but must instead work with the Iraqi government; when it wants wholesale change, whether in pre-invasion Iraq or Iran today, it must go to war, and it must accept that supposed allies around the world are free to join in or criticise its endeavours as they please. Even if we suppose that America ultimately calls the shots Iraq today, this is no more than temporary dominion. The occupation is a much weaker phenomenon even than 'reluctant empire': Iraq is a responsibility that America is actively trying to shed.

More importantly, despite its ability to generate controversy and heated debate, Iraq and 'empire' is not the best place to look if we are to understand the underlying dynamics of American power; talk of empire leads us to look in the wrong places for its sources and outcomes. Its nuclear arsenal and overwhelming military might are not geared to hold down far flung dominions, but to act as a coiled spring to strike swiftly and decisively when informal pressure has failed and American interests are at stake. Its 'soft', cultural power is arguably America's biggest asset, but it is strong through its independent allures, not through imperial enforcement. America is the biggest economic power through mutually advantageous trade, not through the forced extraction of other peoples' resources. All these things point to an American hegemony; not uncontested, as China rises and Russia complains, but real nonetheless. But this is not 'empire', and the concepts associated with empire usually break down when applied to America's current predicament. Metaphors such as the oft-invoked 'imperial overstretch', are useful in so far as they conjure up images of an overburdened great power, but America's 'overstretch' is linked not to the demands of an 'empire' but to domestic fatigue; if there is an expiry date to the American occupation of Iraq, just as there was to that of Vietnam, it is not because of the strains of manifold imperial commitments, but because it has domestically lost the will to continue the fight. America is a powerful nation, but its power is not imperial. This power has limits, but its limitations are not those of 19th century Britain or ancient Rome. America is not an empire, and it is analytically distorting to think of it as such.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Lost without a MAP 2

The response to the response.


Dear Gerd,

thanks for your response. To address your last question first: yes, we do want Georgia in NATO. You worry about its stability, and the potential for conflict over the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and rightly so: this is precisely why NATO is needed in Georgia as a guarantor of peace and territorial integrity. NATO has played such a role in the past, welcoming in the western half of a divided Germany in 1955 and seeing it through to unification 35 years later. The commitment of NATO members to collective self-defence made the 'salami tactics' which the Soviet empire had used to absorb much of eastern Europe virtually impossible after 1949; membership for Ukraine and Georgia would send a clear message that the open world continues to be prepared to defend like-minded states today. The events of even the past fortnight have demonstrated that not only is such a message clearly needed, but that Russia responds positively when the open world presents a united front.

Since failing to secure MAP status at the Bucharest conference, Georgia has found itself under increasing pressure on its northern frontier, most recently evinced by the shooting down of an unmanned Georgian spy plane over Abkhazia on April 22nd. Russia had already taken steps to secure Abkhazia and South Ossetia within its economic orbit, offering hefty subsidies to the breakaway regions, ending decade-old sanctions against them in March and counting Abkhazian companies as Russian when seeking tenders for the construction of sites for the Sochi Olympics. It went a step further last week when it moved to establish official links and recognise certain Abkhazian and South Ossetian documents. The open world responded with belated if commendable vigour to these attempts at formalising de facto annexation, with both the EU and NATO weighing in to express their concern. Russian President Vladimir Putin was compelled to soften his stance, and decree that the 18 month-old postal and visa restrictions on Georgia should be brought to an end, and that talks should be held on similarly winding down a Russian embargo on trade. The lesson is clear. Moscow is conciliatory when the open world acts in unison, but will act to destabilise and dismember Georgia if it thinks Tbilisi is isolated and weak. Just as NATO's promise of collective security prevented war between Germany and Europe's western and eastern halves for the duration of the Cold War, so NATO represents the best hope of avoiding conflict between Georgia, its breakaway regions and their northern backer. A credible NATO deterrent is the best guarantee of Georgian peace and stability. The open world faces a direct challenge. It is one at which it should not baulk.

