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November 24, 2008

Zimbabwe must change and South Africa must act.

In the 1960s Zimbabwe was one of the richer countries of sub-Saharan Africa and neighboring Botswana was one of the poorest. As Botswana has advanced in economic terms, carefully developing a dominant party democracy that sticks to the rules and carefully, through development planning and a pro-capitalist stance, fosters economic growth, Zimbabwe has under the care of Robert Mugabe declined and in the last few years the pace of the decline has accelerated. Festus Mogae, the quiet spoken former President of Botswana has been honored for his pro-democracy and pro-development, anti-AIDS stance. Robert Mugabe, once the hero of the Liberation Movement, is now being called into account by other leaders. The Kenyan Prime Minister recently stated that just because he is a former freedom fighter, Mugabe cannot and should not cling illegally to power. Robert Mugabe, claiming that the country is facing a third struggle against external aggressors, has abused the electorate and the people of Zimbabwe as a whole. He and his closest supporters insist on clinging to power whilst the country suffers. Is there a way out?

Economically, Zimbabwe, though by geographical location a high-cost economy has historically been one of the grain baskets of Southern Africa. It is also part of the great zone of mineralization that runs through southern Africa. Given the right kind of development policy it should be economically significant instead of being in long-term secular decline. What is to be done?

There is no international conspiracy here. There is only misguided judgment and bad economic policy at work. True the country needed a land reform . The support for a rational policy, balancing Zimbabwe’s need for food and the need to expand production on tribal land by adding acreage through farm purchase has always been available. Mugabe preferred a process of rewarding his supporters and silencing his opponents by confiscating the land of productive white farmers and placing it in the hands of those without experience. Behind the rate of inflation that is so large it can hardly be counted (and the abandonment of the Zimbabwean dollar in favor of other foreign currencies in the domestic market), is a fiscal mess. The Government of Zimbabwe has systematically eroded its tax base and destroyed sources of revenue necessary to maintain investment in government run facilities such as hospitals. It has been caught out by the cholera epidemic. It has turned food into a scarce and politicized resource. By early next year, in a human-made crisis, half the population is expected to be on food aid.

There are no quick solutions to the economic problems facing the country. No doubt the United Kingdom government and other international agencies have contingency plans for Zimbabwe but such plans need a domestic political system that is working in an orderly fashion and one that is capable of operating on a non-partisan basis. Developmental aid needs a developmental frame of mind, as neighboring Botswana has shown time and again, and this is significantly lacking in those who give Robert Mugabe their political allegiance. Indeed Mugabe has nurtured a strong sense of grievance against the international community and yet this community is now essential to restoring Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes. The refusal to allow the Elders (an international group of significant former political figures) to enter Zimbabwe is part of this extreme xenophobic mind-set (as is the banning of the BBC reporters from entering the country). Any government that was genuinely concerned about the economic well-being of its population would have made a more considered approach to economic policy before the present crisis had been reached. Governments in sub-Saharan Africa find it hard to promote economic growth but bad government can wreck growth and well being for a generation. The next-door country of Botswana shows what a positve model could look like. The international resources can be readily made available to Zimbabwe but the first thing must be to secure a domestic political settlement that can form a suitable basis for the restoration of growth. A new policy direction requires a new government and this is what Mugabe and his supporters have rejected not just at the outcome of the election but several times since.

Is a political solution possible? Mugabe insists that the land issue and land re-allocations must be maintained. He is more interested in looking after his followers than he is in the wellbeing of all of the citizens of Zimbabwe. An agreement for political cooperation exists but no agreement about the allocation of portfolio responsibility is yet in place. Kenya provides a possible model. It is hard to see, especially for outsiders, where the domestic consensus for change is going to come. Economic problems have not produced such a consensus (and with such a huge rate of domestic unemployment coupled with migration, economic motivation is normally a powerful one) and internal discussions have not either. It is time for further external pressure. The only significant and legitimate external pressure that Mugabe is likely to recognize is from South Africa, backed where possible by other southern-African leaders. That Jacob Zuma, the leader of the African National Congress, has called for change is significant but the South African Government needs to back this call for change with real incentives and disincentives to Mugabe. With-holding aid is a first step in the pressure making process but it is not enough. A policy of constructive engagement is required, backed by international aid. Perhaps there is a need first for discussions built around reconciliation, raising the issue of what kind of Zimbabwe do the politicians really wish to see and from there, work towards the issue of internal power sharing. The rural violence has started again and even if the politicians find a basis for reconciliation, this needs to be sold to their supporters and backed with resources. Here the documentation is not enough for the strains of forging a new policy in a coalition government will soon otherwise overwhelm any agreement. South Africa, given the effective tarnishing of the international community that Mugabe has achieved, needs to be in process deeply, and maintain a leading position. It is only then that the international community can step in with resources designed to achieve economcicstability as the essential counter-part to political stability.

