When Vision Fails

It is remarkable that, in response to ISIS’s attacks in Paris, all kinds of remedies and actions are now being vehemently proposed:  adding Western ground troops to the forces attacking ISIS, setting new restrictions on the movement of refugees from Islamic countries to the West; changing the rules for movement within Europe and even the rights of long-resident Muslims in western nations.

These proposals are remarkable not because they are extreme or poorly thought out (which they often are).  Rather, they are remarkable because they burst into a vacuum of ideas for responding to ISIS or to a major terrorist action in a western capital.

Why have Western nations not had either a long-standing, widely understood and supported strategy for dealing with ISIS, which even a grisly terrorist act would not change, nor a plan for action in response to such an attack if that was believed necessary?

After all, it is certainly not the case that ISIS nor terror attacks in European capitals are new.  ISIS has now been in the headlines for its brutal actions for years, and past terror attacks in Moscow, London, Madrid and even in Paris just a few months before should have prompted strategic plans for responding to another such attack.

Yet the response of Western leaders seems to have been an uncanny degree of denial.  President Obama, just a day before the attacks, said that America’s strategy for dealing with ISIS was working and that ISIS had been “contained.”  This was after a $500 million program to train Syrian fighters had to be abandoned for lack of success.

While it is true that some local tactical advances had been made in the fight against ISIS, in retaking the Baiji oilfields and the town of Sinjar, ISIS is also making tactical gains in other parts of Syria, around Homs and Edlib.   Perhaps the biggest problem is that even if anti-ISIS forces retake land, there is no clear sense of who will govern it.  In Tikrit in Iraq, a major town recovered from ISIS earlier this year, Iraqi army units and Shia militias still contest each other for control of the city, which remains a ghost town.

In Syria, when Kurdish forces recover land in northern Syria, who will run it?  Turkey is dead-set against creating a Kurdish-run safe zone in northern Syria that could develop into an autonomous region or Kurdish state.  Lands in Syria recovered from ISIS cannot be simply turned over to control of the Assad-led regime in Damascus; the Sunni population of most of Syria will not tolerate that.  Yet there exists no Syrian “government in exile” with popular support to take over either.  So how can a strategy to fight against ISIS be “working” if we still have no idea who will run any region that is recovered?   Moreover, these tactical victories that nibble at the fringes of ISIS territory do not begin to broach the strategic issues that are vital to truly defeating them, namely how will they be driven from their urban strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul where millions of people live under ISIS’ rule?

If western nations lack an overall strategy for dealing with ISIS, they also lack a plan for responding to direct attacks on their citizens.  Even after ISIS in the Sinai had brought down a Russian airliner causing hundreds of deaths, western leaders seemed to think that ISIS was only a local threat, aiming to expand in Iraq and Syria, and would not strike against nations outside that area.  This despite evidence of ISIS sleeper cells elsewhere, and attacks by ISIS affiliated groups in Egypt. Libya, and the Sahel.  So what reprisals did Western leaders have planned in the event that ISIS followed up the Charlie Hebdo attacks with another, larger attack on European soil?  None, apparently, as the response has been a search for something between a knee-jerk response for the sake of “doing something” and doing nothing at all for lack of an alternative that would clearly be effective and not self-defeating.

Sadly, this lack of vision, and the lack of preparation it produces, is not just arising in the struggle against ISIS.  For many years, scholars like myself have been arguing that fragile and failed states are the greatest potential threat to the international system, creating millions of refugees, thousands of aggrieved radicals, and multiple opportunities for terror groups to shelter and expand.  We also noted that dealing with fragile and failed states required expertise, patience, and steady efforts, not dropping soldiers and tons of money in and then planning to pull them out.  Yet instead of building capacity and developing plans to assist fragile and failing states, we were told that dealing with fragile and failed states is too costly and complex and that our errors in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that we could not respond to that challenge. Moreover, we were told that fragile and failed states weren’t really a threat to the international system or to US interests, that we had greatly exaggerated their risks, and that failed states were likely to be a minor and decreasing problem.

The result — when Ukraine failed, the West was caught flat-footed, while only Russia was prepared to act quickly. They did so by seizing Crimea and sending arms and troops to shore up separatists in Eastern Ukraine, thereby plunging Europe into its deepest crisis since the Cold War.

When Libya failed in the aftermath of the fall of Muammar Ghaddafi, as always seemed likely, the world had no standby plan to separate militias or restore order.  When Yemen failed — a process that had been slowly unfolding for years and ignored in favor of just drone-bombing Al-Qaida militants — the result was a civil war that has drawn in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations to the point where they have little attention to spare for ISIS.  When Iraq and Syria fell apart in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the former and the Arab Spring uprisings in the latter, and we watched radicals spread and entrench themselves in both nations, we had no thought of a quick response.  Rather, we watched both nations descend from fragility to outright loss of territory to a radical group, and waited until that group spilled blood in Europe and sent millions of refugees westward before starting to take seriously the need for an international response.

At this point, the West may think that a strong response to the terror attacks in Paris is required.  In fact, it is too late.  States that have failed cannot easily be put back together from outside.  The time for effective intervention is in the early days of fragility, before forces of disorder have seized advanced weapons and territory. At this point, blows aimed at ISIS without a strategy to drive them from their core strongholds will only increase their enmity and determination to strike back, and will not deprive of the means to do so.

