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April 24, 2007

American Foreign Policy and its Leadership in Crisis

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower by Zbigniew Brzezinski, was published recently by Basic Books. What does it say? How useful is it?

Brzezinski was Carter’s National Security Advisor, and although Brzezinski has his own story to tell (he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq from the outset) this is not essentially a partisan book. Whilst it is an attack on George W. Bush’s foreign policy in general and in the Middle East in particular, it provides a useful context for thinking about America’s role in the world. This in underscored by his approach to evaluating the policies pursued by Bush, Carter and Bush in terms of global leadership style and substance. His thesis is that American global leadership (the outcome of the collapse of the Soviet Union) needs to rest on both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. ‘Soft power’ is maintained by constant and focused efforts in diplomacy, by understanding the global and historical contexts within which power is brought into play and by working on problems and solutions multilaterally. Military power is, of course, most effective when it is least used.

A central issue is about the nature of leadership. George H. W. Bush gets a ‘Solid: B’ judgment on his tactic skill. Clinton gets an ‘Uneven: C’ given the ‘Major gap between potential and performance’ and George W. Bush gets a ‘Failed: F’ for a ‘simplistic dogmatic world view’ that ‘prompts self-destructive unilateralism’. Over-estimating what can be achieved by force, under-estimating the cultural context needed for democracy to flourish and refusing to talk with unsympathetic regimes can only frustrate American policy. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is a rerun of British and French colonial policy in circumstances, such as the rise of religious fundamentalism bound up with nationalism, that are much more problematic and dangerous than they faced. Furthermore, the uni-polar world, created by the fall of the Soviet Union, is shifting. China is asserting itself in the East, in Africa and in Central Asia. It will soon, according to Brzezinski, be asserting itself in the Middle East. China has the tactical advantage that it does not lecture others on how to behave. Russia is re-assessing its global role in terms of economic power achieved through its significance in gas and oil and is looking to balancing out its interests in Asia and Europe. Brzezinski is clear about the shifting context: ‘Global political awakening is historically anti-imperial, politically anti-Western, and emotionally increasingly anti-American’. The ‘political passivity’ essential to maintenance of past imperial systems no longer holds. The United States it seems has squandered the resources that it brings to the international leadership role. It has overestimated its raw power. It has rattled its friends as well as its enemies. The performance trend is downwards. Rather than looking for a model in the past, the nation needs a ‘second chance’ to get it right.

What is involved in the ‘second chance’? Brzezinski has been criticized for making few practical policy recommendations. Such criticism is to misunderstand what is intended by the idea of the challenge of global leadership in a rapidly changing and potentially unstable world. Such leadership will involve adaptation and change and leadership thinking that is sophisticated, focused and flexible. Brzezinski is concerned not with particular polices but with context and leadership style, with style really as something substantive (though it must I think avoid the Clinton gap between aspirations and reality). Such leadership will operate multilaterally rather than unilaterally and needs to act in ways that show sensitivity to other cultures and contexts. It will require a re-assertion of diplomacy. It will require a long-range view (a view that is difficult to achieve given the way in which American democracy works) and the building of a consistent as well as coherent policy-making framework. Domestically the United States needs to face-up to the issues of ‘material self-indulgence’ and to the consequences that this may have for foreign policy development (such as I suppose protectionism versus trade). Western institutions need to adjust and to think more widely about membership issues (by including Japan, for example, in what is otherwise an Atlantic aliance). G8 has not much significance as the economic base shifts internationally. China ought to be there. Brzezinski ends with a tall order and one that grows beyond American exclusiveness, calling as it does upon a higher-order interpretation of American interest. The main global power in the world needs to be pursuing a policy that is ‘globalist in spirit, content and scope’ and to have the domestic policy-making framework that makes this possible.

April 16, 2007

The Presidential election in France.

The first round of the French Presidential election will take place on the 22 April. If no candidate manages to achieve 50% of the vote (there are 12 names on the ballot), the top two will face another round, the really significant round, on the 6th May. What is at stake for France? What are the consequences of the election for Europe?

Traditions die hard in France. This is a country in which, despite the Revolution, the French sense of administrative action as the basis for social change, renewed by socialism and protectionism in the modern era, still has a hold on the political system and on attitudes towards the market economy. Dress it up whatever way you will, France has a preference for administrative action, and associated administrative and hence political elites, over that of a freely functioning economy. There is nothing new about economic and political comparisons with ‘England’. Voltaire made them; the early French economists during and after the Revolution made them, debating the pros and cons of Adam Smith whilst searching for a French model. Political society still makes them, though the current ‘English’ model (developed essentially by Margaret Thatcher) is evaluated with suspicion and even hostility despite its long-term success (gained by short-term and acute pain) in generating employment, income, productivity and growth. Young unskilled workers and young professionals, facing unemployment or career entrapment in unsatisfactory jobs have moved and continue to move to London, a city that has a voracious appetite for job seekers. British firms are becoming pre-eminent in Europe. Many in France look upon the British model of economic flexibility (seen as no job security) and service-sector and financial sector growth (seen as risky and exploitative) with apprehension. But for all the hostility towards the British model, and to any hint of the idea of a necessary Thatcherite reform, France, with the slowest growth rate of any developed market economy, is facing a crisis over its economic future. This is recognized by all of the three credible front runners (it is hard to imagine Le Pen getting very far as a potential fourth, despite the issue of immigration) in the election. Curiously there has been, if press reports are anything to go by, no dominant theme emerge in the election thus far. This in itself may be evidence of the extent of the confusion and malaise that there is in France at the moment. France and its state-oriented economy are both out of touch with the wider world.

The three front runners are: Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou. The first round (a round which the French use to express their discontent) may throw-up Le Pen as a final contender but this seems unlikely.

Nicolas Sarkozy is campaigning on the idea of change and of facing up to the need for economic reform (and to its unpleasant side which will mean adjusting the size of the state budget and hence the prospect of state-sponsored unemployment). He was even prepared to take his message to those French citizens who have opted to live and work in London. Sarkozy sees himself as an instrument of change though he was quick enough to defend Airbus when it was in trouble. He has if anything the clearest grasp of the economic problems that France faces and he is not afraid of putting his reformist points across. Sarkozy would also aim to streamline European administration and argue against full Turkish membership. He appears tough but is he as tough as Thatcher was? Is this what the French want? He seems essentially to be a compromise between the French administrative tradition (that reaches back before the Revolution) and the market. Even that compromise may prove to be too much for the electorate.

Ségolène Royal is the hope of the Socialist Party. She won the nomination in her party by a huge margin. Her campaign has roamed over a number of areas, calling upon aspects of the French identity that some have found surprising from a socialist candidate. Royal is seen as a candidate with strong convictions and her candidacy is a challenge to male-dominance in French political life. Of all the campaigns, Royal’s is the one that appears to shift ground more than most. Royal does not lack personal drive but her message is a confused one, manipulating too many symbols in an effort to reach beyond her Party and to the French public. It is hard for an outsider to see how Royal could achieve reform and renewal in economic life. Royal recently clarified her ambiguous position on Turkish membership by declaring her support and arguing for unity between the civilizations.

François Bayrou is growing in popularity. He is the leader of a small centrist party (Union for French Democracy). He is appealing for an approach to political life based on a government of national unity. What he wants is a ‘peaceful revolution’ in politics and by this he means throwing out of power the two parties that have dominated the political scene for twenty-five years. Although claiming to be new, he is also an experienced politician. He would oppose European extension and would say ‘no’ to Turkey. He looks to reform but reform through administrative efficiency gains and moderation of government spending rather than a dramatic re-assertion of the market. It is generally held that he appeals to the section of the population who feel estranged from the political elite in Paris. He is looking for a harmonious and essentially progressive approach to economic and political life but this tends to leave his message somewhat difficult to define.

What is at stake is the future direction of the French economy, France’s self image and French influence in the EU. At this stage, Sarkozy is widely seen as the front runner with the distinct possibility that Bayrou may just beat Royal to second place. Whatever the outcome, the admininstrative tradition of the French state is more lilkely to be modified than expunged.

April 4, 2007

How do you talk to Iran?

The Democrats in the new Congress hold that not talking to your potential enemies is counter-productive. Nancy Pelosi is in Syria doing just that. Is there anything to be learned from the twelve-day UK-Iranian dispute over fifteen British naval personnel about how to talk to the potentially, more difficult Iran?

President Ahmedinejad brought to an end the ‘crisis’ between the UK and Iran by announcing, in what is being seen by the BBC as a public-relations victory, that the British naval personnel were to be immediately pardoned and released. Ahmedinejad’s use of language side-steps the issue of responsibility, legality and location of the incident (held by the British and by the first Iranian announcement to be inside Iraqi waters). There is still a lingering dislike for Britain and of its past interventions in the internal history of Iran and the invasion of Iraq as America’s ally has added to that dislike. The demonstration outside the British Embassy, during the week, was however comparatively small-scale and relatively easily contained by Iranian security police. Ahmedinejad is being credited with a propaganda victory and with the wisdom to know when enough had been extracted from the situation without pushing it to crisis point. He described the release as an ‘Easter’ gift, in the context of the Prophet’s birthday, Easter and Passover, to the British people. This may have been also an indirect reference to the Pope’s appeal for the release of the captives. Officials, in an effort to maintain the public relations initiative, have repeated that the release was a gift and nothing whatsoever to do with British diplomacy.

What did the British government do? By all accounts, the UK government did relatively little. Its account of the taking of the sailors differs in details from that of the Iranians. The Iranian announcement came ‘out of the blue’ to British officials, according to the BBC. Tony Blair said in Downing Street that ‘throughout we have taken a measured approach – firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either’. The British complained to the United Nations and looked for support from other European countries. Although the British initially made a complaint about the display of the captives, it was decided after the first reaction, in London, to play it coolly. This enabled Ahmedinijad, as it turned out, to mirror the position taken by London. ‘From the beginning, I didn’t want to have any confrontation’ he said during the speech that announced the sailors’ release.

How did the release come about? It seems to have come essentially from the internal dynamics of the Iranian government. There was little further that the Iranians could have got from holding the captives. The British claimed that they did not ‘negotiate’ and that they made no ‘linkages’ to any other issue between Iran and the West though they may have also contacted the Syrians and engaged them too in diplomacy. The Economist suggests that the capture was the initiative of Pasdaran zealots in a replay of actions in 2004 and one taken without any longer-term or strategic political objective in mind. What happened thereafter was a gradual re-assertion of the authority of the more cautious branch of Iranian politicians. It was the intervention of Ali Larijani, the nuclear developments negotiator, which seems to have turned events around. Larijani is charged with negotiating with the West and any situation likely to make his work more difficult would be best avoided. Once he showed his hand, through direct and private contact with the media, the British contacted him directly. The speed of subsequent events took everyone by surprise.

So how do you talk to Iran? There must first be a desire to talk. This is the stand being taken by Democrats in Congress. Talk to your foes or else risk it all getting much worse. Then it is probably best not to fall into the trap of appearing arrogant. Arrogance or anything that can be read as arrogance only reinforces old stereotypes and there is a ready popular audience for such stereotypes. Thirdly, it may be a good idea to recognize that the government process in Iran is split between radicals and those more willing to accommodate themselves to the established ways of the world. It is not easy for outsiders to play one faction off against the other. Playing an engaged but waiting game may also be worthwhile. Ranting seems wrong-headed and refusing to speak is counter-productive. What is probably best of all is discussion in all sorts of issues across the spectrum of interests whilst being aware of, and sensitive to the fact that, Iran’s internal politics are fraught. The Economist holds that the talking to the West, especially the United States ‘might scare the mullahs more than sanctions’ (Economist, 4th April, 2007).