You rightly argue that Moscow is ruing its lost influence, and searching for a post-imperial role in its 'near abroad'. But if this is to be benign, Moscow must cease deliberate destabilisation and recognise the right of other governments to determine their own foreign policies. It is in Russia's own long term interests for the open world to take a firm line now, and demonstrate that its future lies in co-operation with its neighbours, not confrontation. You are right that open values are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy within Russia; but this is no reason to simply abandon our principles, or, indeed, our security. You go on to argue that missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic is aimed at Russia. It is not. The handful of inceptor missiles envisaged by the system does not even begin to undermine a Russian nuclear deterrent composed of thousands of warheads which can be fired from land, sea or air. America's offer to delay activation of the system until a concrete threat emerges, and its invitation to Russia to station liaison officers at each site, appears to have soothed the concerns of President Putin, who has toned down his rhetoric since the NATO summit and now talks instead about building "transparency and trust". There is no longer any question that this is a system aimed at rogue states such as Iran, and not a mere anti-Russian provocation as you assert. The open world is not, and should not, back Russia into a corner. But it cannot allow Moscow a veto over its defence.

You also mischaracterise NATO is a 'soldier-for-hire' without purpose. Its geographical extent may be a relic of the Cold War, but its commitment to defend the open world remains as relevant as ever. Much of western Europe may feel safe beneath its defensive umbrella, having not fought a war on home soil for over half a century, but the open world and its values remain under threat. NATO was called upon in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the chances are that it will, sadly, be called upon again. Potential new member states such as Ukraine and Georgia have an important role to play in providing the manpower NATO needs to meet its commitments; Georgia has already put existing members to shame with its willingness to deploy troops in Afghanistan. Full membership is the logical reward for helping to bear the burden of our mutual defence.

Finally, you worry that NATO should not be used to 'export' our values. I agree: it should not. Certainly, no government should be forced to join a military alliance. But Ukraine and Georgia have found their own way to the open world, and, having made it there, and with both governments looking to NATO for support, we should not turn them away. As we approach parliamentary elections, due on May 21st, Georgian democracy remains troublingly flawed, with question marks over media freedoms and judicial independence, but this should be a call to action to help foster Georgian development, not to abandon it in the face of Russian aggression. As I mentioned in my last letter, MAP status itself entails democratic benchmarks, but of course the first function of NATO is military; there are other organisations which are better placed to encourage institution building, such as the EU, and I would gladly make the case for EU expansion in another debate. For now, it suffices to note that NATO has proved a bridge into the other structures of the open world in the past, notably for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic who joined the alliance in 1999 and the union in 2004, and I see no reason, save a lack of political will among EU member states, why it should not do so again. Ukraine and Georgia are nascent members of the open world and they should be defended as such. MAP status should be granted as soon as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you,
Yours truly,

Benedict J. White

Monday, 21 April 2008

Good Old Nato

Gerd Watzenig replies:

NATO needs to arrive in the 21st century before expanding in “enemy territory”


Dear Ben,

Thank you for your letter, I received it and read it with great interest and greater amusement. It is a nice and well formulated approval that both the Ukraine and Georgia should join the NATO rather sooner than later. Your argumentation sounds solid and the call for the defence of “embryonic democracies “and “Western values” is very touching. But I was stunned by so much a quixotic approach. Let us bring things in order and see how things are rather than how they ought to be, shall we?

What is NATO? NATO is a military alliance and a tool for the collective self-defence of nations. At the time of its establishment in 1949, the Western world was concerned about its security and sought a vehicle to oppose the new threat in the east: the USSR. This happened rightfully so, as Stalin's ambitions to see soviet tanks at the Atlantic coast were known only too well. The sole purpose of the Atlantic Charter therefore is to oppose one enemy: the USSR and its allies. The enemy collapsed in 1989, the threat evaporated, but NATO remained unchanged and the organisation has been in a deep identity crises ever since. Whom to fight if there is no enemy? Yes, NATO is in Afghanistan and Kosovo as a soldier-for-hire but that only camouflages the fact that NATO does not know where it is going. Until this identity crisis is resolved, its old purpose remains and this purpose is to counterbalance (Soviet) Russia.
For the time being therefore Russia will perceive NATO for what it is, a military alliance posed against it. And why should it not? The last expansion brought the old enemy closer to its boarders, the new missile defence system can protect only against Russian missiles. A defence Russia cannot counter, thereby overthrowing the MAD principle. Russia is pushed and poked on the international scene where ever possible, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not.