So what course to take now, after so much denial and time wasted?   First, it is vital to strengthen states that are engaged in struggles to create zones of order, but remain fragile.  That means Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Ukraine, and Georgia.  It is essential that they not become failed states and spread disorder further.  These countries should be the priority for strategic measures to support these regimes with aid, expertise, trade support, and defensive weaponry.

Second, the forces that are actively fighting ISIS in Syria — Kurds and Syrian militias — should be given access to arms and air support to fight to contain ISIS and keep it busy with local defense.

Beyond that, Western forces should back away from active engagement with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  Better to concentrate on dealing with the refugee streams that are being created.  By giving those refugees a future and safe haven, even more ISIS supporters will be encouraged to try to escape from the lands controlled by ISIS. That will do more than any bombing raids to weaken ISIS and deprive it of resources.

In the meantime, let ISIS’s fury burn itself out against local Muslim populations. Eventually, when ISIS has weakened, and Turkey and several Arab nations are ready to commit major forces to driving ISIS out of its strongholds, western nations can provide support.  But it makes no sense for the US and Europe to take the lead in a fight against ISIS when neither Turkey, nor Iraq, nor Saudi Arabia is willing to do so.

Still, NATO should develop stand-by plans for retributive strikes against ISIS and its leaders if they stage attacks against NATO countries.  If we are already bombing all targets that we can identify, then simply dropping more bombs in response to an attack on the West will not have any effect and certainly not deter NATO from planning further attacks against the West.  Yet if Western nations turn the main fighting over to local forces, and save massive bombing attacks for reprisals, ISIS and its supporters will learn that attacks against the West will cost it more lives in its population centers.   The incessant ongoing air attacks that inevitably kill civilians and now help ISIS recruit followers are  not effective; but attacks that are clearly reprisals for ISIS killing of innocent civilians can be framed quite differently and more effectively for the anti-ISIS cause.

The risk now is that instead of helping crucial fragile states grow stronger, aiding refugees, and limiting our actions to supporting local forces and reprisals, we will act in anger and do precisely the opposite — ignore other fragile states, turn against refugees, and waste money and effort in counter-productive military actions by western nations against ISIS.  These are precisely the actions that will strengthen ISIS, not defeat it.  Yet once again our lack of strategic vision and understanding, and our inclinations to act in haste and anger as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, threaten to make the defeat of Western interests more likely.





Posted in The Middle East Revolts, U.S. Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Fighting Islamic Terror in a Multipolar and Asymmetric World

Events in November – the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the mass killings in Paris – should make it abundantly clear that we are no longer living in a world where conflicts between major states are the primary threats to the security of ordinary citizens.  The world of the 21st century has arrived.  Today international relations are not only multipolar, engaging older powers such as the United States, France, and Britain; emerging powers such as the BRICS countries; and regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and the Persian Gulf states.  They are also asymmetric, as non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, and Kurdish militias challenge these nations with their own military campaigns.

These asymmetric campaigns have produced recurrent murders and massacres throughout the world in the last 15 years, such as the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., the 2004 train bombing in Spain, the 2008 mass shootings in Mumbai, India, and this year’s killings of hundreds by terrorist acts in Xinjiang, China and the Sinai and Paris attacks. It should be evident that for NATO, Russia, China and many other states the most fear and death is being spread by a common enemy, namely Islamic extremists.

Logic would dictate that the nations facing this threats, from NATO to the BRICS, would work together to end this chronic and growing danger to their security, and coordinate their efforts against a common enemy.  While there are many Islamist groups using terror tactics, so that it might seem difficult to identify that common enemy, today there is a clear leader of global Islamist violence, and that is Daesh, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State (IS).   IS has made clear that its enemies include Russia and its Syrian ally, the US and its Iraqi and Kurdish allies, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and now France as well.   So why do all of these nations not bring their collective might to bear against Daesh and end its threat to their security?

The answer is that collective efforts have been paralyzed by an older mind-set, carried over from the cold war.  The BRICS nations – a collective formed for the very purpose of creating an alternative framework to the club of western nations – creates the impression that Russia, India, and China, as well as India and South Africa, have some common interests that are apart from the interests of the nations of Europe and North America.  At the same time, NATO – a military formation designed to provide for the security of Western Europe from an attack from Eastern Europe – continues to focus on expanding its membership within Europe rather than building a truly global alliance against the global threats now faced by its members.

Driven by this older mind-set, in the last few years when crises of mutual interest have arisen, such as the collapse of governments in Ukraine and Syria, instead of western and eastern nations dealing with these events by peaceful joint efforts and negotiations, confrontations have arisen based on the perception that western Europe and Russia, or the United States and China, are mutual threats to each other. In Ukraine, Russia moved to “liberate” Crimea and support military action by militias in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Western nations then responded with sanctions and both sides have escalated a propaganda war designed to depict the other as an evil adversary.

In Syria, instead of an international effort to impose a settlement on the various warring factions that have torn that country apart, and to drive ISI out of its positions, Russia and Iran have acted to support “their” ally Bashar al-Assad, as if supporting a murderous dictator who uses barrel bombs and chemical weapons against his own cities will strengthen their international position.  Yet Assad and his allies have made little effort to attack Daesh, instead focusing their attention on the various other opposition groups in Syria who pose a more immediate threat to Assad’s rule.  Indeed, Assad is positioning himself to benefit from a sustained Daesh presence in eastern Syria, which he can use to justify any barbarity used to preserve his regime.

