Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

States, Social/Political Groups, and Networks in International Politics

I'm pleased to see that Yohanes has engaged in the Anne-Marie Slaughter-Dan Drezner debate about transnational networks. He's made several good points, particularly on the persistent primacy of states in the world. I'd like to use what he's written as a launching point for a more general discussion about the connection between social and political groups (social/political activists, interest groups, experts, foundations, civic groups, universities, NGOs, etc.), networks, and states international politics.

The presence of social/political groups (which I'll hereafter abbreviate as SPG) in any given country  is a natural consequence of how free the state is. If the state is free, SPGs can take root and flourish. If the state isn't, then they won't. Simply put, there won't be sufficient space for SPGs to form and operate, let alone form transnational networks. It's as simple as that. Let's explore this in more detail.

Liberal democracies guarantee and protect an array of civil and political rights and liberties, including, most notably, freedoms of speech, the right to assemble, and the right to self-determination. These features provide a crucial fertile environment for politically-oriented people and groups to gather, organize, and work toward achieving their goals, whatever they may be. Here, we often see SPGs building connections with the state, working with bureaucrats, politicians, and political and financial and cultural elites. But some SPGs function to contest various seats of power. Meantime, other SPGs work in issue-areas, giving voice to policies that they think need to be addressed. Some SPGs decide to go it alone, while others build bridges to other domestic and/or international groups. Liberal democracies grant SPGs the freedom to form networks with whichever groups, people, and institutions as they wish. Their constraints in doing so will primarily come from limitations in funds, flaws in organizational structure, insufficient expertise, and an inability to find the right partners.

The relationship between SPGs, networks, and the state is a bit different in nondemocratic regimes. That said, I think we should make a distinction between authoritarian states and totalitarian ones. There can be a fairly stark difference between these two types of governance. Totalitarian states snuff out all independent and dissenting thoughts and opinions. The public and private are one, melded together, for the state's benefit. So in these states, SPGs will simply be appendages of the state, doing the business of the state. They're insular and inward-focused, concentrating mostly on the affairs of the country in which they reside. To the extent that SPGs foster connections to other groups, they'll frequently do so with groups and people from countries that share similar beliefs and political structures with their own country.

In garden variety authoritarian states, relative to totalitarian ones, there's more room for SPGs to form, work, and grow. This might not be the same kind and amount of space as we find in democracies, but it's real and it's there. In general, SPGs run into problems in authoritarian states when they begin to challenge the sitting government or the political system. So in these cases, we often find an informal agreement: civic groups and activists can set up shop and function as long as they stay out of the political game. Failure to heed this line in the sand brings the wrath of the state on the SPGs.

Just think about the presence and activism of NGOs and other groups in Egypt prior to the revolution. They were alive and well, as long they stayed out of mainstream politics. Thus, the bulk of the activities of Egyptian SPGs were hidden from public sight, buried underground, where it was safe to deliberate about politics and begin the process of forming loosely-based ties to other people and groups in society and in other countries. For instance, we know that prior to the January Revolution, Egyptian activists had already cultivated ties to revolutionaries in Serbia and Tunisia, among other places. Sure, some Egyptians physically traveled to these countries to acquire information, but they also took advantage of new technologies to form and strengthen nascent bonds with their counterparts abroad.

New technologies (cell phones, text messaging, the Internet, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and so on) have made it easier for SPGs, especially those in democracies and authoritarian states, to start up and also go transnational. These new technologies have effectively reduced the costs and other barriers to forming, to entering the marketplace of actors. If people have access to new technologies, can come up with a good idea/cause and package and sell it well, then they have a viable capacity to put together an SPG. Additionally, just as the case of pre-revolutionary Egypt shows us, new technologies have made it substantially easier to link to other groups around the world, effectively shrinking the globe for SPGs. This is what Anne-Marie Slaughter is excited about. And as I've written already, I think she has good reasons to be pleased and optimistic about these developments.

Here's my worry: states will catch on to how new technologies impact themselves and in response they'll aim to exert some control over these tools, thereby curbing the freedoms and rights and privileges of their citizens. This is something to watch going forward. Certainly, as Yohanes pointed out, social media tools can be used to cause death and destruction and disorder. The bloody and chaotic events in London illustrate that very thing. Perhaps greater oversight over Twitter, Facebook, and SMS can at times be a useful, though undoubtedly very controversial, public service.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Network? What Network?

Much has been said about the interesting debates between Anne-Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner on the role of social networks in international politics. Brad in his very interesting post has made some good points (his piece has linked to the entire AMS-DD debate, so look there, if you're interested).

No serious IR scholar will deny the argument that networks are important. Anyone questioning it should look at the Twitter/Facebook-driven Arab Spring that helped to shake the foundation of several Arab regimes. Still, the question is how important social networks really are in causing social and political change. Dan Drezner hits the nail on its head by arguing that:

"Just because I agree with the importance of these issue areas, however, does not mean that I agree with Slaughter's implicit model of how these issues get addressed.  Anne-Marie places great faith in the ability of transnational, networked, non-state actors to bend the policy agenda to their preferred sets of solutions.  I think that these groups can try to voice their demands for particular policy problems to be addressed.  I think, at the national level, that social movements can force even recalcitrant politicians to alter their policy agenda (see:  Party, Tea).  Where Slaughter's optimism runs into my skepticism is the ability of these movements to a) go transnational; and b) supply rather than demand global solutions.  I'm skeptical about the viability of transnational interests to effectively pressure multiple  governments to adopt a common policy solution, and I'm super-skeptical that these groups can supply broad-based solutions independently of national governments." 
Honestly, I will go further than Dan by arguing that states and governments are still very crucial in determining whether any "social/political movement" will be successful or not. More importantly, the fragmentation of political elites matter here and are important in determining outcomes.