Russia too is in a crisis. The lost empire, the collapsed economy which only slowly recovers, the ruling of the country by a dubious political elite, the deteriorating armed forces, and many other internal problems lie heavy upon the shoulders of the Russian people. They are aware of the problems and challenges they have to face, but they are also aware that many of their problems are a result of the botched democratisation and economic reformation of the 1990s. A failed process the West greatly encouraged and is therefore not perceived as a friend. And the West keeps pushing, damaging its image with the Russian people even further. But even a weak Russian bear will bite if it is cornered.

The next question is, do we really want a country like Georgia to be in the NATO? This has nothing to do with the Georgian people but Georgia is anything but stable. Two of its provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, declared themselves unilaterally independent in the 1990s. The people living there, many Russian from origin, are heavily dependent on Russian support to survive, which Russia is gladly providing. Georgia has not recognised the independence of the two provinces and neither has Russia. Too weary is she of similar problems within her own borders. But the newly independent Kosovo will cast its shadow there as well. A NATO membership does not offer solutions to an unsolved internal conflict but it will force Russia to an even more aggressive stand. If violence should brake out in within Georgia, than it is the obligation of the United Nations and not the job of an international mercenary to find a suitable solution.

The next point that NATO is not a cultural export centre. It is a military alliance, not more, not less. Trying to promote Western values through NATO is like promoting “don't drink and drive” while driving a tank under the influence. It is not very believable. Until NATO has not made up its mind, where it is going, extensions should not proceed, especially not if they are provoking the old “enemy”. NATO is still fighting a war, it has long won. But even a defeated foe will keep on fighting if the winner does not realise it has already won.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Lost without a MAP

The first in a series of letters between myself and my colleague, Gerd Watzenig, on the subject of NATO expansion, to be published in the forthcoming edition of the DA News Review. I'll post Gerd's response as and when I have it.


Dear Gerd,

Ukraine and Georgia are embryonic democracies whose future lies in the structures of the open world. Backed by the United States and many of NATO's Eastern European members, they hoped to be granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest, but, after misgivings from Germany, France and Britain, they have had to be content with a promise of eventual membership and a commitment for foreign ministers to look again at MAP status in December. MAP would be the next stage of these countries' entry into NATO, obliging them to submit annual reports on democratic and military benchmarks. It would cement their fragile progress towards open democratic norms and be a guarantee against malign external interference in the affairs of their democratically elected governments, a boon not only for their people, but also for the open world as a whole. They should be granted MAP status without delay.

Let us not be coy here. It is time to bring the big brown bear lurking in the corners of the last paragraph centre stage. Russian pressure is the reason Ukraine and Georgia are not today the proud owners of a pair of MAP's; the reason that the powers of Western Europe, who protest that they must rub along with Russia as best as they can, felt compelled to insist upon delay. “The entry of Georgia and Ukraine...is not the right response to the balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia”, opined French Prime Minister Francis Fillon. “What is the rush?” asked a senior German official, loath to drag Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president-elect, into a fight with NATO even before he had taken office.

Spheres of influence undoubtedly exist in the world. But where they are asserted against the wishes of democratically-elected governments they should be opposed wherever practicably possible. We are no longer living in the 18th century, or indeed in the Cold War, and a putative balance of power should have no part in considerations concerning accession to a democratic-military club. Ukraine and Georgia should not be kept waiting for risk that they turn away from democratic reform. Russia's future too should undoubtedly lie in the structures of the open world. But delay this time around has sent Medvedev the message that pressure pays, and that Europe will buckle when Russia works its ursine charms. Better to grant both Ukraine and Georgia MAP status as soon as possible, and encourage Russia to pursue its legitimate interests in an open and transparent manner without the implicit threat of military force that keeping its neighbours out of a defensive military alliance entails.

It is easy to take for granted, from the comfort of Vienna, the stability, peace and progress which NATO membership for the former Eastern Bloc-countries who joined in 1999 and 2004 has brought Europe as a whole. If we wish to see our values entrenched we cannot be afraid to offend our partners, however valuable. The defence of the open world begins in Kiev and Tibilisi. May it one day extend to Moscow.