Meanwhile, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States have all insisted that Assad’s departure must be part of any settlement plan, but made only token efforts to achieve that goal.  The result is that no coordinated actions against Daesh are taking place at all.  Instead Turkey turns a blind eye to much of Daesh’s activities, preferring to let Daesh fight against the Kurdish militias that Turkey judges to be a greater threat to its sovereignty.  Saudi Arabia has become pre-occupied with the Yemeni civil war, while the US aims to withdraw its forces from Iraq and to avoid being drawn into a ground campaign in Syria.  While each of these may make tactical sense in terms of short-term national interests, they have worked to undermine any sensible and effective strategy against the greater long-term threat of the Islamic State.

The recent attacks against Russia in the Sinai and against Paris now seem to call for eastern and western nations to set aside preoccupations with their own relative strength and prestige, with winning land or scoring propaganda points at each other’s expense.  How foolish countries will look in a few years if they continue to act as if controlling a few more bits of territory – whether in Crimea or the South China Sea or the coast of Syria – is more important for their security than ending the global threat of Islamic terror.

Somehow these cold-war mindsets have re-emerged and supplanted what had seemed to be a growing consensus just a few years ago.  In that consensus – which perhaps reached its high point in 2011 with U.N. support for actions to prevent Muamar Ghaddafi of Libya from inflicting a genocide on the residents of Benghazi – major countries would settle any disputes over territory or trade by negotiations that complied with international treaties and would be adjudicated by international law; and threats to the security of ordinary people, whether arising from civil or international conflicts, would draw a firm response from the United Nations with military interventions designed to separate combatants and impose a peace until diplomats could render a longer-term solution.

This consensus started to fall apart when NATO forces not only protected Benghazi, but supported the uprising that toppled Ghaddafi from power.  This was interpreted by Russia and China as the West again acting to impose its view (as in Iraq) that dictators could be justifiably deposed by outside intervention (never mind that in its Soviet days Russia had done the same in Cuba and Afghanistan).  Then when the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine ran into trouble, and was deserted by its own police and armed forces, this too was seen as a Western effort to take over key territory that had to be opposed.  Before long, most countries adopted an “every nation for themselves” approach, marked by pursuit of narrow selfish interests and deep distrust of others.

Thus Turkey, which is likely the next state that IS would like to dismember, has been extremely reluctant to join allied campaigns against IS.  Instead, it has preferred to focus on its long-standing conflict with domestic and neighboring Kurdish forces even when those forces have proved the most effective of any troops campaigning against the Islamic State.  Iran as well has refused to move toward a reconciliation with the United States.  Even as it was agreeing to an international compact to halt its progress toward nuclear weapons, it issued stern statements warning against any let down of its guard against the “Great Satan” – that is, the United States.  For its part, the United States would like to support an international coalition against IS.  However, unable to find any partners willing to set aside their conflicting goals to agree on a counter-IS strategy, the U.S. simply issues empty threats and statements, and bombs a few targets from the air, while its inconsistencies and inability to change things on the ground only further increases the distrust felt for it by other actors.

At this point, Russia and France – as the two countries that have most recently suffered from ISIS’s attacks – should together call an international diplomatic conference to develop a grand strategy against IS.  This conference must include leaders from all countries of the Middle East including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all countries of NATO, and China (which if it aspires to a leading role in global affairs cannot stand aside).  India, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines and other countries that have fought against Islamic terrorists in the Middle East or abroad should be invited as well.  A global strategy that draws on all of these nations should develop a plan for creating a transitional and successor regime in Syria, a national unity government in Iraq, and a military campaign to drive ISIS out of Syria and Iraq and destroy its ability to control territory and stable revenues.  These plans should be submitted to the United Nations for security council approval, and action under the mantle of UN leadership.

It is sometimes said that if an alien attack suddenly threated the world, the nations of the planet would set aside their differences and fight against the common enemy.  Sadly, the evidence of the last few years suggests otherwise.  It seems many nations would be all too glad to cooperate with the aliens if the latter promised to first vanquish their political rivals on earth.

Earth’s nations today face several truly global threats – IS being the most immediate, but climate change also being a common global crisis, and international migration swiftly becoming another.  A truly global effort to vanquish IS and reduce the threat of Islamic terror campaigns is essential today.  Such an effort could also lay the groundwork for a united response to other global security issues, and thus for a much brighter future for all nations.





Posted in The Middle East Revolts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Europe’s Migration Puzzle

(This entry first appeared on the PS21 blog site; a great site for insights on 21st century politics)

Europe has a problem with immigrants.   That is hardly news – it has been true for decades.  But the problem has now become more acute and unmanageable because throughout those decades Europe refused to admit it had a problem.  Rather than recognize that Europe’s future would involve ever more immigration, and make comprehensive plans to integrate and advance their immigrants, benign neglect or efforts at multiculturalism prevailed alongside a generous asylum policy.  Europe’s immigrants were thus in, but not fully part of, their new societies.   Such policies were bound to create trouble; for when immigrants are seen as a threat to be kept at a distance, and hence are excluded and marginalized, they become a threat.  It would have been wiser, when immigrants were still arriving in modest numbers, to more vigorously set up good quality schools and apprenticeships, and plan for their integration into neighborhoods and workplaces.