November 17, 2008

Review of Paul Sharp’s “Sustainable Diplomacy and the US-Iranian Conflict" Clingendael Diplomacy Papers No. 17, The Hague, October 2008.

Recently the Alworth Institute hosted a very successful event on the culture and politics of Iran that managed to avoid any direct discussion of the policy conflict between Iran and the United States with respect to Iran’s desire to develop a nuclear energy capacity capable of developing nuclear weapons. What we were looking for at the event was another view on Iran. However the policy conflict between Iran and the United States is real and dangerous. Knowing more about each other, one of the aims of the recent Alworth event, is not enough to resolve an issue at the international level, though it does tell us something about the longer-term consequences of (say) armed conflict or about domestic contexts that make the stories about the “other" subject to change. States and state actors behave in ways that differ from ordinary people in ordinary everyday life. In his Clingendael paper, Sharp sets out to examine the prospects for diplomacy in the context of a relationship that he describes as “one of the most dangerous in contemporary international relations". Paul Sharp in Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael). What does Sharp see as the problem? What means does he see for a resolution that avoids outright warfare?

The dispute is clear enough. The Iranians see the development of a nuclear energy capacity as both a right and essential to the legitimate interests of Iran, essential to its national security, and in a smart move, “to the security and dignity of the entire Islamic world" (neatly ignoring, in this claim, that Pakistan has nuclear capacity). The United States and Israel take a different view and perhaps a more extreme view than others in the international community as they characterize Iran in essentially "rogue state" terms. To prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capacity, the United States has stated that it will use force if no other means is possible. Sharp sees the use of force as problematic, likely to lead to unpredictable and unhelpful and stressful outcomes and to the continuation of Iran’s policy under even more unstable circumstances.

There are many stories that can be told and have been told about Iran and the west. Sharp cuts through these and asks in essence (I paraphrase): “Where are the diplomats, and where is diplomacy in this context?��? The stories that are being told present the diplomats as “disposable" and the diplomats as “constrained by the calculations and insecurities of those that they represent".. What Sharp points out that by concentrating on the policy objectives the current stories “neglect the relationship itself" and how it may be made to work. The stories (and the policies too?) “are not the product of diplomatic thinking grounded in a diplomatic understanding of what is going on".

What, then, according to Sharp, constitutes such diplomatic thinking? Sharp, in a subtle argument, constructs “diplomats" as actors that who occupy the “places" in between. By this he means a potential available space between one government and a given dominant discourse, and another government and its dominant discourse. The space in between ought to make it possible for diplomats to see the whole rather than the predetermined and essentially partial view of each set discourse. The wider views can assist in constraining the otherwise inevitable negative outcomes. He sees the space as suggesting the possibility of “maintaining distance" and hence of the possibility of modifications.

What is needed are opportunities for “sustainable diplomacy". This in the first instance means the commitment and determination to continue talking, and to talk without preconditions (as suggested since by President elect Obama). Iran and the US have talked but not in the context of sustainable diplomatic relations Sharp argues for the need for defined actors; the terms on which talking takes place; and the representation of the talks to domestic audiences. Talking in Sharp’s sense in such fraught situations is about talking itself and not necessarily about anything beyond it simply in order to keep contact, to maintain the potential space (if I understand the argument correctly. There is in such contexts a disposition to “appease". This is a loaded word, particularly in the United States. Try replacing it with the notion of a disposition to “accommodate". This disposition Sharp sees as central to successful diplomacy.

Sharp argues that in the diplomatic space the US-Iranian relationship can be reconsidered. The two sides should “jointly and openly consider the possible consequences of the other party of the one party getting what it wants". This would raise other questions concerning accommodation such as how the wider world could live with the outcomes e.g. either turning a blind eye or surrounding Iran “with [a] collective deterrence system".. As each party is treated in turn, Sharp argues that a range of possible answers will merge. These scenarios could help slow down the inevitability of war or could restart domestic discussions about alternatives. This is traditional diplomacy but the world has changed and diplomacy is not isolated and discreet. This is a difficulty but it is not un-surmountable though this needs further exploration and specification.

Talk, properly contextualized and properly exploratory and based on sustained professional diplomacy is essential. This talk does not require the full panoply, according to Sharp, of diplomatic exchanges but it does require that diplomats can still operate discursively in the spaces in between. Will it work in the context of the United States and Iran? The only answer here is, try it and see. A new administration at least makes the experiment possible.

November 6, 2008

The international task ahead.

Obama is President elect. Over the next few weeks he will be brought up to speed on significant national issues as he plans his cabinet and starts to formulate his policies, armed with insider information as well as a sense of his electoral mandate for change. He has been endorsed by the voters. He has also been extended warm public support in other countries in Europe and Africa and elsewhere. Whilst I was in New York over the end of the election period, I attended a debate on “Brand America" organized as part of a series of debated by the Economist magazine, a magazine that appears to be more popular in the United States than it its country of origin. The debate reflected upon the power and image of the United States in a changing world. The proposition was that “Brand America will regain its shine". Peter Beinart and Keith Reinhard spoke for the motion and Benjamin R. Barber and Parag Khanna spoke against the proposition. The audience was largely composed of professional people in their early 30s. This blog does not so much report on this debate though it does some of that, as reflect on the contextual issues that the debate revealed. What are the contextual issues for the development of the international policies of the Obama administration?

It may seem strange that management-speak, that of “Brand America��? was used to shape the discussion. The Economist is a weekly journal that brings together politics, economics and business. At the same time in professional academic discussion of foreign policy development, management ideas are very much in evidence. So too it is the case with respect to practical issues. The United Kingdom under Tony Blair opted for the image of “Cool Britannia" as a marketing device and an attempt to reconstruct perceptions of the country in essentially modern terms. The context of the Economist’s debate is the damage to the image and reputation of the United States as a result of the policy choices made by George W. Bush. Both parties in the debate accepted that the image had been severely damaged. Both accepted that there was a new and developing international context that needed to be understood. Both accepted the need for change. Differences were largely about the extent of the need and in the capacity to achieve change. Beinart and Reinhard felt that perceptions of the United States had often historically been unfavorable. Barber and Khanna argued that a radical change in the international context called for a radical change in the values that governed policy. Beinart and Reinhardt felt that the notion of “Brand" was moderately useful in thinking about the policy, at least as far as I could judge, and policy management issues involved. Barber in particular felt that “Brand" was in essence “a substitute when identity goes missing��?. What was need was an understanding of the interconnectivity of the new global order. All Americans need to recognize that an innocent life lost in Pakistan as a result of United States military action matters.

The contextual problems were clear enough. The world is changing and changing quickly away from a mono-polar to a multi-polar world (we are besotted with China but think of the emergence of India, Brazil and Russia as well as the productive potential of countries such as South Africa and Turkey). In a mono-polar world, the US felt no need, at least under Bush, to be a “team player". Asymmetrical power and influence led to the over-use of military action and the under use of traditional forms of cooperative diplomacy. Hypocrisy under Bush seemed to be the American virtue and a restrictive policy towards migration the United Sates norm, in contradiction to its historical experience. According to Reinhard (if my notes serve me well) Australian diplomats are more ambitious for a China posting where there is a sense of the exciting and new than they are for a Washington posting. The United States according to Barber was no longer a place that people came to to understand the future. The United States, all agreed, should take a lead in areas where it can, particularly in technology and all aspects of the environment.

The debate took place in Gotham Hall on Broadway. This is one of those wonderfully golden and burnished New York neo-classical interiors. It is a large, oval-shaped space, once the property of a savings bank. The opulent banking hall is punctuated with pious sayings written inelegant gold lettering on aspects of the bourgeois virtues such as "It is what we save rather than what we earn that insures a competence for the future". The debate was essential as many debates, either formal or informal, in this country are about American virtues and the nature of virtuous action. Both sides agreed that what it is to shine and how to shine need to be re-considered. Gotham Hall, just south of Times Square, seemed an appropriate place to hear Benjamin Barber call for an approach to policy based not on “Belligerent America" nor on “Brand America" (Nike; McDonalds and their consumerist associations) but on “America the beautiful" based on the diverse cultural identity of the United states on the idea of the world in our midst (if I can put it like that) and on openness and a capacity to think and react on a multicultural basis, developed more firmly around “soft power" that recognizes that the world has changed as well as on the enduring and lived values of democracy. Obama was the unseen presence at this debate held on the Sunday before the election. All of the sentiments expressed point to a huge set of expectations for change. The issues raised in the debate point to a huge and perhaps even an unreasonable or even unmanageable challenge for a new leader to face. Obama’s motto of “We can" suggests a willingness to tackle difficult problems. What the priorities will be in practical terms are yet to be decided.

New York on election night

I was lucky enough to be in New York over the end of the election period and in Times Square on election night itself. Normally I write web logs on issues that matter to me but rarely do I produce a personalized piece. This time is different. To have been in the city on election day was very special. I am not a citizen and could not therefore vote but this country being what it is I could participate as an observer and even a discussant, socially and in class when the occasion arose. The streets and avenues of New York, on election day, were a good location for observation and participation. Times Square proved ideal later in the night as the results came in. What was the mood on the streets?

As you walk around a city, particularly an area like Manhattan where the city folk are used to tourists and are, on the whole, welcoming towards them, exposure to the heartbeat of city life is unavoidable. New York seems to draw you right in a very direct way. The mainly black-Americans who were acting as volunteers to the find-raising drive for the city’s homeless were happy to give you an opinion (sometimes solicited, sometimes not) on Obama’s chances early in the day. There was expressed a mixture of confidence and hope. Up near Election Plaza (an outdoor broadcasting site at the center of the Rockefeller complex) I passed a person, probably a recent migrant worker, holding a larger advertising pole and sign for some hamburger place. I caught his eye as I passed. He pointed to a very small Obama portrait about two thirds of the way up the pole, a portrait so small it could hardly be seen. He grinned. I grinned back and asked him what he thought the results would be. With his free hand opened as a whole he pointed skywards as if to say “God willing?. To see hope in such an unexpected way and in such an unexpected place as an ordinary street corner can only be described as delightful. The interaction did not take more than a few seconds but it seemed to matter. In a nearby café where I stopped with my companion for a quick snack, an elderly, and highly educated, African-American could not help share his excitement as the prospects of a victory for Obama and for the Democrats. His democratic credentials were strong. He showed with pride a photograph of himself and his wife together with Bill Clinton at a recent Democratic fund raising event. He was bubbling over with excitement and sharing his hopes in a gentle way with anyone around who would listen. The sense of democratic change and expectancy was everywhere even as the city pursued its fast-paced, every-day life.

The unabashed populism of Times Square proved to be the perfect location to witness historic change. Election Plaza at the Rock felt slightly more constrained, perhaps more middle-class, though the atmosphere there was also heady with excitement. Times Square buzzed with life. The Obama and McCain condom sellers continued their cynical trade (‘?get screwed either way?) with good natured New York style-banter. The crowd was mainly young, pro-Obama and pro-change. It was a multicultural New York crowd made up of people of all colors and creeds. It was excited, good-natured, high spirited and entirely non-threatening.

A young mixed-race couple stood nearby where I was in the crowd. They said very little but their faces simply shone with the purest delight at the prospect of a President who shared in his own family history the background of their young son in the baby stroller. An Obama victory button seller standing behind me kept saying over and over again as the final victory was announced “I never thought I’d live to see the day?. In countless ways throughout the crowd, and not simply in the African-American community, there were sights and sounds of delight. Strangers embraced, a few wept for joy. Chanting and singing accompanied every announcement or every large passing vehicle along Broadway. It was one in the morning before I could, with considerable reluctance, make myself leave.

Nobody in the square needed the media to tell them that this was an historic election bringing with it a new sense of civic community and, of course, a new sense of civic responsibility, a new sense of what democracy in the United States could be about. The tendency towards political dynasties (a Bush or a Clinton) and the same old Washington elite, has been reveresed, the mold smashed by ordinary citizens of all walks of life, making a decision for change focused by Obama in a brilliant and statesman-like political campaign in which he looked every inch the President throughout. The problems of the Bush years have not gone away but the sense that a new approach domestically and internationally is possible was real and palpable on the streets on New York. Voting across the nation confirmed that Obama had correctly and consistently articulated the desire for change. This sense of reconnection was manifest on the streets on New York. Winston Churchill said that America could be relied upon to do the right thing after it had tried everything else first. This election result represents a huge leap forward even if the product is still to be tried and tested. Congratulations America!