I look forward to hearing from you,
Yours truly,

Benedict J. White

The sweet fruits of EU expansion

This is the text of a speach I made against the proposition "EU exapansion: too much, too soon" in the first DA debate of 2008 earlier this year:

A fortnight ago, Janez Jansha, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, as his country assumed the rotating EU presidency. This is how his speech began (and, please forgive me, my Slovenian is a little rusty):

"Today is a historic day. Slovenia is presenting the priorities of its EU Council Presidency in the European Parliament as the first new Member State, as the first member from behind the former Iron Curtain, and as the first Slavic country to lead the EU Council.

This would have been impossible without the profound changes that have occurred on the European continent in the past quarter of a century. They have enabled Europe to become united, in a Union of peace, freedom, solidarity and progress. All this was unthinkable for millions of Europeans only 20 years ago."

Mr Jansha was right. The past 20 years have seen dramatic changes across the continent of Europe, changes for the better. 20 years ago the European Community consisted of just 12 countries, and much of Europe lay behind the Iron curtain. In the 1990s, Austria, Sweden, and Finland were welcomed into the Union, and the process began of admitting states from the Mediterranean and the former Communist world, a process which culminated in the accession of 10 new countries in 2004, and a further two in 2007. In is on these latter enlargements since 2004 which we will concentrate today.

I will argue, that the addition of 12 new member states to the European Union, has been an undoubted success. Far from being too much, too soon, this wave of expansion was both appropriate, and timely. It has been a blessing for the new member states themselves. It has been a blessing for the old European core. It has been a blessing for the European Union itself. And it has been a blessing for stability in the world as a whole.

Mr Jansha listed the benefits of the Union's expansion as solidarity, freedom, progress, and peace. Allow me to begin by elaborating on the latter three points. "Freedom" might be a loaded term in American discourse. But the EU, by initiating a process of expansion, has entrenched electoral democracy in the region. It has entrenched the rule of law, and empowered its people with a breathtaking array of rights. To take merely the most topical, the enlargement of Schengen in December last year, enabled the citizens of Poland, the Czech Republic, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to travel west across the country without stopping at borders.

As for progress and prosperity, the region as a whole has seen breathtaking rates of economic growth, and millions lifted out of poverty. The Baltic countries have grown at an average of 7-8% a year for over a decade. The path towards open societies which these once transitional states have taken is of course one they have taken themselves. One cannot credit the EU alone with the rapid and vivid transformation of the countries of central and eastern Europe; it was a transformation effected in the first instance by their leaders and peoples.

But without the beacon of potential EU membership - without an open door welcoming them into the warmth of the Brussels hearth side, to whom, precisely, was the region was supposed to have turned? It is easy to take for granted the relatively stable and peaceful transition which the new member states made through the 1990s, and to forget that this was underwritten by the prospect of relatively speedy EU membership.

Take the example of Slovakia, which in the year before it formally applied to join the European Union in 1995 was placed by Freedom House, an American think-tank which regularly assesses global freedoms, in the 3rd tier down for Political Rights, and in the 4th tier for Civil Liberties. The process of accession to the European Union was instrumental in guiding Slovakia out of the semi-authoritarian years of Vladimír Mečiar, and aiding the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda in cementing Slovakia within Western European norms. Today, thanks in great measure to its European Union membership, Slovakia is ranked by Freedom House in the top-tier for both Political Rights and Civil Liberties.

The benefits of the recent expansion of the European Union for the old core have also been considerable, and go well beyond a sense of European solidarity. Western Europe, of course, has benefited geo-strategically through the expansion of the European Union through what was once hostile territory, and from the addition of new allies for Nato and EU peacekeeping missions. It has benefited from millions of motivated and educated new citizens to oil Europe's sclerotic labour markets - Britain alone has added an estimated 600000 eastern Europeans to its workforce. Western Europe has gained from the absorbsion of new consumer markets for European goods and investment opportunities - just witness the expansion of the Austrian supermarket Billa through much of the region.