For it was just a matter of time before a truly major humanitarian crisis in the Middle East or North Africa, which have teeming and youthful populations, put hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in motion.  Now that crisis conditions, due to brutal civil wars and religious extremism, have embraced both North Africa and the Middle East a predictable flood of asylum seekers has sought to take advantage of Europe’s generosity and the proximity of her shores.

The numbers, though larger than Europe has been accustomed to, are not overwhelming.  The European Union population of 500 million should be able to absorb 5 or even 10 million refugees, increasing its foreign born population by 1 or 2%.  After all, the foreign-born population of the United States is 11% of the total; in Canada it is 19% and in Australia it is 22%.  By contrast, in all European Union countries excepting only the Baltics (with many Russian-born residents) and Croatia, the non-EU born population is 10% or less.   In France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece it is just over 8%; in Italy and Germany closer to 7%.  In Hungary and Romania it is less than 1%.

These low numbers indicate that Europe is still new to large-scale immigration.  Indeed, in the 1970s the number of non-Europeans in most European countries was minimal – like that in Hungary today.  But since then the growth of immigrants, especially Muslims, has been rapid.  In the 1970s, France and Germany had only a few hundred thousand resident Muslims; today they both have several million.  That ten-fold growth has been alarming, leading to panic that if such growth continued Islam would take over.  But that is wholly an illusion from growth starting from a very small base.  If you have a country of 60 million, such as France, and the Muslim population grows from 300,000 to 3,000,000 that ten-fold increase represents an increase of 2.7 million; but it still leaves the Muslim population at just 5% of the total population.  Another two million immigrants seems large, but it would not even double the existing Muslim total, and would still leave the total Muslim population at under 10%.  That is a significant minority, of course, but certainly not enough to swamp the remaining 90% of the population.   In Europe, the percentage of Christians is falling fast but that is not mainly due to the increase of the Muslim population — rather it is being driven by the large increase in the number of those unaffiliated with any Church who have left Christianity; but that is another story.

Can France, Germany, or other European nations manage to move forward with a foreign-born population of 10%, and their children?  Of course, if that 10% have access to language training, good schools, and support in finding jobs.  No, however, if that 10% is pushed to the margins, struggles to be accepted, faces job discrimination and inferior schools.

Some would claim that immigrants can never be integrated if their values or religion are too different from that of their host countries.  History and experience, however, say otherwise.  The large Arab populations of Detroit and Melbourne, the vast Korean population of Los Angeles, and the huge Japanese population in São Paulo are just a few examples of populations that have overcome vast gulfs of language or religion.  It is only when discrimination and exclusion focus on a particular group – even of the same language and religion as the majority, as with Blacks in the United States or Irish in Northern Ireland – that integration fails.  Integration is a matter of successful policies and political leadership, not inherent differences.

Moreover, most Europeans do not realize that the immigrants seeking asylum from Syria and Libya are not the most wretched members of their societies.  Rather, they are professionals and students: engineers, architects and doctors and skilled workers.  They are those people with the savings to pay smugglers, and whose lives and futures have been most severely stripped away by the conflicts in those nations.  These immigrants are a potential resource for the receiving societies, as they have been for Australia, Canada, the U.S. and other countries of immigration.

It is sometimes argued that Europe should welcome immigrants because European-born populations are aging, and immigrants of working age will help offset that trend.  But this is both wrong and misleading about the contribution of immigrants.  First, it is wrong because an increase in the foreign born population of 1% or 2% of the total population will not have an appreciable impact on the age structure of the receiving societies.   And it is misleading to think that the contribution of immigrants depends on their replacing older people.  Australia, Canada, and the U.S. have benefitted from the economic contributions of immigrants for decades, even when they had much younger populations than Europe has today.  This underlines a basic fact about immigrants: if they are given support and access to economic success, they will contribute to economic growth in their new home; if they lack that support they will make a smaller contribution.  This fact holds regardless of the average age of the host society.  It is policies that matter for immigrants’ success, not demography by itself.

While some individual countries have been far more generous and supportive of immigrants than others – Sweden for one, and Germany has improved enormously in the last two decades – the core problem is that Europe does not have a single authority to screen, process, settle, and support refugees.  Instead, it has more than two dozen national authorities, some inside the EU and some outside.  The result is that some countries have become countries of transit while others are targets for asylum.  Borders where immigrants can cross, or will be accepted, constantly shift, leaving refugees swarming over various arrival points in chaotic fashion.   Instead of a safe and orderly process to move refugees from danger to safety, and to spread the burden of settlement and integration fairly among nations according to their capacity and means, the complexity of multiple national policies exposes both asylum seekers and European nations to greater dangers and anxiety.  At best some countries will be exceptionally generous leaving their populations to ask why, while at worst some countries will try to shift the entire responsibility to others and substitute razor wire for thoughtful immigration policies, with usually poor results.

The U.S. and Canada and Australia can manage immigration better (although they certainly are not without problems) because they have one immigration authority and one immigration policy, not dozens.  To avoid the current chaos, Europe will have to similarly find a way to develop a common asylum and immigration policy, and a method to facilitate processing and settlement of asylum seekers and immigrants that reduces the profits of smugglers and the risks to refugees.  Certainly, different procedures and rights will have to accrue to economic migrants from Morocco and Lebanon than war refugees from Libya and Syria.  Yet the wars in the latter countries are not ending anytime soon, and condemning the victims of those wars to languish in terror and loss when they could be rebuilding their lives is neither moral nor wise.  A comprehensive asylum policy should be developed and implemented as soon as possible; anything less will be a permanent shame to Europe and a repudiation of its values.