Let's first start from the really basic "networking" tools: Twitter and Facebook are politically useful because there is this giant behind it called the United States, which provides the infrastructure, the required network where these social media tools are located. Without the United States' ability to provide this "common good," the "Facebook/Twitter Revolution" may not even exist in the first place.

Only few other countries, such as Japan and China, have the kind and amount of resources to provide alternatives to America's "common goods." In China's case, it prefers to have its own Twitter and Facebook (Sina Weibo) which its officials can control to some degree, though Chinese users are smart and cynical enough to bypass many of the attempts to censor (or, euphemistically, harmonize) the posts.

Aside from the social networking tools, much has been written on the game-changing impact of the transnational networks that empower regular people and mobilize the apathetic people to rise to topple the sitting tyrants. Yet, transnational networks do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on the goodwill of the states to exist, and their successes are heavily influenced by whether they are able to tap into the discourse of the local political elites.

Take the example of NGOs, the pillars of international civil society. One of the main reasons why there are many NGOs in democracies is because NGOs are useful in bolstering the position of competing political elites. So for instance, in the U.S., the Democratic Party needs labors, the Greens, etc; while the Republicans need the Chamber of Commerce, the Tea Party, and so on. Thus, in my view, the more democratic a state is, the more NGOs can be influential, precisely because they are useful in the "struggle of power" among political elites.

Yet in totalitarian or authoritarian governments, NGOs do nothing but to create trouble. These governments see NGOs as operating to harass and undermine them. Yet, as often is the case, authoritarian or totalitarian governments still need some NGOs so as to preempt any pressure from the international community. Thus they have their own human rights organizations that they use to counter criticisms from other countries and international bodies.

Still, the more fragmented the political elite, the higher the freedom for transnational movements. Thus, Egypt may have some independent NGOs running around (with very close supervision and perhaps some arrests and beatings now and then to keep them in line), but North Korea essentially has zero independent NGOs.

Here's another factor to consider: one state's power vis-a-vis other states. Watch how China simply ignores any denouncements, complaints or pressures from the US or European-based human rights organizations.

A closer inspection of a number of the Arab Spring cases shows that the popular revolts were only successful when the political elite has been fragmented. The Tunisian army, for instance, refused to shoot on the protesters. In Egypt, Mubarak's mixed responses (plus the military's already dissatisfaction to his family's ambition and rapacity) hurt Mubarak's position greatly. In Libya, well, there's no organization anyway and there's NATO help that turned the tide.

And let's keep in mind that the digital world itself is not monolithic. As Cliff Bob nicely argued:

Notably as well, these networks are not all “progressive,” although most of the scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on human rights, environmental, and global justice groups. Rather, there is huge diversity among transnational advocates, with powerful right-wing networks fighting the left. Nor is it simply the case that conservatives ally with states to oppose changes in the status quo. In the ongoing battles that comprise most of international policy making, all sides support or reject change at certain times.
While Twitter/Facebook can be used for good purposes, it can also be used to promote the idea of mass killing, global Jihad, racism, and religious hatred. There are still people who support Qaddafi, and China has its 50-cent party that keeps promoting the Party's line to the chagrin of many Chinese. In essence, it is not that really clear-cut world like Anne-Marie Slaughter thinks it is.

In a nutshell, social networks are important. Their ability to exist and to be influential, however, depends on the state itself.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What is "Leading From Behind?"

Ever since the rebels overran Tripoli and Qaddafi's compound, pundits have been crowing about the "new U.S. doctrine." Fareed Zakaria, for instance, declared that:
"The U.S. intervened only when it felt it needed to. All of this suggests a very different model for intervention, which I believe is a vast improvement over the old, expansive and expensive model.

The new model does two things:
First, it ensures that there's genuinely a local alliance committed to the same goals as the external coalition.  This way, there is more legitimacy on the ground. And if there is anything Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us, it is that local legitimacy is key.
Second, this model ensures that there is genuine burden sharing so that the United States is not left owning the country as has happened so often in the past.
Compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libya operation was a bargain.  It cost the U.S. about $1 billion.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collectively cost the U.S. $1.3 trillion. In other words, success in Libya could be achieved at less than one-tenth of one percent of the cost of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That's not a bad model for the future."
Or take these statements from Ben Rhodes, a National Security Official:
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
Here's why Zakaria and Rhodes (and many more) are wrong. While Afghanistan and Iraq are very easy straw men to beat up, keep in mind that Bush actually did everything that both pundits suggested, notably finding legitimate indigenous forces to partner with and sharing the burden with allies. And let's not forget that the circumstances of Iraq and Afghanistan are far different from those in Libya.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, a problem, of course, is that the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Saddam Hussein managed to kill virtually every popular resistance leader. Remember Ahmad Shah Massoud? Many would argue that had al-Qaeda not killed Massoud, the U.S. would not have had such a problem in Afghanistan, since he reportedly had a strong political backbone, unlike Karzai.

Furthermore, Bush thought that Ahmed Chalabi was very influential and important in Iraq, until events proved otherwise. Still, both Karzai and Chalabi were originally seen as legitimate, though in the end events showed that they both were second-rate leaders at best that did many things wrong and further exacerbated the messy situations in both countries.

In essence, both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were very unpopular and only had limited appeal. The problem is that the second-rate leaders the U.S. hand-picked were simply not up to the task. They alienated significant minorities, prompting them to gang up with other groups that they at least found to be sympathetic due to religious or ethnic linkages. Thus the Sunnis, seeing that they were being discriminated by the Shiites, ganged up with the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the remnants of the Baathists and the Pashtuns flocked to the Taliban.

What about the idea about building an international coalition? Well, Bush invaded Afghanistan with NATO in tow. While Bush was not so successful in building an international coalition to invade Iraq, much of the resistance against Iraq war came from France and Russia, to whom Saddam owed billions dollars to buy military hardware, not to mention potential future contracts (and oil explorations). Ester Pan, of the Council of Foreign Relations noted:
Jubilee Iraq, an organization dedicated to reducing Iraq's debt load, says that Saddam Hussein's government signed billions of dollars' worth of contracts, mostly for military goods. This includes an estimated $4 billion in orders from French contractors for F1 fighters, air-to-surface missiles, laser guided missiles, attack helicopters, military vehicles, and artillery pieces, and $9 billion committed to Russian contractors for helicopters, MiG fighters, and radar equipment.
In addition, Iraq and Afghanistan are surrounded by hostile neighbors, who simply do not relish the prospect of successful independent states established next door. Pakistan always considers Afghanistan to be its proxy in its struggle against India. Iran, having been bloodied badly in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, is not interested in having a resurgent Iraq, especially one with U.S. military bases to boot, next door. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Syria, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia, who are struggling to become the leader of the region. To put it simply, none of the neighboring states have much to gain from having a stable Iraq or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Syria, Iran, and Pakistan have been doing a lot to ensure both Iraq and Afghanistan to remain unstable (e.g. clandestinely supporting the insurgents) - of course, the added benefit of bleeding the U.S. is a plus.

Libya is a "cheap" and a "splendid little war" because the Qaddafi regime was not as strong as people thought it was. The military was disorganized and demoralized - though we didn't know that until the rebellion erupted. Its neighbors prefer a stable Libya: they are already busy with their internal troubles, and refugees from Libya are the last thing that they want. Plus, nobody likes Qaddafi anyway. Which helps to explain why there's been little external push-back to the West's military intervention.

Yet, even though this war is "cheap," as I noted in my previous post, the United States is still providing about 75 percent of aerial refueling flights and at least 70 percent of intelligence and surveillance flights in the campaign. Without the U.S., there is simply no way the rebellion or NATO's efforts would have been as successful or effective. In essence, the U.S. remains a major, important player in the alliance. I don't think this fits to the category of just "supporting."

Thus, the entire argument of "leading from behind" is simply stupid. What Libya showed is that the Obama Administration tried to avoid making a commitment (thus the risk of political backlash should things go south), had no grand strategy, and then to play catch-up with events as they unfolded, which reminded me of this interesting (most likely apocryphal) quote by Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin, "I must follow them. I am their leader."

In other words, thinking back to the 2008 presidential campaign, it is another "voting present" all over again. This time, however, Obama gave the podium to the British and the French and in the meantime tried to declare that there is no war in Libya. Thus, when, let's say in a year or two, the situation in Libya worsens, he could wash his hands of the fiasco. Still, it is doubtful that the U.S. could simply walk away without causing much bitterness in 10 Downing Street and the Palais de l'Élysée.

Thus, the U.S. was dragged into a war that probably this time it had less control over. Plus, Obama set up a precedent, where next president could simply ignore the War Powers Act, and nobody could raise an objection without being jeered as a hypocrite (except Dennis Kucinich, but he'd be gone by 2012 anyway).

I think Stephen Biddle got it right when he blurted, "Leading from behind? It was more like being pulled along from behind." Though considering the entire "no hostilities" debates, I will go further by saying "It was more like being pulled along kicking and screaming from behind."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The New Foreign Policy Frontier: A.M. Slaughter's New Blog

Always on the search for new and interesting blogs on international politics, I'm pleased to say that I've recently found a new one. At the end of July, Anne-Marie Slaughter began a blog, which she calls "The New Foreign Policy Frontier." Slaughter is highly intelligent and well-respected, and extremely knowledgeable about and experienced in international relations. Initially, she was an international lawyer, then got a Ph.D. in politics, and since then has been an academic (International Relations Prof. at Princeton) and a foreign policy practitioner (Director of Policy Planning at the State Dept.). Clearly, she crosses a host of areas that are usually thought to be separate and unbridgeable.

Slaughter sees her blog as serving as a counterweight to those thinkers (e.g., Kenneth Waltz, Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer) and policymakers (such as Henry Kissinger) who label themselves "realists." Realists see international relations as a nasty and cutthroat environment filled with nation-states constantly jostling for power and influence over others (other nation-states, groups, organizations, etc.). Above all, to realists, it is the leading military and economic powers (U.S., China, Britain, Russia, and so on) that are the primary movers and shakers in the world. In fact, particularly in the context of big events and broad trends, realists argue the world can be theoretically reduced only to these actors, the great powers, thereby wiping away the rest of the world. One need only look at events/trends such as world wars, colonialism, world trade patterns, shifts in power in the world as salient examples of this argument. Furthermore, in a broad, general sense, realists also see international relations as somewhat predictable: nation-states maximize power or security; seek arms and/or alliances for self-defense purposes; balance against power or threats; pay attention to relative gains, and more.

Slaughter, meantime, contends that the world is much messier and more complex than realists believe. In her view, the world is significantly shaped by a myriad of actors, from all parts of the globe, and is dominated by lots of different issues. Contemporary international relations is an unpredictable arena, highly contingent on different forces that are prominent at any moment in time. Here is a snapshot of her perspective, in her words:

"The frontier of foreign policy in the 21st century is social, developmental, digital, and global. Along this frontier, different groups of actors in society -- corporations, foundations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, churches, civic groups, political activists, Facebook groups, and others -- are mobilizing to address issues that begin as domestic social problems but that have now gone global. It is the world of the Land Mines Treaty and the International Criminal Court; global criminal and terrorist networks; vast flows of remittances that dwarf development assistance; micro-finance and serial entrepreneurship; the Gates Foundation; the Arab spring; climate change; global pandemics; Twitter; mobile technology to monitor elections, fight corruption, and improve maternal health; a new global women's movement; and the demography of a vast youth bulge in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia."
Slaughter's worldview appears to be a synthesis of network theory (which derives from several academic disciplines, such as political science, cognitive science, organizational research) and Robert Keohane and Joe Nye's (both are political scientists) work from the early 1970s on complex interdependence.

At the risk of simplification, there are four key points to Slaughter's logic: (1) The power of the state is eroding due to ever-expanding communications and information technology, which has dramatically empowered groups and individuals over the last few decades. (2) These groups and individuals form connections or networks with each other, and even at times with states, as a way to push their preferred policy policies and ideas forward through the state, to gain attention and publicity, to galvanize support, to implement plans, etc. (3) These diverse, newly empowered actors have vested interests in many different policy issues. (4) Some of these issues (climate change, control of dangerous diseases, terrorism) by definition can't be solved by just one or two powerful states. Rather, they require immense collaboration among lots of different actors in the world (yes, states, but also international organizations, experts, NGOs, political activists, and so on).

Slaughter's new blog has gotten attention from scholars and policy wonks, and it has already triggered some thoughtful critiques. (Among others, please see this and this and this and this). The critiques, generally speaking, claim that what Slaughter highlights is real, but question how impactful and crucial these things are to present-day world politics.

As for myself, I'm sympathetic to Slaughter's views. I do think there's something to what she writes. It feels like this "networked internationalism" (a term for Slaughter's views) is where the world is headed. As a result of the proliferation of satellite services, cell phones, computers, and the Internet around the world, people and groups of people are becoming more politically aware and active, trying on new political identities, acquiring and exercising political power on many different global issues. As these individuals and groups gain more political power, it's inevitable, perhaps necessary, that this comes expense of the state. And they are using these tools to form transnational bonds to like-minded others. Just look at the Arab Spring, a topic I covered in detail a few months ago. But there other, less dramatic examples as well. For instance, look at the Tea Party, a new American grassroots movement. In ways that are similar to the Arab revolutionaries, the Tea Partiers, like them or not, have have employed some elements of network theory along with social media tools to voice their specific political agenda, acquire some political power, and eat at the ability of the Obama administration to control political narratives and debates.

All of that said, I have a few minor questions about this school of thought.

With that in mind, this is what I would like to figure out: How we would know that we've reached the era of networked internationalism? What are some indicators that we can use as signposts to help us determine this answer? I'm sure that Slaughter would likely argue that we're already there, which is fine. But then, how does she know this? Which specific variables is she looking at?

2. I also wonder how various important forces in international relations impact the logic of networked internationalism. Let's take nationalism as an example. On the one hand, I can see nationalism as buttressing the power of the state, reinforcing the centrality of the state in the world. Look at current events in Egypt. There, the revolutionaries really are nationalists: they sought to seize their country from a brutal, corrupt dictator who, in their eyes, was a lackey of the U.S. and Israel. The revolutionaries now want to Egypt to reclaim its traditional exalted position in the region. This requires state action. And further, should the Egyptian state act more assertively in the region, whether in its relations with Israel or Saudi Arabia or any other country, Egyptian citizens will likely support these moves and look upon the state more favorably, thus creating a feedback loop by which the state clearly benefits. Additionally, let's not forget that a free and open and effectively functioning democratic Egypt--we're not there yet, but maybe in the future--can legitimize and as a consequence empower the state.

On the other hand, I can envision a different set of outcomes that are consistent with Slaughter's logic. For instance, in any country, the rise of nationalism and nationalist political actors in particular, will likely trigger a strong reaction from those officials who have something to lose with a shift in politics. In this scenario, these two groups--those supporting change in a nationalist direction and those defending the status quo--will battle for power. And as they do so, it's certainly possible, perhaps probable, that each will forge links to other domestic and international groups for support (knowledge and expertise, political backing, funds, material assistance) in their struggle for power.

I encourage you to check out Slaughter's blog and form your own thoughts on her writings. I know I'm interested to hear what she has to say going forward.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Qaddafi: Pre/Post Mortem

I tend to wait for the last moment before I write anything about Qaddafi, because Qaddafi has always had the uncanny ability to stay on the top, regardless of how difficult the situation is. I did want to write something about Libya today, but to be honest, the rapid advance of the rebels of the past few days really caught me off guard. Still, let me try to catch up, with the risk that by the time I publish this post, everything that I have written will have already been out of date.

So what's happened in the past few days? The rebels seemed to get their act together, and with NATO's help, managed to break through Qaddafi's lines of defense (and at the time of this writing, they were in Tripoli and managed to arrest two of Qaddafi's sons.) It's also seems that the complete reorganization of the rebels' cabinet managed to stave off the political fallout from the death General Abdel Fatah Younes.

Still, this does not mean that Libya will have a smooth transition to a democratic government. At this point, the rebels are united thanks to their common disgust to the Qaddafi's regime. Even though the rebels have been trying admirably to minimize misconducts such as by distributing guide books on how to behave in accordance with international law, many of them still not behaved professionally, which isn't a surprise since they are not professional soldiers. Many of them are just teenagers, who joined the war for the excitement or various other reasons. When the war is over, it will take a while to sort them out, to reintegrate them into to civilian life, and it won't be easy, especially with lack of jobs and with really high hopes of prosperity in post-Qaddafi Libya.

But even before that, there is no guarantee that the rebels' unity will last. The assassination of General Younes was just a tip of the iceberg. While the reshuffling of the cabinet did help, the reshuffling was influenced more by the desire to demonstrate to NATO that the rebels' unity was still intact and the fear of Qaddafi's resurgence and revenge. Once Qaddafi is gone and NATO is no longer needed, then all bets are off. Libya may end up in a civil war, unless the leaders effectively manage the different tribes, interests, and so on in play.

That will require international pressure and American leadership, which at this time is still lacking. Regardless of the enormous reservoir of goodwill for the U.S. in Libya when the war started, as Iraq showed, such goodwill can evaporate very quickly when things go south. Plus, should the tribes start fighting each other, the stronger ones, the ones with the biggest guns, may not be that willing to compromise, even though it might destroy the country back to the stone age. Anybody doubting that should ask Mr. Mohamed Farrah Aidid of Somalia.

Moreover, Obama's decision to "lead from behind" will come home to roost: if during the war, Obama is unwilling to lead from front, what gives him the right and credibility to impose order on post-war Libya? As I noted in a previous post, Obama's unwillingness to invoke the "War Power Act" to some degree emboldened Qaddafi to stay put and minimized the defections among his officials. I'd hazard to argue that the war would have ended sooner had Obama been willing to bring this to the Congress.

This "leading from behind" doctrine brings into question America's commitment to the rebels in Libya, and Obama's belated support of the Syrian dissidents doesn't do much to help his credibility either.

This does not mean that the U.S. will not have a voice in shaping the future of Libya. The U.S. remains the most important country in the world and the new Libyan government will try to curry favor with it. This, however, requires an active U.S. foreign policy with a clear defined mission and this time Obama cannot afford not to lead.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Trouble in Britain

Beginning this past weekend, parts of Britain have been engulfed in unrest. Although this story was initially overshadowed by other news stories, including the debt crisis and the credit rating downgrade, it's started to get more attention by the American press in the last day or two. In case our readers haven't closely followed the situation in England, I'll start this post with a quick overview of events.

Last Thursday, Mark Duggan, a suspected gang member, was stopped in a pre-planned operation and then shot and killed by London police in a  low-income and multi-ethnic neighborhood. This was exactly the type of neighborhood in which ordinary citizens already distrust elites, politicians, and the police. The killing exacerbated these fissures. And when the police presented its account of events surrounding Duggan's death, which suggested that he fired the first shots, the locals contested it, arguing that Duggan posed little threat to the police. To them, Duggan was unjustifiably murdered by the police.

The killing sparked demonstrations on Saturday, which then mushroomed into mob action in London and several other British cities, where there has been a wave of violence and destruction committed by what's thought to be young (often masked) rioters. Burned buildings and cars and police stations, smashed windows, looted stores and homes, injured people (even one death), these are some of the images that have surfaced from Britain in recent days. To this point, almost nine hundred have been arrested and about 370 have been charged with various crimes.

As expected, British politicians are concerned by these events. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation, recalled parliament from its summer break, and tripled the number of police (up to 16,000) on the streets to help restore order. Almost certainly, Cameron knows his government will feel the heat. British citizens wonder why it's taken so long for the authorities to quell the rioters and reestablish security on the streets. Some have called for stronger, more effective police tools to be deployed; others have even requested military support. Meantime, it's likely that Cameron's political foes will use the riots as evidence that harsh cuts in the welfare state provoke societal instability.

Cameron has stated that the riots and violence are "criminality, pure simple." And this is true, of course: The rioters have committed criminal acts. But this begs a larger question. Why have these people caused such violence and destruction? Cameron believes the answer is a simple one. The rioters are thugs and hooligans, and that's what societal miscreants do. Yohanes, in his post, makes a similar argument. I take a different position. Instead of assuming that all of the criminal acts have been committed by thuggish opportunism, let's relax that assumption and see this matter as an empirical question in need of an answer. Let me explain.

Sure, there are some common features among the rioters, the criminals. Most seem to be under the age of 20, are from poor areas, and have little formal education and few job prospects. But what we know about violent and destructive mob action, and the events in Britain most certainly qualify, is that not everyone is similarly motivated. People in mobs participate in crime for different reasons. Some are aimless, lifelong criminals, but others often aren't. And I think it's a mistake to confuse these two groups.

In the specific case of Britain, I don't doubt that many of the rioters are thugs, a bunch of troublemakers who took advantage of the atmosphere of protest and the apparent lack of policing. But based on the description of events and the testimony of British locals, it's likely that there are a host of other factors that have contributed to the riots. Here's a non-exhaustive list of possible additional motives: revenge (against police, police stations for Duggan's killing), thrill seeking (a way to obtain some personal gratification, pleasure for doing something illegal), material gain (looting), and political/economic grievances (a means to signal dissatisfaction against austerity measures).

The last set of motives, political/economic grievances, have been summarily dismissed by talking heads. However, a very recent and remarkably timely discussion paper reveals significant findings that shed light on this topic. Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans Joachim Voth explore the connection between austerity measures and social unrest in Europe during 1919-2009. An extended discussion of the paper is beyond the scope of this blog post. (I encourage you to read it). But here's a money quote from the paper's conclusion: "Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented." To be sure, more research on this subject needs to be completed. But the fact there's already some compelling empirical evidence on the record should make us hesitant to dismiss these variables as unimportant to the current riots in Britain.

Take one example. If some of the rioters really have been lashing out with revenge in mind, and we do know that police and police stations have been targeted, then imprisoning them might not solve all the problems. After all, the revenge seekers are only those people who were audacious enough to act on their feelings of disgust and hatred. It's very possible that they travel in circles of people (friends, family, neighbors) who harbor similar sentiments about British policing. And those people, in turn, likely voice their angry views about the police to others, further widening and entrenching the seed of antagonistic relations between citizens and the police.

In this hypothetical, the Cameron government ought respond by working with local governments and police forces to find ways to stabilize and improve citizen-police trust and confidence. Indeed, a cursory read of British newspapers in recent days shows that citizens from ethnically heterogeneous and low-income areas believe they're victims of widespread discrimination and harsh treatment by racist and xenophobic police. Obviously, these issues should be and already are being addressed to a degree. But maybe they are much more consequential to the stability of British society than was previously thought. It's something to think about.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Much Ado About London Riot

I generally don't like using a "straw man" argument in my writing. It smacks of intellectual laziness. Still, I think addressing this opinion piece in Al Jazeera is a good way to start this analysis:

"Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out. Structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables.

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything - literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

No one expected this. The so-called leaders who have taken three solid days to return from their foreign holidays to a country in flames did not anticipate this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain't Twitter."
In short, structural inequalities are the root cause of the riot and London riot is just another way of social empowerment, it's a revolt of the weak. This is London's "Arab Spring."

The argument, however, is simply hogwash. Claiming the London riots as another "Arab Spring" is a huge insult to the reformers and political activists all over the world, especially those in the Middle East who had to brave themselves against regimes that were willing to kill their own citizens. Declaring the London riots another struggle for equality is giving legitimacy to a bunch of looters and robbers.

People do not riot because they feel angry due to inequality. Were this the case, there would be many more riots all over the world. In fact, compared to the rest of the world, European states, including the Great Britain, have much less inequality thanks to their generous social welfare system. People also do not riot because it makes them feel powerful.Were this the case, virtually every authoritarian government in the world will experience daily riot.

People riot because there are two important factors present. First is opportunity, when a government shows signs of weakness. The Arab Spring exploded after both the Tunisian and Egyptian government fumbled in dealing with the rioting. When the Bahrain government, supported by the Saudi government, decided to clamp down hard on the protesters, the "Arab Spring" in Bahrain simply wilted.

In London, the British government was completely caught off guard by this riot, because the rioters were organizing themselves using Twitter and Blackberry, and managed to form and disperse quickly, catching the police off guard. It is an urban blitzkrieg, in which the police, accustomed to conventional confrontation, was outmaneuvered by a bunch of youths with hand-held devices. That's why the riot exploded to this degree. The rioters, seeing the police's response as ineffectual and slow, managed to outwit them and escaped unmolested, emboldening the fence-sitters.

The second important factor is organization. There must be a group of people who organize themselves, creating a small nucleus of protesters that will provide a sense of invulnerability (due to the numbers) and protection (due to anonymity).

The type of riot depends on the organizer. The "Arab Spring" is an "Arab Spring" because it was done by a diverse group of people, representing parts of the society. The London Riot, however, is simply criminal violence, done by anarchists and thugs. There is nothing about inequality or racism. A movement against racism would not have attacked a minority neighborhood. A true movement against inequality and capitalism would not have burned stores and assaulted journalists. It is simply a carnival of crime, wrapped under the so-called idea of "justice," taking advantage of government's weaknesses and a social event that distract people's attentions and giving a fig leaf of legitimacy to these criminals.

The claim that the government had "take(n) away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures" might be true. Yet, it was not a direct cause of the riot. The fact that the majority of the British population remain unwilling to join in this carnival of crime, and in fact, working together to clean up the mess shows that this argument simply cannot hold the water. It is true that there's something deeper going on, but it ain't what that AJ opinion piece claims to be.

Let me give you a hint: It can be found here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Behind the S&P's Downgrade

Regardless of all the hubbub on the debt ceiling earlier this week, the S&P downgraded America's rating by one notch after all, to AA+. Even though the U.S. Treasury questioned the S&P analysis, noting that the S&P underestimated the amount of deficit reduction by $2 trillion over the next decade, the S&P is probably justified in doing so, considering the domestic political mess that occurred last week, with the Tea Party rioting, the liberals gnashing their teeth, and Boehner chain-smoking so much that the fire department was called by concerned tourists - okay, I made the last part up, but check this really funny piece by Maureen Dowd for an over-the-top description on what was going on last week in Washington.

Like it or not, "the $2 trillion debate" is academic, and the $2 trillion reduction itself may or may not happen due to various political and economic conditions and accounting gimmicks, similar to Bill Clinton's budget surplus, which relied on a "Social Security Tax."

What really concerned the S&P is whether the US has the political will to actually slash the deficit without relying on accounting gimmick. I think summed this dilemma nicely:
"We won't attempt to assign blame to one party or the other for the deficits. There is plenty of blame to go around, some of which rests with an American public that won't accept cuts in the largest categories of public spending, and also resists tax increases on anybody but "the rich."
Here's the problem: both sides are right and wrong at the same time. The conservatives are right that taxing businesses hurts growth. Besides, the US has the second highest corporate tax rate anyway, second to Japan, as admitted by the New York Times. (Check this link for the comparison to the effective EU Corporate Tax Rates.) The problem is the loopholes, as corporations are trying to find loopholes to avoid paying such punishing corporate tax rates. As a result, it is a good idea to reform the tax code.

Still, nothing brings votes easier than yelling "tax the rich" and "these evil corporate interests," right? And it is easy to call the mob to bring pitchforks and torches against somebody who claimed it was difficult to make ends meet with $250k a year. Based on a analysis, getting rid of the tax break on couples with income over $250k a year will only hurt less than a million people, and rolling back Bush' tax cut will produce $950 billion in savings annually. One should keep in mind, however, that in 2007, these people, which comprised of 10% of the population, had already paid 55% of all federal taxes and that number doesn't include local and state taxes, which will push their total tax contributions far higher.

At the same time, the liberals are right that cutting spending on various social safety net is a horrible idea as it will hurt the most vulnerable members of the society. But at this point, doing nothing to reform the entitlement system is simply postponing the inevitable, that without any significant reform, the current entitlement system is simply unsustainable. The reason? The fact that Americans are dying much later in life, along with the rapid increase of the health costs of treating people, are the main culprits of this development. But at the same time, nobody is willing to trim down the fat, which brings us to the current dilemma.

Aside from the entitlements issue, the biggest problem with the U.S. budget lies in the public sector spending. I am not against spending on things like education, but news like this or this which points out the inefficient and wasteful U.S. bureaucratic system--primarily due to the public union system--is rather alarming. Moreover, the financial crisis in Europe shows that the unbridled power of the union is one of the main causes of the inability of these troubled countries to take a much needed step to reform its economy.

How will the credit rating downgrade impact the U.S., (well, aside from probably higher interest rates)? Most likely not much will come of it, considering several factors, such as the fact that both Moody and Fitch still conditionally maintain America's debt rating as perfect. And most importantly, there probably isn't any alternative to U.S. bonds.

A few years ago, some experts argued that the Euro would eventually be the alternative to the U.S. bond. Yet events in the past years have shown the fragility of the Euro itself.

A strong currency is great in good times. It gives countries a license to splurge. For countries such as Greece, it provides credibility, allowing the Greeks to borrow beyond their means because everyone is sure that somebody will bail them out. Flush with cash, countries like Greece could opt to postpone painful needed reforms and instead cause some sort of "moral hazard," where the country would actually behave recklessly and irresponsibly because it were sure that others would bail it out in order to maintain the stability of the system.

The true test comes when times are tough. First, countries find out that they cannot devalue their currency and export themselves out of economic troubles. The market becomes wary, wondering whether other states, hurt by the economic crisis, will be willing to bail these countries out. The people become angry because they don't like painful reforms and they are getting hurt twice: first from the austerity measures and then from the economic downturn.

Such political and economic difficulties that currently engulfs Europe undermine its bid to be an alternative global currency.

What about other countries? China? Well, considering how inept it was in handling last week's train crash and various questions regarding its accounting practices, not to mention its really huge bad debts, it's not really ready yet to be a global financial powerhouse. Plus, the Yuan is a non-convertible currency, limiting its use as a global currency.

There are many other suitable candidates, such as Japan, India, Singapore, and Australia, but still, none of them has an economy as large and as influential as the U.S. currently does. 

This is why even though the S&P has downgraded America's ratings, the impact might not be especially perilous. There is simply no alternative to the U.S.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Can we take Saif Qaddafi seriously?

The New York Times published an interview with Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi in which Seif declared that the regime had struck an alliance with the Islamists and he declared that "Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran."

It is very doubtful that such alliance has happened. Islamists are fundamentalists, but they are not stupid. The last thing they'd do is hitch their sail to a sinking ship called Qaddafi's Libya. Moreover, it is very doubtful that Muammar Qaddafi himself is willing to turn his back from his own Green Book. Not to mention the questions such as who would be the new "Ayatollah" of Libya? It is very doubtful that Libyan Islamists will approve the selection of Qaddafi as an "Ayatollah" and far less likely is the idea that Qaddafi will be willing to put himself under the power of or share his power with an "Ayatollah." 

Still, we cannot consider this simply as the last gasp of a delusional and desperate regime.

One thing that the Qaddafi's regime has been good in doing since its creation is in dividing and conquering its enemies, resulting in a very fragmented state, with tribes at each other throats and nobody really sure what's going on, except Qaddafi himself.

With the regime's survival at stake, the regime has been quick to seize any on sign of fragmentation within the rebel groups, which may not that difficult to do. The rebellion was in essence a mishmash of various tribes and people from various ideological backgrounds united by a single goal of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime. As the rebellion has been ongoing for months, the early euphoric sense of unity is steadily being replaced with the sense of tediousness. This situation is ripe for dissension and splits within the movement. The mysterious killing of General Younes and two of his colleagues may or may not have been orchestrated by Tripoli, but the effect is very beneficial for the Qaddafi's regime: it exposes the rift within the rebels' movement.

Saif Qaddafi's courting the Islamists is the latest attempt by the regime to launch a two-prong attack to undermine the opposition. First, it tries to create a rift within the rebel movements, who are generally suspicious toward the Islamists. While the Islamists may not interested in defecting to Tripoli, the insinuation from Saif is enough to create some questions within the rebel movements regarding the reliability of the Islamists.

The second prong of attack is directed toward the Europeans and the United States, who are providing military aid to the rebels. By stressing the Islamist element within the rebellion, Qaddafi is hoping that the U.S. and the Europeans will take a second look toward helping the rebels and instead push for a negotiable solutions to the Libyan conflict. In essence, the question is whether the US and Europe should aid the rebels, and indirectly, the Islamists within it, even though there's a possibility that the Islamists may hijack the revolution, like the Salafis might be doing in Egypt.

In any case, this offer inadvertently exposes a long term question on post-Qaddafi Libya: after the dust settles, what kind of Libya will emerge from the ruins of Qaddafi's regime?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How Low Did the U.S. Go?

The New York Times on August 1, 2011 declared that the debt limit showdown:
"Chipped away at the global authority of President Obama, who was celebrated abroad when he came to office as a man who would end an era of American unilateralism. Now the topic of discussion in other capitals is whether the Age of Obama is giving way to an Age of Austerity, one that will inevitably reduce America’s influence internationally."
I don't know about anywhere else, but that doesn't seem to apply here in Indonesia, where everyday the front page is dominated by corruption scandals within the ruling party. As I lamented in an article in the Jakarta Globe, these scandals have even crowded out a very important recent regional gathering here in Indonesia. The discussion about the impending American bankruptcy? Buried deep on page 7, if there's any news about it at all.

Not that the world no longer thinks the U.S. is unimportant, but America has been steadily losing global respect. This may upset my liberal friends back in the US, but let me be blunt: if you have anti-war protesters, such as Code Pink, and thinkers and writers dominating the television set, denouncing the government, the army, and the war at the same time, other nations would see the U.S. as a a divided country, a paper tiger that would be defeated after another Tet. It has undermined both the American presidency and U.S. foreign policy.

In fact, many of the anti-American arguments that I have observed in Indonesia are taken straight from anti-war protesters and Noam Chomsky's books. The nuttier the arguments (such as Bush was responsible for planting the explosives in the twin towers), the faster they spread. In fact, Confessions of an Economic Hitman was a best seller in Indonesia and widely quoted as a proof of America's nefarious plots to establish global hegemony, even though the book's assertions are not backed by any fact or data and the author's credibility is seriously questionable.

Another factor to consider is the sub prime mortgage mess that lead to the Great Recession. While many careful observers would point out that the wrong-headed housing policies and derivatives wizardry were to blamed, others quickly pointed out that the wars had bankrupted the U.S., even though the percentage of defense spending (including the Iraq war) was relatively constant compared to its GDP. Guess, which chart the foreigners will believe?

It is true that when Obama came on stage, many believed he would "restore the U.S." The problem is Obama's lack of details in his presidential campaign meant that each country in the world had its own view on what a restored America under Obama would look like. Arabs in the Middle East believed that Obama would look at the region differently, unbiased by the "Israel Lobby." African states believed Obama would increase America's disbursement of foreign aid to his ancestral continent. Europeans believed they finally found their fellow liberal. In fact, they were so hopeful of this that they handed him the Nobel Peace Prize on a silver platter almost immediately after taking office. In Indonesia, there was a brief period of Obama-mania, with books written about Obama's childhood in Indonesia and a statue erected in Obama's honor. (it got taken down in a few months after some protests).

When those hopes were dashed, and Obama was preoccupied with his health care battle, continuing many of Bush's policies, and finally caught flat-footed during the Arab Spring, well, hell hath no fury like a hope dashed, with Obama's popularity ratings now even below Bush in the Middle East. The continuing economic recession, debate on heath care and the budget showdowns simply confirmed to the world that the America's power is declining rapidly and the country will soon go bankrupt due to imperial overstretch.

In short, the debt limit showdown did not destroy America's credibility abroad. It was a succession of blunders and bad-timed policies (mostly by Obama) that hurt both the U.S. presidency and America's credibility abroad.

Al Jazeera's Presence in the U.S.

For various reasons, ever since its founding in 2006, Al Jazeera English (AJE) has struggled to gain a foothold in the U.S. It's presence has been very limited on cable and satellite services. But it looks like times are slightly changing. As of Monday, the network is getting expanded visibility in the New York area. For 23 hours a day, New Yorkers can view AJE on the cable channel RISE, which is carried locally by Time Warner and Verizon FiOS.

In my view this is a good development. In fact, I believe all Americans who subscribe to cable/satellite should have an opportunity to watch as much or little of AJE as they desire.

To be clear, my support for an expanded presence for AJE is not an endorsement of what's said or aired on the network. My support is given because, to my estimation, wider access to AJE is in America's best interests. The more citizens who understand foreign policy issues, especially those pertaining to U.S. stakes in and relations with the Arab world, the better it is for U.S. policymaking in general and national security in particular. Put simply, individuals who are knowledgeable about foreign policy are more likely to be active in and engaged with American politics, pushing their elected officials to embrace sensible policies that deal with political and security realities.

First, let's set the record straight. AJE is not nearly as repugnant as many Americans fear. Is it to the left of the left wing of the Democratic Party? Absolutely. Is AJE pro-Arab/pro-Palestinian? Definitely. But AJE is not nearly as loathsome, not even in the same ball park, as Hezbollah (Al-Manar) or Hamas tv (Al-Aqsa).

AJE is a legitimate news organization, with some novel shows and documentaries ("People and Power," "Egypt Burning," "The Arab Awakening") anchors and reporters (Ayman Mohyeldin), and interviewers (David Frost). It has done a good job covering the Arab Spring. And AJE has a wide reach across the world. Indeed, it has four broadcast centers (including Washington, DC) and 21 additional global bureaus. 

But to be blunt, AJE is not a non-partisan source of news. Rather, it (and its sister network AJ-Arabic) is very much an activist news and broadcast organization. It takes sides on a host of issues and often puts forward an agenda. For good and bad, it frequently covers issues and events through the lens of powerless ordinary citizens. That's one reason AJE is despised by many corrupt dictatorships, especially those in the Middle East.

Second, most people who do have an opinion on AJE have never watched it or have never watched it on a regular basis. Let's give more Americans a chance to watch it so they can make an more informed decision about the station.

Third, by watching AJE, even if only occasionally, Americans will get a better feel for Arab politics, economics, and culture. Specifically, they will get to hear in-depth coverage of the debates that are ongoing in the Arab world. Moreover, they will get a sampling of the kind of information that's transmitted to Arab audiences. And with AJE's focus on the Arab citizen, at times though interviews with ordinary Arabs and at other times via direct citizen journalism, Americans are able to discover what Arab people are thinking and saying. Aren't these good things? Why should Americans rely solely on U.S. politicians or news sources to gather and disseminate this information to them, especially when both groups frequently have their own political agendas?

Oh, sure, Americans already have access to a host of English versions of foreign news web sites. But I suspect the average American will have an easier time locating AJE on their cable/satellite service than international news web sites via online search engines. Additionally, if people don't have a fast enough Internet connection, and many don't, then they won't be able to view news videos like AJE online. And lastly, given the importance of the Middle East and North Africa, which is AJE's main area of focus and expertise, to contemporary U.S. foreign policy, it's beneficial that Americans get acquainted with the AJ powerhouse.

In the end, an expansion of AJE's presence here in the States would likely lead to three different outcomes. Of course, many Americans won't tune in. And of those who do watch AJE, some will outright dismiss the programming as Arab propaganda. But another group will use the opportunity to get further insight into foreign countries. To me, however large or small that group happens to be, that's indeed a very good thing.