The Union itself has been a beneficiary of its expansion. New member states forced the issue of institutional reform onto the table. 130 million new citizens have given the EU more clout on the global stage in securing trade deals and solutions to global conflict, and now, locked up within its borders, are some of the fastest growing economies in the world. This added clout bolsters its foreign policy, and it is the expansion itself which allows the EU to play what I would argue is its most important global role - its role of stabilising its neighbourhood. The EU is the vital adhesive which holds Bosnia together. The prospect of future Serbian membership, is the best hope we have of avoiding conflict over Kosovo. This would not be possible without the expansion of the EU over the last four years - had we cast into the wilderness those new member states who failed to live up to the highest standards, how could we now turn to to the Western Balkans and tell it "you, too, could one day be part of the EU". And without being able to say that, how many lives are we putting at risk? We cannot take for granted the stability which the European Union has guaranteed.

As Mr Jansha said, the last twenty years have transformed the European continent, a process which culminated in the accession of new member states in 2004 and 2007. It was imperative that the European Union adapt to these changes in a timely and appropriate fashion, and expansion of the last four years met these goals. To say that this expansion was too much, too soon, is to hanker after a divided Europe, a Europe of the past. Expansion has been good for the new member states, the old member states, the EU as an institution, and the wider world beyond. I'm with Mr Jansha, and for a Europe of Solidarity, Freedom, Progress and Peace. I trust that you, all, are too.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

In defence of 'populism'

Stephen Morris, from Coorparoo, Australia, has started a one-man letter-writing campaign against the Economist's use of the word 'populist', which has now been picked up and backed by the Economist's own Democracy in America blog. “Exactly when did 'populist', enter your style guide as the preferred all-purpose pejorative?” Mr Morris asks in a letter published in the February 21st edition of the newspaper. “Given that neither John Edwards nor Mike Huckabee have come anywhere near winning their parties' nomination, it is far from clear that they are even 'popular', let alone 'populist'.”

In the March 19th edition he continues:

Sir - Despite my recent letter (February 23rd) you still throw the term “populist” around with abandon. Your leader (“Hope and fear”, March 1st) used the term “populist” or “populism” no fewer than five times in describing the Democratic Party's candidates.

But when we turn to your article on John McCain (“No country for old men”, March 1st) it is a completely different story. Here we read: “Mr McCain sells himself as a scourge of special interests and hammer of lobbyists. He also styles himself a hands-on reformer who has tried to fix America's campaign-finance system.” Is this not populism? If not, why not? If so, why is the word so conspicuously avoided?

Mr Morris' concern is misplaced. 'Populists' do not have to be popular; they merely have to court popularity at the expense of good policy. Of course, unless a candidate is utterly transparent in advocating a measure which he or she knows makes little sense simply to pander to a portion of the electorate, the label 'populist' will be no more than an opinion, but one can hardly accuse the Economist of shying away from regularly casting judgement on whatever it sees fit. After all, it was set up in 1848 to engage in a “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an worthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”, and pejorative terms form a natural part of its armoury in its self-declared struggle.

The Democratic candidates' economic policies are labelled 'populist' because the author considers them designed to improve poll ratings rather than the country's economy. John McCain's attempts at tackling Washington politics-as-usual are not cast as such because, whilst they may or may not be popular, the author considers them worthy. The sensitive reader may disagree with this analysis, but they should be challenged by it, not troubled. Elsewhere in the Economist, Mr McCain has come in for his own share of criticism, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama their own portion of praise.

Used discerningly, 'populist' undoubtedly deserves to keep its place in the lexicon of advocacy journalism.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

News Reviews through the ages

As seen in this month's issue of the DA News Review:

The first humans emerged from the African savannah around 200,000 years ago. It took them over 190,000 years to develop writing, at least another 3,000 to perfect paper, and 2,000 more to publish the first ever DA News Review, a mere four copies of which were printed back in March 2007, which makes the issue before you our first anniversary special. Of course, by definition, the Sisyphean course of human history did not go unrecorded before then, and the men and women of the primitive past found other ways to mark and comment upon the rise and fall of empires and civilisations, the ebb and flow of wars and financial crises, and the derring-do of the Luxembourgian anti-terrorist unit. None of these means were, perhaps, as well informed, sophisticatedly articulated or incisively argued as the DA News Review, but they existed nonetheless.