Moreover, it is utterly irresponsible to promise asylum to refugees who reach Europe, but then provide no legitimate means for refugees to get there.  The result is to make people dependent on smugglers, who reap hundreds of millions of dollars that refugees would gladly pay for legitimate processing and travel to Europe, while putting the lives of those refugees – whom the asylum policy is intended to help reach safety – in the greatest danger.

The experience gained now in screening, settling, and integrating migrants will pay off in the future.  Someday the wars in Libya and Syria will end.  Yet the population of Africa is set to grow from just over one billion today to almost three billion people by 2060; the populations of the Middle East and Central and South Asia, from Iraq to Afghanistan, will similarly grow by hundreds of millions during this period.  Given the poor quality of government in these regions, and likely future wars and climate disasters, Europe will continue to see millions seeking to enter its relative security and prosperity every decade in the years to come.

In the last few decades, politicians pandering to people’s fear of immigrants have in every way made the problems of immigration worse.  By criticizing immigration, they have marginalized immigrants and discouraged efforts to invest adequately in integrating immigrant populations and improving their education and job prospects.  The failure to create institutions to manage immigration as a positive resource has left migrants within Europe and especially their children discouraged and often hostile and estranged; at the same time the lack of preparation has left Europe to wallow in chaos when a massive tide of immigrants arrives.  The experience of the last decade should have proved that immigration pressures cannot be wished away simply by criticizing them.

If European leaders can work together to manage an orderly process that treats immigrants as a potential resource, just as Australia, Canada, and other countries have done, Europe can adjust to being a region of immigration and benefit from it.  But if Europe continues to resist, and believe it can somehow avoid being a region of immigration, its failure to deal with reality will lead only to more chaos on its borders and discord and violence within them.

There is a right way to think about the migration puzzle.  It is to realize that Europe does not have an immigration problem; it has an integration problem.  Most European nations already have significant immigrant populations.  Even if Europe were to somehow halt all immigration tomorrow, it would still have to deal with the millions of foreign-born already there, and their children and grandchildren.  Those millions need to become productive and harmonious members of European society, or they will be a liability and source of conflict.

If Europe can solve its integration problem then the number of immigrants will not be a problem.  That number, currently five to eight percent in most countries, is modest and can still grow without causing problems if immigrants have clear paths to becoming integral and prosperous members of their new societies.  Immigration pressures will not go away, no matter what Europe desires.  The real choice is whether to respond to those pressures well or badly.  Making the right choice, to focus on supporting orderly integration and treating immigrants as a resource rather than a threat, is the only way that Europe can secure its borders and its future.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

China and the Magna Carta

As a tribute to Sino-British relations, an exhibit of one of the early parchment copies of the Magna Carta was supposed to take place this week at Beijing’s Renmin University.  This is part of the 800th anniversary celebration of the great charter, originally signed in 1215 by King John of England.

Yet at the last minute, Chinese authorities decided it was too dangerous to bring the young people of Renmin U. (appropriately “People’s University” in English) into direct contact with the great charter.  Fearful it might inspire them to think about constraining the leader of China, Xi Jinping, the exhibit was instead held inside the British Ambassador’s residence.   People can still line up to see the great charter on display there, but it is not as easily accessible as it would have been on the Renmin U. campus.

This turnabout highlights the interesting paranoia about democracy and constraints on authority in China.  On the one hand, the authorities frequently denounce the human-rights violations occurring in American against urban blacks; and the turmoil and dysfunction of western democracies.  They claim the superior economic performance and stability of China are held up as clear reasons why it’s system works much better for China than any alternative.  All of this suggests the authorities are confident than an objective and open analysis would find that democracy is undesirable, or certainly not yet right, for China.

On the other hand, an objective and open discussion of alternatives seems to be the thing the authorities fear most.  The Chinese Communist Party has warned that western ideas such as “constitutional democracy,”  “separation of powers,” “multi-party competition” and other ways to constrain executive power and hold it accountable should never be discussed in China’s classrooms.

It seems that, whatever their pronouncements, China’s leaders fear that their people do want to hold them accountable, and to constrain their power.  Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign is above all an effort to prove that the party can hold its own members accountable, and therefore that none of the western democratic institutions are necessary.  Yet the very intensity of this campaign, its unpredictable reach, and the inability of those ensnared to have any appeal or accountability for those leading the campaign, show the problems in accountability below without accountability above.  In the words of the Party, this is rule “by law,”  but rule in which the very top leaders enforce the law according to their own judgment, not according to a higher standard — a constitution — to which they are accountable in turn.

The Party is therefore also fearful that the examples of Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the leadership is constrained by law and (in Taiwan but not yet Hong Kong) by elections for the head of state, will put ideas in the minds of mainland Chinese.  Chinese officials even recently tried to claim that Hong Kong’s chief executive, due to his special role for China, was above Hong Kong’s judges, legislators, and laws and accountable to Beijing but not to Hong Kong for his actions.  (This suggestion was swiftly disputed by Hong Kong’s judges and legislators).

