Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

December 5, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Turkey and the Political Costs of E.U. Failure

If the current Euro crisis ends up leaving the E.U. fractured, moribund and/or substantively dead – a much stronger possibility than would’ve stalked Mario Draghi’s nightmares only a year ago – the organization will nevertheless have racked up one considerable and hopefully irreversible achievement: guiding (most of) Eastern Europe through its period of post-revolutionary fragility into the club of stably democratic regions. Nothing is truly irreversible of course, and due credit for the achievement must go the citizens of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia etc. for demanding institutional accountability from their governments. Still, it’s generally accepted that the prospect of joining the E.U. and the disciplining effects of the acquis communautaire were crucial in averting pseudo-authoritarian drift east of the Elbe.

This morning’s New York Times piece on Europe’s fading allure in Turkey is worth reading with this history in mind. Turkey has been trying to enter the E.U. (in its various permutations) since the Ankara agreement in 1963. It’s candidacy was finally confirmed in 1999, only to witness another decade of stagnation and drift. Europe’s technocrats laid out a theoretical path to membership all while fretting about Turkey being “too big, too poor, and too Muslim,” and they never really stopped fretting. Turkey, both at governmental and citizen levels, is losing patience. That the economic elements of the European experiment are now proving to have been fatally ill-designed doesn’t help things. Still, the prospect of E.U. membership has had measurable and positive effects on Turkey’s domestic politics over the years. In particular, the requirement of democratic control of the armed forces (DECAF) seems to have helped moderate the Turkish military’s historical tendency toward political intervention, as well as improved the government’s overall human rights behavior. It also seems to have been a factor in discouraging some of the more illiberal urges of Turkey’s ruling AKP.

That Europe’s leaders bit off more than they could chew politically, economically and culturally by leaving the door half open to Turkish accession, though, was a very grave error.

Stably integrating Turkey into the E.U. – even if only partially – could have locked in a partnership with an emerging strategic actor in a crucial region. It would have given European leaders greater leverage in everything from the Arab Spring to the Israeli Palestinian conflict to the perennial machinations in the Persian Gulf. Instead, Europe faces a more independent-minded and (understandably) bitter society to its southeast with which it will have to contend much more flexibly (this assumes there’s still a “Europe” to speak of for much longer). As the luster of E.U. membership fades, so presumably will Europe’s influence on Turkish domestic politics. Whether recent democratic improvements will “lock in” or crumble under the weight of various domestic pressures remains to be seen, but the waning influence of the acquis is unlikely to prove constructive.

A couple of years ago I helped run a small panel of regional experts discussing Turkey’s then-marginally-less-moribund E.U. accession prospects. I recall one attendee, on being asked whether he thought Turkey would eventually achieve membership, responded that analytically, he couldn’t see how the Turks could pull it off, but that in his heart he felt they’d somehow manage. That attitude – a clear appreciation of the obstacles involved combined with a vague confidence that all would be muddled through in the end – seems emblematic of Europe’s tragically self-contradictory approach to Turkey in recent decades. I suspect that the costs will be significant, and felt for a very long time.


Update: A couple of rather embarrassing grammatical errors in the initial version of this post have been corrected. Mea culpa.

November 29, 2011
by admin
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The Politics of American Wind

Note: This is a guest post from Martin D. Quiñones. Martin holds a B.A. from Brown University and is pursuing his J.D. at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.

It’s been a tough few months for American offshore wind power. Cape Wind, the project to build 130 massive turbines in the Massachusetts’s Nantucket Sound—and the most developed plan to date— had its FAA approval overturned by in the D.C. Circuit. And despite receiving site approval from the Department of the Interior and securing a fifteen-year power purchase contract with National Grid, Cape Wind has failed to secure the Department of Energy loan guarantees it hoped would subsidize a large part of its $2.6 billion price tag, something it’s not now likely to do in the wake of the Solyndra debacle. NIMBYs and nervous local governments have also recently scuttled or significantly delayed prospective projects in the Great Lakes off Michigan and New York. Environmental impact studies are getting under way for promising Gulf developments in Texas, among many in the region, but those projects remain years away. But even with all this sour news, the U.S. needs to get serious about offshore wind, both as economic and environmental policy, and needs a coordinated national strategy to do it. Although the issue gets surprisingly little press, consider this brief rundown of the status quo and the potential future:

The World Wind Energy Association reports that China added 19gw of new wind generation in 2010, nearly doubling its total wind capacity and surpassing the U.S. as the world’s wind energy leader. The U.S., by comparison, added only 5.6gw, down sharply from 9.9gw in 2009. Denmark now receives 21% of its total power needs from wind sources, with Spain and Portugal not far behind. If the U.S. doesn’t make a real effort, we risk continuing to surfeit ourselves on fossil fuels precisely as other countries reduce their dependence, not to mention losing an opportunity to create thousands of high-quality blue-collar jobs. So what can be done to reverse America’s slowing pace for new wind development, and offshore wind in particular? It turns out 24 Governors got together and thought about it.

In July, the Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition—which surprisingly does not include Rick Perry, who has strongly supported wind power in his own state—sent a letter to President Obama outlining some steps the federal government should take to support wind energy initiatives. The three most important are as follows: (1) extend the production tax credit and investment tax credit for renewable energy set to expire in 2012, (2) improve collaboration between airspace, radar, and wildlife agencies to streamline the siting process for offshore farms, and (3) expedite Department of the Interior leasing processes for new projects, with a goal of cutting in half the current 7-10 year approval time. Notably absent from their proposals were more aggressive strategies like the feed-in tariffs (basically mandated minimum rates utilities must pay for power provided to the grid by small renewable sources) championed in Germany, Spain, and California.

What’s interesting about these three proposals is that they might have legs, even in today’s, shall we say, volatile Congress. A bipartisan bill introduced this month to extend the production tax credit through 2016 is now before the House Ways and Means Committee, this time with the support of 23 members of the Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition. One imagines at least in theory that legislators and (and Presidential candidates) in thrall to Grover Norquist would not turn up their nose at extending a business tax incentive that promises blue-collar jobs, and that liberals would continue to lend support for greener reasons. The siting and leasing issues are trickier, since the Coalition’s proposals are essentially deregulatory measures. On the one hand Obama might think twice about giving corporations (even clean energy ones) easier access to public lands and waterways lest he alienate the left, while on the other the Republican House might balk at deregulation that omits greater oil and gas exploration. The calculus is complex and the terrain uncertain.

Ultimately, as with so many of today’s biggest policy questions, November 2012 will likely decide the fate of offshore wind, or at least the fate of any serious federal support for it. Political chaos between now and then could sideline extending the production tax credit and muddle any favorable regulatory changes. But the outlook is not as bleak as one might expect. A Republican President could allow offshore wind to benefit from his or her benevolent assault on the tax code and regulation. A reenergized Obama could find enough gall—and enough support—to take at least the more popular measures forward. In short, there is enough room for the industry to hedge, and come out with something positive. And it’s in America’s best interest that they do.

November 21, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Historical vs. Material vs. Ideal Baselines: Evaluating Obama

An essay in New York Magazine by Jonathan Chait this weekend has rebooted the standard debate about the “professional left” and why liberals can’t bring themselves to love Obama despite his accomplishments (see Sullivan for a supporting salvo). Chait tries to argue that there’s something in the progressive psyche that’s “incapable of being satisfied with a Democratic president” due to a persistent “failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline.” Chait then rolls through the historical record of Democratic presidents back through FDR, noting that they’ve always been castigated from the left, and concluding that there’s just something inherently unreasonable about the liberal mentality on this score.

I’m inclined to partly agree with Chait, but it’s an important “partly.” I have found myself exceptionally disappointed by many elements of Obama’s leadership – his solidification of the Bush-era civil liberties regime and his inability to grasp the magnitude of the 2008-2009 economic crises stand out as the cardinal sins in my book – but I often find myself taking “his” side in debates with progressive friends. Healthcare, for all its compromises, was an epic victory. He’s handled the Arab Spring reasonably well. He’s withdrawing American forces from Iraq. He found and killed Osama bin Laden. These are accomplishments and should be recognized as such. Furthermore, he’s facing down an opposition party that has moved beyond intransigence and into the realm of political nihilism, and an allied party that is far from unified around a progressive agenda. And Chait is right that if you simply start listing accomplishments, Obama compares pretty well to most Democratic presidents that anyone alive can remember. Chait’s remark about “plausible baselines,” though, needs a bit of unpacking, and makes progressive disappointment a bit more understandable.

To my mind, at least for the purposes of a barroom conversation about presidential performance, there are three metrics to use, between which most people tend to oscillate without realizing it. The first is what you might call comparative historical: stacking up Obama’s leadership against that provided by other Democratic presidents and seeing where he stands. I think the President does pretty well in this regard, but that says more about the weakness of the field than it does about his abilities. Clinton governed as a moderate Republican, and the medium-term blame for our current economic crisis falls at least partly on the shoulders of his policies. Carter was dealt a crappy political, cultural and economic hand, which he played poorly; there’s a reason a guy like Reagan was so popular in 1980. Johnson, well, Vietnam; ’nuff said. Much as it’s heretical for me to say this, Kennedy makes a better historical symbol than he ever did a President, though his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis will always keep him high on my list. Truman gets unfairly maligned, but, well, Korea; ’nuff said. Roosevelt was fantastic largely in retrospect; the long-run effects of his labor policies, creation of the Social Security Administration, bank regulation, war leadership etc. transformed American society largely for the better; but, the fact is he didn’t handle the Great Depression well in an economic sense, and he did round up Japanese-Americans and throw them into internment camps. So on that list Obama looks pretty good.

A second way to judge Obama is based on his ability to enact policies appropriate to the magnitude of the issues they mean to address. By this metric, he doesn’t look so impressive. His stimulus package, while large enough to cover immediate local government budget shortfalls and keep the economy from diving headlong into Great Depression part deux, wasn’t sufficient to avert years of economic stagnation. He expressed some decent ideas about infrastructure repair, alternative energy development and material renewal, then seemed to drop them at the first sign of concerted opposition. Furthermore, he hasn’t really made the case to the American people for a broad progressive agenda, so on crucial issues he’s conceded the discursive field as well as the material one.

A third metric is idealist: measuring the President’s performance based on his ability to push for the kind of society progressives want to see. I’m overgeneralizing, but I’d wager most American progressives want a society that looks more like other Western social democracies, with more robust redistributive mechanisms, stronger social services, expanded material rights, lower inequality etc: a model somewhere between Canada and Sweden. To the extent that Obama hasn’t put the U.S. on a path to that kind of society – and he emphatically hasn’t – progressives are understandably disappointed.

Chait gets at this a bit with his note that Obama hasn’t been a “transformational” president in the mold of Reagan or Roosevelt; but, he presents this as largely about narrative construction rather than material reality. The disappointment becomes more concrete if you consider the interaction between historical, material and ideal performance metrics. For progressives, the American socio-economic trajectory of the past three decades has been catastrophic. Current levels of material inequality, economic justice, social service provision etc. aren’t simply suboptimal; they’re horrifying. Progressives want their leaders to correct them, not just tinker around their edges. As these social pathologies get more extreme, the effort necessary to do that becomes more herculean, but that hasn’t (and shouldn’t have) led progressives to just lower their standards. In 2008, I had so much hope for Obama not because I thought he was exceptionally progressive, though that was part of it, but because I thought his election, in the midst of a serious crisis, would open up space for transformational politics that hadn’t been dreamed of in decades. In the face of a collapsing economy and two foreign wars, but with a landslide election and a veto-proof majority at his back, I believed Obama had an opportunity to do more than just implement a few good policies. I thought he had an opportunity to fundamentally alter the plane on which political battles were fought in this country, relegitimizing the idea of responsible regulation, attacking income inequality, expanding social services and forcefully confronting the utter lunacy that makes up so much of modern conservative politics.

Maybe that opportunity was illusory. Maybe Obama didn’t see it. Maybe he just didn’t seize it. But progressives who are disappointed in his leadership feel that way because they understand the magnitude of Obama’s task and are upset he hasn’t risen to it. Arguing that he’s accomplished more than Jimmy Carter is kind of beside the point.

November 18, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Technologies of Protest and Control

Erik Loomis has a post expressing skepticism that social media and organizing technology has had a substantial causal impact on the organizational success (such as it is thus far) of the Occupy Wall Street protests. He doesn’t argue that new communication platforms are irrelevant, only that they aren’t as “transformative” as their more enthusiastic boosters sometimes suggest:

…of course, the internet is transformative, but it’s also worth noting that previous organizing movements also created incredibly sophisticated technological strategies using the available tools. Twitter allows one to get word of current events around the world in real time, but this isn’t that new; we’ve been shrinking space and time ever since the steamship. To take the I.W.W. as an example, these people used created tremendously effective propaganda using art, pamphlets, and songs and spread them across the country and world really quite quickly thanks to their strategies of organizing through the use of train-hopping.

This isn’t to discount the value of Twitter in organizing at all, but rather to say that it is part of a technological continuum, not a complete transformation of what our less advanced organizing ancestors were doing 10 years ago or 100 years ago.

Yglesias riffs further:

The issue here seems to me to be the same as with efforts to draw a causal link between social media and anti-authoritarian movements abroad — the reasoning is backwards.

Think about something banal. A dinner party. If I were to organize a dinner party, I would invite people by email and they would RSVP by email. My friends would all do it the same way. So an alien might look at all these dinner parties and conclude that email was the key party-enabling technology. Thanks to email, people can gather and socialize! But that’s wrong. Before email, people just used earlier technologies to do the same thing.

To figure out what’s going on, you need to actually examine how people are using their time and not just observe that the Internet facilitates all kinds of different things. As I recall, 20 years ago we had a lot of anti-authoritarian mass movements in the Soviet Bloc even without Facebook.

This all strikes me as mostly right, but it needs a bit more unpacking, especially with reference to anti-authoritarian protest movements. Social media and “the internet” more broadly can plausibly address a number of barriers to anti-system collective action. They can facilitate more efficient organizing. They can, under certain circumstances, allow movements to bypass established media outlets to reach broad audiences. Their combination with now-ubiquitous audiovisual recording devices can bring the immediacy of social confrontation to people’s living rooms and laptops in a less cumbersome way than the TV camera crews of earlier eras. Still, in the context of relatively free societies, Loomis is right that the rise of social networking represents a move along a continuum rather than a truly transformative development. It may also be worth investigating the extent to which the ability to reflexively communicate about social movements online dulls the impulse for more assertive action. Right now I’m sitting at my laptop writing about social media and mass protest; I’m not in McPherson Square holding up a sign.

I do think there might be something more going in in authoritarian contexts, where movements face a surveillance state more willing to impose arbitrary violence in order to maintain the veneer of social peace. In that context, movements face a serious collective action problem in that people have strong incentives to hide their preferences. By providing spheres of communication over which the state exercises looser control, preferences can be stated more openly and it becomes easier to organize protest. Sometimes all it takes is a crack in the veneer of social unity. In addition, to the extent that regimes rely on directly controlling popular access to information, the internet may have made it easier to quickly transmit news about crackdowns, defections, sympathy protests, movement infrastructure etc.

It will also be interesting to see how much of this reflects a generation gap in the technologies of repression. The film The Lives of Others about the East German surveillance state has a scene (which I unfortunately can’t track down on YouTube) in which a Stasi analyst is able to deduce the model of typewriter used to write a subversive play simply by examining the minutiae of the ink and font. The detailed sleuthing process the analyst describes drives home the absurd extent to which the GDR regime was able to infiltrate and observe almost every aspect of life in a pre-digital society. Obviously, regimes since then have updated their expertise (see China, Communist Party of), but it takes time to learn how to track and effectively disrupt protest movements organized in the twittersphere. Repressive institutions don’t turn on a dime. Ten years from now, part of the story of 2011′s popular protests may be one of regimes struggling at differential rates to develop new technologies of control.

November 10, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

A Few Problems with Iran’s Nuclear Program

I don’t think that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is a very good idea. I don’t think it would be a smart thing for the United States to do. I don’t think it would be a smart thing for Israel to do. Hell, I don’t think it would be a smart thing for some unidentified alien race to do. I’m on record saying that I’m unimpressed with narratives that frame Iran as a uniquely irrational actor that’s just itching to start a nuclear war for funsies, and my layman’s judgment is that a robust deterrence policy would be enough to prevent Iran from using any weapons it developed. So I’m somewhat disappointed with today’s post over at New Atlanticist by Edelman, Krepinevich and Braden arguing for an American strike, not because they disagree with me (lot’s of reasonable and intelligent people do that) but because they engage in the depressingly-standard rhetorical strategy of outlining various reasons why Iran having nuclear weapons would be really bad (and again for the record: it would be) without explaining how a military strike would improve the situation on balance. Delaying Iran’s nuclear program (and make no mistake, we’re talking about a delay, not a terminus) doesn’t seem worth the price of regional instability at a time when American power in the Middle East is especially fragile, nor of a permanent war in the Gulf, nor of a domestically-strengthened regime in Tehran.

Now, obviously my judgment here reflects a belief that, rhetoric aside, the Iranian regime has had a recognizably “rational” foreign policy for much of its post-revolutionary history, albeit with objectives and moral calculi that the U.S. finds abhorrent, and that this rationality extends to its nuclear policy. And though I’m no expert, I’m in reasonably good company in that judgment. So I’m not very receptive to arguments about the specific problems with an Iranian bomb, beyond those inherent to adding another player to a game of multidimensional nuclear chess.

As I mull the issue, though, there are two aspects of Iranian nuclear development that do worry me. The first is the potentially fractured nature of the Iranian regime. Were Iran to develop nuclear weapons, my principle concern would be over command and control, and who in a very opaque and potentially unstable regime held the nuclear triggers. On the one hand, various regime actors showed remarkable unity in the face of recent popular pressure that would have cracked many others, so that’s a perversely positive sign. On the other hand, some erratic behavior does raise uncertainty about how much unified control exists in Tehran over Iranian security services. Particularly in the face of a future domestic or international crisis, the potential unpredictability of a nuclear Iran merits a bit of worry, along the lines of Pakistan.

The second involves the stability of the Israel-Iran nuclear dyad. My concern here is more on the Israeli end than the Iranian one, though it applies to both. If Israeli leaders believe Iran to have irrational or messianic intentions with its nuclear arsenal, they will presumably be quicker to consider the idea of preemptive strikes or other serious escalations in a crisis. In other words, stability under MAD requires not simply that everyone behave rationally (again, I think both Tehran and Tel Aviv pass this test) but that all actors involve trust the basic rationality of all others. I don’t know to what extent Israeli leaders believe their own rhetoric about Iranian irrationality (indeed I’m not sure what my assumptions would be in their place), but that’s a very legitimate and under-specified concern.

Now, to my mind these problems still don’t call for war with Iran. But if Iran is to be a nuclear power (which seems quite likely), it would behoove of policymakers to look for ways to render that dyad as stable as possible.

November 7, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Transnational Elites and the Cession of Popular Sovereignty

A couple of weeks ago, for a class I’m currently taking, I thumbed through a battered copy of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Published in 1944, the book sought to make sense of the creation and subsequent unraveling of 19th Century global capitalism and the catastrophe into which humanity had enthusiastically flung itself. Parts of the book are a bit strange. Polanyi evinces a kind of socialist pastoral yearning – imagine an Engels-Wordsworth mind meld – that rubbed me the wrong way. Overall, though, it was chilling to read in the context of today’s geopolitics. Polanyi basically argues that the mature capitalism of Globalization Part I, complete with transnational governing institutions, currencies pegged to the gold standard, and the depoliticization of economics, produced citizenries that felt an acute loss of control over their socio-economic existence. Political movements that purported to reassert such control – fascism being the most virulent – emerged from this systems’ fracturing.

I thought about this as I read Matt Yglesias’s comments on the latest developments in Greece, and how the Greek government’s grasping at E.U.-friendly solutions in the face of ruinous economic consequences reflects the rise of a “global ruling class” more accountable to itself and its own internal logic than to the various populations over which it rules:

Normally you would think that a national prime minister’s best option is to try to do the stuff that’s likely to get him re-elected. No matter how bleak the outlook, this is your dominant strategy. But in the era of globalization and EU-ification, I think the leaders of small countries are actually in a somewhat different situation. If you leave office held in high esteem by the Davos set, there are any number of European Commission or IMF or whatnot gigs that you might be eligible for even if you’re absolutely despised by your fellow countrymen.

Yglesias is obviously caricaturing the mechanism of action here. Just as progressives who claim that the Tim Geithners of the world act the way they do ‘for their friends on Wall Street’ do in the realm of domestic politics. My suspicion is that, in most cases, it’s more about the habits and values and intellectual frames that particular classes of people internalize over the course of their professional lives;* equilibria of elite rule are particularly stable when outright cronyism isn’t required for their perpetuation. And make no mistake: this is part of the dream of international governance. States are supposed to suboordinate their domestic politics to the dictates of broader regional or global systems.

The problem, of course, is that those institutions aren’t accountable to populations at large except through the filter of local elites. And to the extent that those elites function as a community unto themselves, that filter has become ever-more opaque. National states at their best give populations a chance to invest emotionally and psychologically and institutionally in the fate of their communities. Even if popular sovereignty often functions to legitimate inequities of material power, those communities of fate at least bind the interests of elites to those of individual populaces. States in recent decades have shifted away from such socio-political autarky without working seriously to construct alternatives with any psychological or institutional depth.  When times were good, people would tolerate that; as times have gotten tough, their patience has worn thin. If there’s a thread with which to connect OWS and the Tea Party with protesters in Madrid and Rome and Athens and Tel Aviv and even Cairo, it’s anger at the loss of control that the current crisis has laid bare. I’m reasonably hopeful that the political response won’t be as ugly as it was in Polanyi’s day. Nonetheless, our current predicament is not pleasant to contemplate.


*This happens surprisingly early. I was having a conversation with an old friend who I know not to be a reactionary neanderthal but who does work in the world of finance. When Occupy Wall Street came up he derisively muttered that the protesters should “get a job.” In the interest of not letting political acrimony ruin an otherwise pleasant trip through a twelve-pack of pumpkin ale, I bit back the urge to shout, “They can’t! There aren’t any! That’s the f**king point!”

November 4, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Identity Matters: Generational Turnover in Iraq

Regular readers know that the political effects of generational turnover are something about which I occasionally muse. It’s a tough phenomenon to study with much rigor, as generational worldviews are shaped by just about every social, political and economic variable imaginable, and in turn alter the trajectory of socio-political events in powerful but subtle and hard-to-measure ways. Even a really interesting treatment of generational dynamics like that of Strauss and Howe ends up putting together typologies based on selectively-sourced historical narratives then asking readers to believe the posited relationships based on a jumble of anecdotes. So I’m left just asserting that “generations matter” and then doing basically the same thing.

All that said, as I was skimming this Brett McGurk column on the American exit from Iraq I ran across this frankly surprising statistic: “An entire generation of Iraqis knows little of the United States beyond what they call the American war. Twenty-five percent of the country’s population — nearly 8 million Iraqis — were born after the 2003 invasion. Nearly half the population is younger than 19.”


Granted, it’s not exactly news that there’s been a baby-boom-esque demographic bulge across much of the Middle East in recent years; still, those numbers are pretty stark. Projecting into the medium-term future, this means that nearly half of the Iraqi population will have seen the American invasion, the ensuing civil war, the messy politics that have come since, and whatever developments follow over the next few years as the events that form their political consciousness and identity. It seems safe to assume that this generation of Iraqis will be the dominant force in Iraqi politics for the first half of this century. McGurk relates this to nationalism and attitudes toward the U.S., but there are far more important elements at work here such as:

  • Ethnic/sectarian consciousness: How has the experience of invasion and sectarian civil war shaped early and presumably-enduring attitudes about the salience of ethno-religious identity, political community at the national level, and who is worthy of political trust?
  • International frames of reference: Just as the Cold War shaped the tenor of geopolitics for several generations of Americans, one can imagine that the experience of invasion and internal meddling by the U.S., the international community more broadly, Syria, Iran etc. will have a profound effect on how Iraqis view the world, who they’ll take seriously, and why. How exactly these factors will be filtered through local experiences to shape different constituencies’ views is a question I’ll leave to those with a more intimate knowledge of Iraqi society.
  • Acceptable methods of political action: Iraqis are growing up in an era where violence has been used as a tool of politics by a wide array of individual and institutional actors. My suspicion is that this will inhibit the development of a truly democratic political culture; however, one could imagine revulsion toward such violence producing the opposite effect and strengthening democratic norms (far-fetched, I know, but I’m tired of being pessimistic about everything that happens in the world).

So as usual with this subject, there are more amorphous questions than rigorous answers, but it will be interesting to see what dominant frames of political consciousness emerge in Iraq in the coming decades.

October 26, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

What Would a Euro Collapse Look Like?

Reading Roger Cohen yesterday and Phil Levy and Andrew Sullivan today got me puzzling again over a predictive question that’s had me thinking for months: what precisely would happen to the E.U. politically should the Euro collapse? In other words, the economic dangers are manifest and have been laid bare for some time by people much smarter than me. The possibility of a second global financial crisis, 1930s-level unemployment across the industrialized world etc. should be frightening enough on their own to get European leaders to “just do it.” Unfortunately, it isn’t, and there are more than a few people predicting an eventual breakup – or at least a shrinking – of the Eurozone. The economics, though, are only one part of the story. Much of the commentary I’ve seen has implicitly and explicitly conflated the Eurozone – the group of countries that use the Euro as currency – with the European Union – the political-economic organization that does much more than simply manage a currency. There’s a pervasive sense that the survival of the larger European Union as an entity depends on the survival of the Euro as a currency. Cohen’s column yesterday is emblematic; he waxes poetic about the E.U. as a political achievement, the deliverance of Europe from the barbarism of 1914-1945, then begs Europe’s leaders to save the currency:

The European Union was created for such a moment. It was meant to guarantee the impossibility of the worst — not to deliver Europeans to postmodern bliss but to save them from the hell that began almost a century ago in 1914 and did not really stop until the Continent lay in ruins in 1945.

Now, thankfully, the big bazookas are financial. Roll them out, whatever the subsequent cost in inflation. Irrevocable means just that: The euro cannot be turned back. There is no soft euro exit imaginable, only mayhem and danger.

Recapitalize the banks. Bulk up on the rescue fund. Turn bankers’ Greek haircuts into buzz cuts. Do whatever it takes. Germany, ushered from ruin by the European Union, must lead the safeguarding of the euro or risk the loss of the stability that it prizes above anything.

Poland’s finance minister warning of “war within ten years” if the Eurozone collapses is a slightly more hyperbolic version of this same attitude. The economic crisis has laid bare not simply the E.U.’s institutional dysfunction but its lack of ideological and emotional cohesion. Germans don’t look at Greeks as countrymen, so they won’t foot the bill for Greek excess (or Spanish or Italian basically blameless economic fragility).

I don’t necessarily disagree with this attitude. Europe’s future as “Europe” does seem to hang in the balance at the moment (though Mr. Rostowski’s dire predictions are perhaps overblown). The thing is, I can’t quite pin down why. If the Eurozone was a mistake from a purely economic, technocratic perspective, couldn’t its correction allow for Europe’s political union to run more smoothly? In other words, the E.U. is a colossal amalgamation of legislative institutions, courts, regulatory regimes, trade areas, travel zones, security apparatuses etc. Most of those don’t require a single currency in order to operate. Indeed, most have nothing whatsoever to do with currency. Indeed, even at the currency level there could probably be an exchange rate management mechanism put in place to allow for necessary fluctuation without devolving into beggar-thy-neighbor madness. Why is the death of the Euro, then, held to signal the death of the E.U.?

I suspect this is an instance where ideas really matter. The E.U. has always been a mixture of institutional fact and aspiration. There’s a sense in which the E.U. works – to the extent that it does – because it represents not just what Europe is but what it might be; a place where tribal attachments give way to to a new form of citizenship and a new form of politics. A blueprint for moving beyond the nation state. Kant’s Perpetual Peace realized. I’m suspect much of the political damage done by a Eurozone failure will be less material than ideological. A slap in the face to the idea that true integration is desirable or necessary or even possible. And that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

All that said, I’d love to see a regional expert outline just how a Eurozone collapse would ripple through the rest of the E.U.’s pillars. At the moment, the causal chain is pretty vague.

October 25, 2011
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Identity Matters: National Anthems

Sullivan has a quick one-off about whether the U.S. national anthem should be sung “triumphantly” or whether there’s room for more somber, uncertain musical interpretations. My opinions on the U.S. national anthem as a song involve a rant that’s tangential to this post, so I won’t bore you with them.* I’ve always thought that national anthems, though, make excellent windows into the content and character of countries’ nationalisms, and what emotional notes elites think they need to hit in order for a song to properly resonate with the populace. Canada provides a fascinating case here, because the national anthem has more than one version. There’s the English one that most Americans know (well, the first line anyway). Then there’s a French version.** This obviously makes sense given the bilingual nature of the country. The interesting thing is that the two versions actually say substantively different things. Here’s the English:

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

And here’s the French (translated):

Ô Canada! (O Canada!)
Terre de nos aïeux, (Land of our forefathers,)
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux! (Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.)
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée, (As is thy arm ready to wield the sword,)
Il sait porter la croix! (So also is it ready to carry the cross.)
Ton histoire est une épopée (Thy history is an epic)
Des plus brillants exploits. (Of the most brilliant exploits.)
Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, (Thy valour steeped in faith)
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits. (Will protect our homes and our rights)
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits. (Will protect our homes and our rights)

For English Canadians, there are fairly basic platitudes about patriotism and freedom and stolidly standing on guard. For French Canadians (Quebecois for the most part), the song gestures at missionary Christianity, weaponry, epic history and les droits de l’homme. Of further interest: the French version was written first, at a time when most Anglo Canadians’ go-to patriotic song was God Save the Queen. My knowledge of Canadian culture isn’t sufficient for some deep literary exegesis here, but there’s clearly a difference in the kind of patriotism promoted by the different versions. When singers mix and match, which they sometimes do, it’s interesting to note which lines get included in which language (at Montreal hockey games, for example, viewers traditionally get the juicy violent-Catholic-epic bits in French, then proceed to Stand on Guard for Thee in English).

Recent decades have seen controversy around many national anthems for reasons of content – gendered or religious or violent language, for example – criticism which is entirely understandable. Still, national anthems aspire to an air (manufactured or otherwise) of tradition and longevity. Since one of the functions of nations is to give people a sense of transhistorical meaning and belonging in a secularized world, people are often reluctant to significantly mess with their signifiers. My suspicion is that anthems will be slower to evolve than many other cultural symbols.


*Oh all right yes I will. To start, The Star Spangled Banner should not be the U.S. national anthem. It’s not very musically pleasing, it’s very hard to sing, it recalls a war that has little resonance with the rest of American national mythology, its lyrics fetishize the flag to the exclusion of other things at which a national anthem might want to gesture, and its long vocal blasts (“laaaand of the freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…”) lend themselves to the worst kind of hammy performances. I’m very much a patriot, but most interpretations I hear make my eyes roll, not water. The national anthem should be America the Beautiful, a statement which I’m comfortable moving from the category of “opinion” to “fact.” I dare you to disagree. I’d take God Bless America as a distant second if there truly must be more bombast. All that said, since we’ve got the anthem we’ve got, if you find yourself singing it in a sports stadium, just sing the song at a medium pace with a bit of verve. Don’t take the long notes as an opportunity to channel your inner Christina Aguilera  and change pitch every half second. It doesn’t make people think you have a good voice. It makes them think you’re obnoxious.

**There’s also an unofficial Inuktitut version, but that’s not in my linguistic quiver.

October 19, 2011
by Jeb
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Why Presidential Intelligence Shouldn’t Matter

I realized last night, after watching some clips from the Republican debate, that we face the possibility of having a president who knows essentially nothing about events beyond America’s borders. Michele Bachmann, for example, provided some good material for today’s Daily Show when she said of Obama that he “put us in Libya. He is now putting us in Africa.” Give that lady a geography prize. Meanwhile, the New York Times had an op-ed the other day worrying about just how clueless the Republican field is on issues of foreign policy. With few exceptions, most appear not to know much of anything about international affairs.

The standard mantra of most politically inclined Americans — myself included — is that our presidents should be among the best and the brightest. Thus the outrage over the many “bushisms” that caused Americans so much embarrassment for those eight long years. ‘How have we ended up with a president who knows so little about the English language, history, and foreign policy?’ We fumed. But, as I read the expected snide commentary about Bachmann’s geography mix-up, I began to wonder why, exactly, we care so much. After all, are we not thinking about the issue all wrong? Certainly there is little reason to assume that running for president will bring out our most talented minds. We should, instead, assume that our presidential candidates are going to reliably be among the least intelligent, and the most immoral, conniving, and self-interested individuals that we might ever hope to find. With a few exceptions, running for — and winning — the position of Leader of the Free World takes a hell of a lot of hubris, moral compromise, and sleazy self-promotion.

Our interest in presidential intelligence is built on a Platonic idea, and not a very liberal one. In The Republic, Plato devises a system of selecting and cultivating the wisest of the pack. To him, (and apparently to many of us,) the smartest individuals are the only ones who can be trusted to govern. Yet as Karl Popper argued in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Plato asked and answered the completely wrong question. Plato asked: who should rule? Yet the correct question, as Popper notes, is: what institutions should rule? Or, put another way, what institutions can prevent rulers from wreaking too much havoc? Notice the difference in emphasis. Plato believes that we can cultivate rulers who will govern justly and wisely and to everyone’s benefit. Popper does not. He assumes that the field of politics can be expected to draw some of the worst, and that our focus should be on putting in place those institutional structures that will limit the expected damage of our political elites.

By thinking so much about the intelligence of our presidents, by obsessing over it, we reveal the shortcomings of our top-heavy presidential system of government. An individual leader should not have the power to launch decade-long wars, to single-handedly wreck an economy, or to establish secret hit-lists of alleged American traitors. Political power should be distributed widely. Yet we live in a country with an increasingly strong executive branch — a branch that is now so powerful that individual presidents really do matter. So questioning the intelligence of our future leaders, and scrutinizing their judgment, actually makes a lot of sense.

That’s a big warning sign. In a truly liberal and democratic system, presidents shouldn’t matter all that much. But in this country, the president is king.