In the 5th Century BCE Darius the Great proclaimed the legitimacy of his ascent to the Persian kingship on a 15 by 25 metre large inscription at Behistun, and Heroditus depicted in The Histories Darius' decisive setback at Marathon, but these accounts were deliberately a step removed from modern expectations of dispassionate analysis and verified detail. We move closer to the exacting standards demanded of the DA News Review team with the Acta Diurna of ancient Rome, which saw government notices published daily on metal or stone, or the Kai Yuan Za Bao of Tang Dynasty China, which saw political and domestic news handwritten on silk and distributed throughout the empire. In medieval Europe, texts such as the Gesta Francorum recording the course of the First Crusade were repeatedly redacted to reach ever wider audiences, while troubadours would travel from court to court singing tales of scandal and war. Newssheets began to be produced to be read out by town criers, and by 1563 the Venetian republic was charging one gazeta (approximately three-fourths of a penny) per person for public reports of the war with the Ottoman Empire, a practice which begot the modern term 'Gazette'. Pamphlets covering specific events came to be produced, distributed and eventually collated into newsbooks, which evolved into the first periodical summaries of the news by the late 16th century, among the more prominent being the Mercurius Gallobelgicus, which ran from 1588 to 1638. The first fully fledged 'newspaper' is generally held to be Johann Carolus' Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, published in the imperial free city of Straßburg in 1605, and from there the medium spread out across Europe, reaching Hapsburg lands by 1620 and England a year later. Current affairs journalism has flourished in the centuries since, serving as a repository of fact, a forum for opinion and an outlet for dissent. As the so-called 'Fourth Estate', the press has played a vital role as the lifeblood of the body politic of modern democracies, checking governmental excess and galvanising public opinion, telling truth to power and plebeians alike. Some have criticised over-mighty media empires for toppling governments and orchestrating wars and coups. Yet we at the DA News Review have, in our year-long and illustrious past, endeavoured not to illegitimately exploit our (admittedly deserved) influence as opinion formers on the global scene, beyond the bare weight and wit of the arguments we present between these pages. We shall, of course, continue to restrain ourselves in the future.

Whilst the DA News Review is the natural first recourse for current affairs analysis, it is not alone in the field. Each and every open society is blessed with a plethora of titles to choose from, and, with a hat-tip to the finest British political satire of the 1980s, Yes Prime Minister, whichever one is chosen says a lot about the chooser. Here in the Land am Strome, Der Kurier is read by Austrians who think that they run the country, Der Standard is read by Austrians who think that they ought to run the country, while Die Presse is read by those Austrians who actually do run the country. Die Krone is read by Austrians who think that they know how the country ought in fact to be run, while Österreich is read by Austrians for whom Die Krone is just that little bit too high-brow. Over in La Grande Nation, Le Figaro is read by the French who love Sarkozy, La Liberation by the French who hate him and Le Monde by the French who naively wish the debate was less about Sarkozy than the state of France itself. In fairest Albion, meanwhile, the Guardian is read by Britons who are confused as to why they are not running the country eleven years after they thought they would be, and The Times is read by those who actually still do. The Daily Telegraph is read by Britons who want to know why the government's social policy is not that of Victorian England, while the Daily Mail is read by those who want to know what the government's social policy will be next week. The Independent is read by Britons whose interest in current affairs extends no further than front-page splashes of planetary doom, while the Daily Express is read by those whose interest in current affairs extends no further than how Princess Diana was killed, by whom and why. The Financial Times, in contrast, is read by those whose interest in current affairs runs so deep that they happily spend the sunniest days of the year so far chained to a laptop writing articles about newspapers.

But what of the DA News Review, whose heart beats in Vienna, but whose purview extends across the globe? What can be said of those who feverishly flick through its serried leaves? The readers of the DA News Review, by grappling with the collective wisdom of the world's finest young minds as they train for their future international careers, seek tomorrows answers to the problems of today. Who knows where humanity will find itself in 200,000 years? Wherever it goes, the DA News Review will be right there with it, charting its progress, and guiding its path. We hope you'll be with us for at least some of the journey to come.