Treatment of the Magna Carta this week shows the tensions in China’s position.  China knows it has to deal with other democracies in the world — Japan, the U.S., Britain, and at the moment Taiwan and Hong Kong.  It wants to understand these democratic societies and have good relations with them.  Yet it doesn’t want these foreign political systems to influence how China manages its own affairs.  So the Magna Carta can come to China — but only if it stays in its proper place, in a British setting, not at large in China’s universities.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed the New World Order would eternally favor the wealthy democracies of the United States and Europe.  After all, the superiority of the liberal market economy had been proven, and there was no compelling alternative to the ideal of democratic market societies.

Yet today Europe is in chaos, riven by economic divisions, weak growth, and a flood of immigrants.  The European Union seems to be breaking under the strain, with Hungary and other nations wanting to go their own way, and the United Kingdom about to vote on exiting.  America’s politics remain paralyzed by polarization, and we seem startled by newly aggressive actions by Russia and China.  Areas where America sought to project its influence – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – have become scenes of turmoil and terrorism.

What went wrong?

The answer is that the West was unprepared for any further challenges, believing it had won the only conflict that mattered — the contest with communism.  Yet the victory over communism, like the victories over fascism and militarism half a century earlier, did not put an end to war and terror.

There seemed to be three compelling reasons to believe that “this time was different,” and that liberal market societies would enjoy a final triumph.  First, the economies of the West had led the way in developing the next phase of economic and technological growth, the “knowledge economy.”  To this day, no other regions except Japan and South Korea, now close allies of the West, have participated in a meaningful way in creating new industries based on innovation.  Thus it seemed that all other societies would also have to adopt open, free and market societies or be left ever further behind.

Second, several of the products of that innovation – the internet, smart phones, and personal computers – seemed to ensure that personal freedom would expand, as every individual was empowered to be a publisher, photographer, and communicator. The internet promised greater openness, transparency, knowledge and freedom from government control, all of which would continue to ensure the triumph of free market democratic societies.

Third, the global spread of education would insulate people against being drawn into populist frenzies and extreme ideological movements.   Rational discourse and practical reason, rather than a parade of “isms”, would henceforth guide politics and international relations.

Yet all of these reasons turned out to be false illusions that misled us and left us unprepared for the world we now face.

In practice, the “knowledge economy” was less beneficial to most people than expected.  Since the late 1980s, average incomes have stagnated in the rich countries of the West, while inequality within countries, and across the countries of Europe, has increased.  It turns out that the fruits of the knowledge economy were not automatically widely shared.  Instead, exceptional rewards went to technical, financial, and executive elites while ordinary workers went from secure and high-paying manufacturing jobs to lower-paid service jobs. Even within Europe, countries with leads in high-tech industries, such as Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, pulled away from countries that still depended more on agriculture, construction, and basic manufacturing and services, such as Portugal, Greece, and Spain. Yet at the same time, non-western countries found there was still lots of mileage in the manufacturing economy, and emerging market nations made rapid progress by focusing on manufacturing for export and meeting a booming demand for commodities.  Countries like Russia and China enjoyed fast-growing economies in the early 2000s without becoming democratic free market societies.  Combining oligarchic or state-ownership of key banking, media and commodity enterprises with private markets for manufacturing and retail operations, all under authoritarian political control, they enjoyed much faster economic growth than Europe or the U.S.  That growth was used to finance increased military strength.

Initially, the internet, smart phones and personal computers did empower individuals.  Just like printing, radio, and television – the earlier revolutions in communications – the first wave favored individuals over governments, who were slow to learn how to manage and control the new technology for their own ends.  Yet just as with other technologies, governments gradually learned to bring the new communication apparatus under their control.  Whether by limiting access, or managing content, or using electronic communications to track individuals’ activities, government has learned to turn these tools to their advantage.  Nor are they the only ones.  Private companies who control these technologies and the information they generate have vastly expanded their market power at the expense of individuals, again increasing inequality.  And the internet has proved surprisingly powerful as a tool for spreading extremist ideas and recruiting people to extremist movements across local and national boundaries.

For education, despite its rapid expansion across the globe, did not provide a shield against radical and extremist beliefs.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Across the Arab world, as secondary and college education took off, idealistic students who learned the history of their colonial exploitation and economic lags compared to Western countries were more easily drawn to radical movements.  In Russia and China, education and modern communications facilitated the spread of the government-spun story of historical humiliations of their great nations and the need to reassert national strength.  Two “old” ideologies – Islamic jihad and aggressive nationalism – thus enjoyed powerful revivals.  Even within Europe, universal secondary and widespread tertiary education has not held back old and new nationalisms, as in Hungary, Scotland, Catalonia, Serbia and elsewhere, which have undermined the effort to build a united and multi-national European entity and even threatened to break apart individual European states.  And with rising inequality and economic frustration, other old isms, including right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism, have revived as well.

Can the West regain its advantage?   In one sense, no – for we have learned that the very notion that the West’s economic and political system is superior and something to be installed around the world by Western intervention is anathema and self-defeating, provoking the very anti-Western nationalisms and extremisms we had hoped to leave behind.  Yet the West can regain a position of global inspiration and leadership by altering our approach.

First, we must find a way to make the knowledge economy provide more inclusive prosperity.  By some combination of changes to the tax system, the welfare system, or access to technical skills and opportunities, the trend of the last thirty years – where rising productivity failed to produce a broad rise in incomes but rather enormously enriched a very few – must be reversed.  Otherwise there will be little desire for people around the world to emulate the economic system that brings such inequality.

Second, the privacy and security of the information economy must be increased, and the reach of government restricted, such that individuals can be secure and free in their sharing of information.  Only then can the internet be an effective means of individual empowerment and securing freedom.  The idea that if only the government knows everything about every individual they can spot terrorists before they act is a dangerous myth.  In fact, for example, governments knew that Ayoub El Khazzani had “ties to known hard line Islamist groups” and he was already under surveillance. http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/24/europe/france-train-attack-what-we-know-about-suspect/  Yet it took the fortunate actions of American soldiers who acted from immediate observation to prevent a massacre.  Broad-brush information gathering generally yields far too many suspects and too much data to provide immediately actionable intelligence.  Traditional police work, including searches by warrant and police surveillance, are more effective tools against terror than automatic government access to all internet and cell phone traffic.

Third, we must recognize that the antidote to radical extremism is neither education nor economic progress, but dignity.  Giving other civilizations and individuals respect and treatment as human beings deserving of all international rights – treating others as we would want to be treated ourselves—is the best way to produce rational and peaceful relationships.  From the punitive post-war sanctions and reparations imposed on Germany after WWI, to the colonial boundaries and arbitrary regimes imposed on developing countries after WWII, to the support for corrupt regimes and failures to provide adequate post-conflict reconstruction assistance, Western leaders have rarely asked – “would we want our society to be treated this way?” – instead invoking the rights of the victor to impose their will on others.

Europe and America will face many tests in the years to come:  how to reduce economic inequality, how to respond to refugee crises and waves of immigrants, how to reinvigorate economic growth, how to protect and sustain a livable environment, how to subdue radical terrorist movements, and how to manage in an increasingly multi-polar world.  To succeed in these tests and restore a leading role, Western nations will have to avoid self-defeating myths that seem to offer easy answers to difficult problems.  Instead, the West will have to work hard to create inclusive economic growth; ensure that privacy and personal security are maintained; and treat other peoples and regions with the dignity they demand and deserve.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Can Iran be a Normal Country?

Efforts are underway to discredit the nuclear deal signed by Iran and the P5+1 nations (U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China).  The deal imposes a strict inspection regime, reduces the number of centrifuges that Iran can operate, and should delay Iran’s ability to build a working nuclear weapon by at least ten years.

One would think a deal that won the acceptance of such diverse nations would have to be a pretty good deal.  But those who oppose it believe that any deal agreed to by Russia and China MUST be bad for the United States, and that our European allies are simply going along and not showing sufficient regard for the interests of the U.S. and other allies (especially Israel).

Yet I believe the deal can help deliver us from two major threats.  First is the risk of a nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with both seeking to have operable nuclear weapons to match the other.  With wars already ongoing in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq that pit Saudi allies against those of Iran, the risk of escalation to nuclear conflict could not be ruled out if both nations raced ahead to build nuclear weapons.  A deal that delays Iran’s ability to build working nuclear weapons for a decade helps keep that risk at bay during a period of extreme instability and conflict in the region.

Second is the risk posed by the expanding empire of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).  The only hope of rolling back and disarming IS, and ending the reign of terror it has imposed, is for Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join forces against the common threat.  Yet that has not been possible as long as ideological opposition among these countries prevents any cooperation.

Fortunately, the nuclear deal offers hope that Iran could become a more ‘normal’ country, acting on its rational interests instead of being driven by ideological extremism.  A successful deal that restores economic progress could help Iran’s President Rouhani gain leverage over the more extremist elements in Iran.  In particular, Rouhani needs the support of the Revolutionary Guards to mount a successful campaign against IS.  If a nuclear weapon is off the table for some years, the Guards may look for other ways for Iran to maximize its military strength and influence in the region, and leading the fight against IS may be their best option.

The history of revolutionary regimes gives some hope for this outcome.  It is common for revolutions to undergo a “second radical phase” a decade or more after they start.  The second radical phase does not seek to overturn the government, but to steer it in a more radical direction, to recover the ideological fire of the early revolutionary period.  The Stalinist purges and collectivization campaigns of the 1930s form a second radical phase in the Russian Revolution of 1917; the cultural revolution of the 1960s marked a second radical phase in the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949; and the Cardenas nationalization and social welfare reforms of the 1930s were a second radical phase in the Mexican Revolution of 1910.   In Iran, the presidency of Ahmadinejad was also such a second radical phase, marked by ideological extremism both domestically and internationally.

But that phase may now be coming to an end.  In other revolutions, the second radical phase usually led to economic disruption and isolation, provoking a reaction in favor of more rational economic and political policies.  The result was new governments that acted more on the basis of rational self-interest, less on the basis of ideological fervor.  Thus by the 1940s Stalin was willing to ally with the capitalist regimes against Hitler; and  in the 1970s China resumed diplomatic relations with the United States.  The Rouhani regime seem bent on moving forward to reduce Iran’s isolation and improve its economy.

Iran will not become a secular or pro-western state, any more than the Soviet Union did under Brezhnev or China did under Deng Xiaoping.  However, Iran may well become a rational state with which we can deal, and obtain cooperation against common enemies.

If the nuclear deal helps promote the transformation of Iran from a radical phase of international and domestic extremism to a more rational phase of economic and political self-interest, it will provide greater benefits than simply slowing Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons, important as that is.   At a time when the fabric of the Middle East is being torn asunder from Syria to Yemen, and an ideologically extreme force in the form of the Islamic State is spreading, having a rational Iran with whom we can negotiate and manage common interests will be a boon.  For that reason, Congress should support the deal, and we should hope it wins approval in Iran as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deals are Good!

After endless, and sometimes seemingly hopeless, negotiations, diplomats have produced two new multi-national deals:  one to keep Greece in the Euro, and the second on nuclear development in Iran.

Despite enormous criticism and hand-wringing, both deals are good news for the  world.  The deal on Greece was vital.  The European Union remains the best hope for showing the world that nationalism can be overcome and that diverse peoples can coordinate their political and economic policies.  If there is ever to be global integration and government, the EU has to lead the way.  So showing that even when facing a crisis the EU can function to preserve unity is enormously valuable in itself.  What lesson would have been sent to Ukraine or Moldova, or to Turkey or even China, about dealing with the EU if the Union would turn on one of its own and expel them for failing to live up to certain economic standards?   The EU has always moved forward by accepting countries that did NOT meet its desired standards for democracy or economic stability (going back to Spain and Portugal) and urging them forward and helping them reach higher.

Moreover, as the US government found with Lehman Brothers, the consequences of allowing even a small piece of a deeply interconnected financial structure to fail can be enormous and much greater than expected.  Who knows for sure how the global financial system would have fared if Greek bankruptcy also brought down several German banks or caused a run on emerging market assets?  Better to preserve the system than risk a sudden change that, even if small, could be the proverbial straw that break’s the camel’s back.

Will the deal be ideal?  Of course not.  A sensible deal would include explicit debt relief and a plan to return Greece to economic growth that would restore prosperity.  It would include — as the current deal does to some degree — external oversight of Greek’s taxing and spending, which have been riddled with corruption, fraud, and waste.  And it would include continued engagement and flexibility to ensure a path to financial health is maintained.  In short it would work very much like US Chapter 11 bankruptcy plans, whose goal is not to punish companies that run into financial trouble and cannot meet their obligations, but to make the best use of remaining assets while lifting the burden of unpayable debts, and putting the company on a new path to growth.

The actual deal on Greece is not quite that sound.  It has no explicit debt relief (although creditors say they don’t expect to be fully repaid); the external oversight is concentrated on sales of states assets; and there is still a tendency to want to punish Greece for its financial sins, rather than prioritizing easing the suffering of the Greek people.  It will be up to the Greek leaders and European leaders to try to nudge the deal in this direction as it is implemented.  The U.S can play a role here, educating Europeans about its very successful and flexible bankruptcy programs, explaining why such programs are a good idea and how they work, and suggesting them as an alternative model to “punitive” actions for Greece.

The Iran nuclear deal is also good for the world, and even — despite the rhetoric of Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu — good for Israel.  Today, the world has an angry, isolated, and very nearly nuclear-armed Iran.  That Iran has been dangerous and untrustworthy and therefore was put under strong sanctions by the UN and US.  That is not a situation that can be maintained indefinitely.  Under the status quo, Iran will eventually get nuclear capabilities, and will be ever more angry and isolated when it does.  That is NOT a good outcome for Israel or the region or the world.

Under the new deal — although not all details are released yet — Iran will become less isolated as sanctions are ended.  In return, Iran will be forced to earn trust by limiting its stockpile of nuclear bomb-capable materials and opening its nuclear program to international inspections. The deal will change the  status quo by making Iran less isolated AND less likely to achieve nuclear weapons capability within the next decade.  That is a better outcome than the status quo.

Of course, the deal could still go badly wrong.  One of the first things needed immediately afterwards is to start negotiating Iran/Saudi cooperation against the Islamic State.  The Iran-Saudi enmity must be managed and reduced to limit hostilities in the region.  If the Shi’a-Sunni split continues to polarize the region, Iran will want to accelerate its conventional arms programs and its nuclear research so that when the deal lapses Iran can leap to become a nuclear power.  So it is vital that the next 10 years have conventional arms agreements and peacemaking to reduce Iran’s perceived security needs for nuclear arms.

Iran will not abandon its desire to be an influential great power.  But that can be useful as a counter-balance to Russia in the Middle East (one of America’s original reasons to ally with the  Shah of Iran decades ago).   And since the goal of sanctions relief is to rebuild Iran’s economy, and a major war will return it to isolation and undermine that economy, we can hope that Iran can be induced to undertake a peace-maker’s role in the region, rather than a trouble-maker’s role, once the deal is concluded.

Again, continued work by diplomats on implementing the deal, to ensure it meets its goals, is vital.  We cannot pat ourselves and our colleagues on the back and walk away.  The deal is a starting point for improving security and peace in the Middle East, just a starting point, and needs vigorous follow-through.  Yet it is a vital starting point and improves the odds for better outcomes in the next few years.

Both these deals are far better than no deals would have been.  And they give hope at a time when the world needs so many  additional deals — for peace among nations in the South China sea; for cooperation on global climate change; for refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe; on Cyprus; on South Sudan;  on Afghanistan to name just a few.

The diplomats and leaders have now taken the first step in doing their jobs.  Let us hope they follow through to make sure that the  potential benefits of these deals, so hard-won, are realized.

Posted in The Global Economy | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments