June 11, 2008
The End of Intervention
By MADELEINE K. ALBRIGHT
THE Burmese government’s criminally neglectful response to last month’s cyclone, and the world’s response to that response, illustrate three grim realities today: totalitarian governments are alive and well; their neighbors are reluctant to pressure them to change; and the notion of national sovereignty as sacred is gaining ground, helped in no small part by the disastrous results of the American invasion of Iraq. Indeed, many of the world’s necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion — in places like Haiti and the Balkans — would seem impossible in today’s climate.
The first and most obvious reality is the survival of totalitarian government in an age of global communications and democratic progress. Myanmar’s military junta employs the same set of tools used by the likes of Stalin to crush dissent and monitor the lives of citizens. The needs of the victims of Cyclone Nargis mean nothing to a regime focused solely on preserving its own authority.
Second is the unwillingness of Myanmar’s neighbors to use their collective leverage on behalf of change. A decade ago, when Myanmar was allowed to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I was assured by leaders in the region that they would push the junta to open its economy and move in the direction of democracy. With a few honorable exceptions, this hasn’t happened.
A third reality is that the concept of national sovereignty as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law is once again gaining ground. Many diplomats and foreign policy experts had hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall would lead to the creation of an integrated world system free from spheres of influence, in which the wounds created by colonial and cold war empires would heal.
In such a world, the international community would recognize a responsibility to override sovereignty in emergency situations — to prevent ethnic cleansing or genocide, arrest war criminals, restore democracy or provide disaster relief when national governments were either unable or unwilling to do so.
During the 1990s, certain precedents were created. The administration of George H. W. Bush intervened to prevent famine in Somalia and to aid Kurds in northern Iraq; the Clinton administration returned an elected leader to power in Haiti; NATO ended the war in Bosnia and stopped Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of terror in Kosovo; the British halted a civil war in Sierra Leone; and the United Nations authorized life-saving missions in East Timor and elsewhere.
These actions were not steps toward a world government. They did reflect the view that the international system exists to advance certain core values, including development, justice and respect for human rights. In this view, sovereignty is still a central consideration, but cases may arise in which there is a responsibility to intervene — through sanctions or, in extreme cases, by force — to save lives.
The Bush administration’s decision to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11 did nothing to weaken this view because it was clearly motivated by self-defense. The invasion of Iraq, with the administration’s grandiose rhetoric about pre-emption, was another matter, however. It generated a negative reaction that has weakened support for cross-border interventions even for worthy purposes. Governments, especially in the developing world, are now determined to preserve the principle of sovereignty, even when the human costs of doing so are high.
Thus, Myanmar’s leaders have been shielded from the repercussions of their outrageous actions. Sudan has been able to dictate the terms of multinational operations inside Darfur. The government of Zimbabwe may yet succeed in stealing a presidential election.
Political leaders in Pakistan have told the Bush administration to back off, despite the growth of Al Qaeda and Taliban cells in the country’s wild northwest. African leaders (understandably perhaps) have said no to the creation of a regional American military command. And despite recent efforts to enshrine the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” in international law, the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum.
The global conscience is not asleep, but after the turbulence of recent years, it is profoundly confused. Some governments will oppose any exceptions to the principle of sovereignty because they fear criticism of their own policies. Others will defend the sanctity of sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions.
At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?
We know how the government of Myanmar would answer that question, but what we need to listen to is the voice — and cry — of the Burmese people.
Madeleine K. Albright was the United States secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.
June 11, 2008
China’s List of Olympic Don’ts
Now that the shock of the earthquake (which they could not control) in Sichuan Province has dissipated somewhat, China’s leaders are focusing again on something that they think they can control: people. Sports fans attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will have a long list of rules to carry in their pockets along with their tickets.
On its Web site last week, the Chinese Olympic organizing committee listed a set of restrictions for the 500,000 overseas visitors expected in August. Olympic spectators are being told not to bring in “anything detrimental” to China, including printed materials, photos, records or movies. Religious or political banners or slogans are banned. So are rallies, demonstrations and marches — unless approved by authorities in advance. It also says that visitors with mental illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases will be barred from the country.
We shudder at how those judgments — many of them highly subjective or intrusive — will be made.
The International Olympic Committee has long prohibited political activities at Olympic venues, and we respect the goal of trying to put aside divisions while celebrating a common humanity. But Beijing is using those restrictions for its own authoritarian ends.
To win the right to host the Games, China promised to improve its human-rights record. It keeps moving mostly in the opposite direction. In recent days, authorities effectively disbarred two prominent human-rights lawyers who volunteered to defend Tibetans charged in violent anti-China protests. They also broke up a gathering of 100 parents who were peacefully protesting shoddy school construction and the deaths of their children in the May 12 earthquake.
And while authorities initially relaxed restrictions on journalists and aid workers after the earthquake, they have again tightened up. Local journalists have been discouraged from covering the parents’ protests, and international television networks have complained that security requirements will limit coverage of the Olympics.
There’s an inherent contradiction between China’s desire to invite the world to the Olympics and its effort to deny those visitors — and its own people — the most basic freedoms. Last week, an I.O.C. official said he is convinced the Games would be a “force for good” in China. The committee and Western governments need to remind Beijing that the world is watching, and so far the picture isn’t good.
June 24, 2008
The Bush Paradox
By DAVID BROOKS
Let’s go back and consider how the world looked in the winter of 2006-2007. Iraq was in free fall, with horrific massacres and ethnic cleansing that sent a steady stream of bad news across the world media. The American public delivered a stunning electoral judgment against the Iraq war, the Republican Party and President Bush.
Expert and elite opinion swung behind the Baker-Hamilton report, which called for handing more of the problems off to the Iraqi military and wooing Iran and Syria. Republicans on Capitol Hill were quietly contemptuous of the president while Democrats were loudly so.
Democratic leaders like Senator Harry Reid considered the war lost. Barack Obama called for a U.S. withdrawal starting in the spring of 2007, while Senator Reid offered legislation calling for a complete U.S. pullback by March 2008.
The arguments floating around the op-ed pages and seminar rooms were overwhelmingly against the idea of a surge — a mere 20,000 additional troops would not make a difference. The U.S. presence provoked violence, rather than diminishing it. The more the U.S. did, the less the Iraqis would step up to do. Iraq was in the middle of a civil war, and it was insanity to put American troops in the middle of it.
When President Bush consulted his own generals, the story was much the same. Almost every top general, including Abizaid, Schoomaker and Casey, were against the surge. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was against it, according to recent reports. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki called for a smaller U.S. presence, not a bigger one.
In these circumstances, it’s amazing that George Bush decided on the surge. And looking back, one thing is clear: Every personal trait that led Bush to make a hash of the first years of the war led him to make a successful decision when it came to this crucial call.
Bush is a stubborn man. Well, without that stubbornness, that unwillingness to accept defeat on his watch, he never would have bucked the opposition to the surge.
Bush is an outrageously self-confident man. Well, without that self-confidence he never would have overruled his generals.
In fact, when it comes to Iraq, Bush was at his worst when he was humbly deferring to the generals and at his best when he was arrogantly overruling them. During that period in 2006 and 2007, Bush stiffed the brass and sided with a band of dissidents: military officers like David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and outside strategists like Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Jack Keane, a retired general.
Bush is also a secretive man who listens too much to Dick Cheney. Well, the uncomfortable fact is that Cheney played an essential role in promoting the surge. Many of the people who are dubbed bad guys actually got this one right.
The additional fact is that Bush, who made such bad calls early in the war, made a courageous and astute decision in 2006. More than a year on, the surge has produced large, if tenuous, gains. Violence is down sharply. Daily life has improved. Iraqi security forces have been given time to become a more effective fighting force. The Iraqi government is showing signs of strength and even glimmers of impartiality. Iraq has moved from being a failed state to, as Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, merely a fragile one.
The whole episode is a reminder that history is a complicated thing. The traits that lead to disaster in certain circumstances are the very ones that come in handy in others. The people who seem so smart at some moments seem incredibly foolish in others.
The cocksure war supporters learned this humbling lesson during the dark days of 2006. And now the cocksure surge opponents, drunk on their own vindication, will get to enjoy their season of humility. They have already gone through the stages of intellectual denial. First, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good. Then they accused people who noticed progress in Iraq of duplicity and derangement. Then they acknowledged military, but not political, progress. Lately they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home.
But before long, the more honest among the surge opponents will concede that Bush, that supposed dolt, actually got one right. Some brave souls might even concede that if the U.S. had withdrawn in the depths of the chaos, the world would be in worse shape today.
Life is complicated. The reason we have democracy is that no one side is right all the time. The only people who are dangerous are those who can’t admit, even to themselves, that obvious fact.
Freedom should always be in fashion for Canadians
Some ideas are so good, they're true forever
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Last week, a letter writer informed us that while the American Constitution was a fine piece of work in its day, and that the free-speech ideas it contained were revolutionary for their time, well, that was then, this is now. So, while all this chat in the Herald about free speech was very interesting, it was a niche thing for old white guys (or some such phrase which seemed neatly to capture my own demographic) and we ought to realize that it was time for society to move on to more culturally appropriate forms etc.
It's as though ideas are like technology: as the years go by, we build better cars and sure enough, in the world of ideas, humanity will also develop new and superior ones.
It's not an unusual argument.
It just happens to be a wrong argument. Some ideas are so good, they're true forever.
And some ideas are wrong, no matter how many times they're proclaimed. No student of history could fail to observe how hardly a generation passes that doesn't try to repackage the bad ideas of the one that came before it, and try to foist them on the one that comes after it. Whether it's republicanism a la French revolution, Hapsburg authoritarianism, communism, fascism or socialism, the qualifier may change but the "ism" stays the same.
That is, the commonality is an attempt by one part of humanity to hold the other part in some kind of subjection. Not infrequently, the new dispensation also believes the holdouts from the last ought to be shot, just in case they disrupt things.
It is depressing then, how often these movements end up preaching the same anti-life message, just dressed up in fresh duds.
Just as depressing is that the urge to tell other people what to do seems liberally distributed throughout humanity.
Worst of all, they have so many defenders.
And this is what makes the fight to control the debate of such pressing importance to both sides of the free speech debate. For, whatever "ism" we're talking about, the revolution always presents itself as morally upright.
Thus, liberty, equality and fraternity sounded pretty good at the time. So did the evolution of communism out of capitalism, after which a humanity perfected by benign socialism would play so well together that the state would become redundant and fade away.
Thing is, the people who are typically the most intolerant are those who believe they have a new idea and face opposition to it. If you've got the corner on truth, why, anybody who disagrees with you must be malicious and shouldn't be allowed to go around spouting counter-revolutionary lies. To the gulag with them.
And so we return to the proposition that society has moved beyond the necessity of free discussion about what our government is doing on our behalf. Could it be so?
Well, if one believes people are the property of their state, then one might conceivably discipline oneself to believe that the state was working in one's own best interests and that one had no right to ask questions or express an opinion.
Welcome to Berlin, circa 1938.
However, if one views the government as the possession of the people, then one has an obligation -- as well as a right -- to pay attention to what it's doing and challenge what one doesn't like.
Even in a democracy such as Canada's, one can expect push back: entrenched interests don't like their cosy arrangements interfered with. However, no Canadian need appeal to the U.S. Constitution for permission to take them on.
It's worth remembering on Canada Day that a newspaper publisher (and later premier of Nova Scotia) by the name of Joseph Howe settled this in 1835. Howe had caught the colonial government of the day with their fingers in the till; he wrote about it and was charged with the archaic crime of seditious libel -- holding the government in disrepute.
He was actually guilty as charged, but a remarkably bold jury refused to convict him, so much of a public affront had the government's wrongdoing been.
One would hope it was superfluous to mention that much more recent governments would have loved to be able to suppress unflattering truths. It isn't, sadly, as from time to time we do get these letters telling us in all seriousness that yes, freedom is a right but it must be used responsibly.
But responsibly in whose opinion? The government's? Anybody who is offended by references to patterns of behaviour within their own community that they find acutely embarrassing?
So let's be clear. Oppression is always oppression, whatever intellectual lipstick one gives it. Freedom is always its opposite, and people who know what it is to live under oppression will be quick to tell you they prefer freedom.
A free society can let its freedoms atrophy through disuse. But if freedom was valuable in 1835, it was also valuable in 1935 and will be so in 2035. One doesn't move on from it to something better: it is the best, the destination of politics.
Canadians have won it. They should not talk themselves out of it.
Saving Turkey's democracy In a fierce legal battle, Islamists and secularists are undermining the very system that can help them.
from the July 11, 2008 edition
Think of Turkey and the lively Grand Bazaar of Istanbul comes to mind, or the massive dome of Hagia Sophia. But its political fame is as the world's longest-lived democracy in a Muslim country – an example that Islam and civil liberties can coexist. Now that democracy faces a severe test.
Turkey's two most powerful political forces – Islamists, who head the government, and secularists, who run the military, courts, and bureaucracy – are engaged in a fierce battle for dominance in this NATO country. Their arena is the highly politicized legal system.
A judicial duel may not sound very dangerous. But to the degree that this duel harms the very democratic principles that allow both groups to thrive in the first place, the consequences could be grave.
Completely ignoring last year's elections that returned the mildly Islamist ruling party, the AKP, to power with more popular support than ever, secularists are trying to overthrow the AKP in a constitutional court whose judges sympathize with the secularist cause.
Last week, the state's chief prosecutor argued that the AKP should be outlawed because it violates the constitution's strict separation of mosque and state – the legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The trigger for the case was the AKP's recent lifting of the ban on women's Islamic head scarves at universities. It was a small but hugely symbolic attempt at greater religious freedom, but last month, the constitutional court rejected it.
The AKP's general counter-strategy is to arrest alleged secular supporters of a suspected coup plot. At least 20 people were detained last week, including two retired generals. There is some evidence for the alleged plot, but some of these arrests look indiscriminate, involving journalists, for instance. The tactics mirror an AKP tendency toward intimidation, in which critics are jailed for months without charge.
Not just Turkey's political and economic stability are at stake here. So are its membership talks with the European Union, its critical relations with neighbor Iraq (itself a fledgeling democracy), and its role-model status for Islam.
The underlying tension comes from fear of extremism – fear on one side that the AKP's modest steps toward greater religious expression will morph into sharia law; on the other side, fear of secularists suppressing an increasingly devout population.
Both groups are at rough parity in the influence game. They need a trustworthy way to work out an acceptable balance for the role of religion in the Turkish public sphere.
A strong democracy can provide that "safe" way – but not if it's subverted, as it is being now.
Given the high court's track record, it's likely to ban the AKP. A period of uncertainty will follow as the party tries to regroup, probably under a different name.
Even with this murky outlook, the onus is on the governing party to take every possible step to reassure Turks that it indeed supports a secular, rule-based democracy – as it's said all along.
But if the undermining continues, and if Turkey's leaders fail not only to respect the democracy they have but to improve it through eventual constitutional and judicial reform, they will simply drag their country down in a war of wills.
July 18, 2008
The Coming Activist Age
By DAVID BROOKS
We’re entering an era of epic legislation. There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.
First, there is the erosion of the social contract. Private sector firms are less likely to provide health benefits, producing a desperate need for health care reform. Second, there is the energy shortage. Rising Asian demand strains worldwide supply, threatening industry and consumers, and producing calls for a bold energy initiative. Third, there is the stagnation in human capital. During the 20th century, Americans were better educated than the citizens of any other power. Since 1970, that lead has been forfeited, producing inequality and wage stagnation. To compete, the U.S. will require a series of human capital initiatives.
Fourth, there’s financial market reform. In an intricately connected world, even Republican administrations cannot allow big institutions to fail. If government is going to guarantee against failure, then it is inevitably going to get more involved in regulating how businesses are run. Fifth, there’s infrastructure reform. The U.S. transportation system is in shambles and will require major new projects.
All of this means that the next few years will be an age of government activism. You may think, therefore, that this situation is ripe for Democratic dominance. The Democrats are the natural party of federal vigor. Voters prefer Democratic approaches to issues like health care and education by as much as 25 percentage points.
Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule. It’s as if voters understand that they need big changes, but they want those changes planned and enacted by leaders who will restrain the pace of change and prevent radical excess.
Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.
Disraeli inherited a British Conservative Party that was a political club for the landowning class. He created One Nation Conservatism, a reminder that Britain was one community, with a sense of mutual responsibility across classes. Then, at the pinnacle of his career, he embraced reform, expanding the franchise to the socially conservative working class.
Disraeli saw this change as a way to restore ancient glories. Or, as he put it: “In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change, which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.”
Like Disraeli, Roosevelt was a romantic nationalist. While the more progressive reformers spoke the international language of modernization, Roosevelt spoke the language of highly charged Americanism.
He believed private property was the basis of American greatness. He built his persona around the classic American icons: the cowboy, fighter and pioneer.
He defended his initiatives as the way to maintain the economic and social order. People had enough change in their lives; they were looking for government that could preserve the way things already were. If the trusts threatened the traditional small businessman, he would take on the trusts. If industrialism threatened the natural landscape, he would become a preservationist.
His formula was like Disraeli’s: political innovation to restore traditional national morality. He had an image of an American hero — thrifty, hard-working, vigorous and righteous — and sought to create a Square Deal for that sort of person. “The true function of the state as it interferes in social life,” Roosevelt wrote, “should be to make the chances of competition more even, not to abolish them.”
John McCain’s challenge is to recreate this model. He will never get as many cheers in Germany as Barack Obama, but for a century his family has embodied American heroism. He will never seem as young and forward-leaning as his opponent, but he did have his values formed in an age that people now look back to with respect.
The high point of his campaign, so far, has been his energy policy, which is comprehensive and bold, but does not try to turn us into a nation of bicyclists. It does not view America’s energy-intense economy as a sign of sinfulness.
If McCain is going to win this election, it will because he can communicate an essential truth — that people in a great and successful nation do not want change for its own sake. But they do realize that it’s only through careful reform that they can preserve what they and their ancestors have so laboriously built.
July 19, 2008
Cuba to Grant Private Farmers Access to Land
By MARC LACEY
MEXICO CITY — President Raúl Castro continued his rollout of changes in Cuba on Friday with the start of a plan to boost the island’s sluggish food production by granting private farmers access to up to 99 acres of unused government land.
Cuba seized land from most large-scale farmers after the 1959 revolution; the latest announcement in the Communist Party newspaper Granma stopped well short of a return to pre-revolution private enterprise.
Under the new system, private farmers, who have continued to exist under Cuba’s socialist system, would have access to the plots for up to a decade, with leases renewable if conditions were met and taxes paid. Cooperatives and state farms would also qualify for more land, for up to 25 years. But the fields would stay in the hands of the government, which controls an estimated 90 percent of the island’s economy.
The new plan, mentioned several months ago but formally announced Friday, is intended to jump-start food production at a time when Cuba is feeling the effects of the global rise in food prices. Last year, Cuba spent nearly $1.5 billion for food imports, much of that from producers in the United States that were granted a special exemption from Washington’s trade embargo on Cuba. This year, the island’s bill for food imports is expected to rise by another $1 billion, officials have said, calling the issue one of national security.
Cuba’s government released statistics last month showing that fallow or underused agricultural land had increased to 55 percent in 2007, up from 46 percent five years earlier, The Associated Press reported.
The announcement on Friday acknowledged the struggle that the country was facing in feeding itself. “For various reasons, there is a considerable percentage of state land sitting vacant, so it must be handed over to individuals or groups as owners or users in an effort to increase production of food and reduce imports,” the government decree said.
The plan appeared partly designed to prompt more Cubans, who are drawn to the cities for more opportunity, to give agriculture a try. Those who do not currently farm any land would be given access to up to 33 acres for farming, the government said.
Mr. Castro took over provisionally for his ailing brother, Fidel, in July 2006. But he has begun putting his own stamp on the country only since February, when he formally became the second president of Cuba in the last half century. In recent months, he has allowed Cubans with enough money to buy cellphones and computers, which had previously been restricted. He has allowed them to rent cars and visit tourist hotels and opened up the possibility of private taxis. And he has taken the limits off state salaries, allowing for productivity bonuses.
Where he has stood firm is on political dissent, continuing his brother’s insistence that overt criticism of the system and government amounted to disloyalty.
Many Cubans relished the changes even as they complained bitterly that giving them access to consumer items did little to boost their state salaries.
In a speech at the close of the National Assembly earlier this month, the president made clear that he was remaking some aspects of the country. The ideal of everyone, a doctor or a laborer, earning the same amount, with no regard to productivity, seems to be fading. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income,” he said. “Equality is not egalitarianism.”
In the speech, Mr. Castro prepared Cubans for tough times ahead. “It’s my duty to speak frankly, because it would be unethical to create false expectations,” he said. “To tell you otherwise would be misleading.”
He went on to exhort Cubans to make the island more self-sufficient. “We must go back to the land,” he said.
July 22, 2008
The Culture of Debt
By DAVID BROOKS
On the front page of Sunday’s Times, Gretchen Morgenson described Diane McLeod’s spiral into indebtedness, and now a debate has erupted over who is to blame.
Some people emphasize the predatory lenders who seduced her with too-good-to-be-true credit lines and incomprehensible mortgage offers. Here was a single mother made vulnerable by health problems and divorce. Working two jobs and stressed, she found herself barraged by credit card companies offering easy access to money. Mortgage lenders offered her credit on the basis of the supposedly rising value of her house. These lenders had little interest in whether she could pay off her loans. They made most of their money via initial lending fees and then sold off the loans to third parties.
In short, these predatory companies swooped down on a vulnerable woman, took what they could and left her careening toward bankruptcy.
Other people emphasize McLeod’s own responsibility. She is the one who took the credit card offers knowing that debt is a promise that has to be kept. After her divorce, she went on a shopping spree to make herself feel better. After surgery, she sat at home watching the home shopping channels, charging thousands more.
Free societies depend on individual choice and responsibility, those in this camp argue. People have to be held accountable for their indulgences or there is no justice. As McLeod herself admirably told Morgenson: “I regret not dealing with my emotions instead of just shopping.”
If you go to the online comment section affixed to Morgenson’s article, you see advocates of these two positions talking past one another, one side talking the morality of social protection and the other the morality of personal responsibility.
And yet if you look at McLeod’s case, and the entire financial crisis that it stands for, there is a third position. This is the position held in overlapping ways by liberal communitarians and conservative Burkeans.
This third position begins with the notion that people are driven by the desire to earn the respect of their fellows. Individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them.
Decision-making — whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry — isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.
According to this view, what happened to McLeod, and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger social story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.
Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.
Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.
McLeod and the lenders were not only shaped by deteriorating norms, they helped degrade them. Despite all the subterranean social influences, there still is that final stage of decision-making when individual choice matters. Each time an avid lender struck a deal with an avid borrower, it reinforced a new definition of acceptable behavior for neighbors, family and friends. In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act.
And now the reckoning has come. The turn in the market punishes many of those seduced by financial temptations. (Sometimes capitalism undermines the Puritan virtues, but sometimes it reinforces them.)
Meanwhile, social institutions are trying to re-right the norms. The government is sending some messages. The Treasury and the Fed are trying to stabilize the system while still ensuring that those who made mistakes feel the pain.
But the important shifts will be private, as people and communities learn and adopt different social standards. After the Depression, a savings mentality set in. After the dot-com bubble, a bit of sobriety hit Silicon Valley. Now it’s the borrowers’ and lenders’ turn. As the saying goes: People don’t change when they see the light. They change when they feel the heat.
Last month's Calgary Herald Black Mark series focused on lower voter turnout as a sign of "dwindling democracy." And while citizens voting, vibrant political parties and effective political processes are important characteristics of democratic health, not enough attention is paid to the contribution of other civil society organizations. The public square involves much more than politics. Joining civil society organizations is as much an act of citizenship as is voting.
On the one hand, we take it as a given that community groups, labour unions, chambers of commerce, and trade associations take positions on the issues of the day. We expect to read their opinions in the news and we understand that public opinion on issues is often informed by the back-and-forth between organizational spokespersons. On the other hand, we dismiss much of this as self-serving on the part of these organizations.
If the conversation is about undoing the dwindling of democracy, then the importance of civil society institutions is a necessary topic. Civil society organizations need to be challenged to think in terms of the public good. They are most compelling when they inspire a vision that benefits everyone, not just their members. They are uniquely positioned to bring the expertise of their constituency to bear on the issues of the day. In most cases, it turns out that the long-term interest of their constituency is best served by such a public good focus.
A cultural shift also needs to happen in how individuals view joining such organizations. Take a business person joining an industry association, for example.
One might consider it using a private cost-benefit analysis. Another approach would be to consider joining the association as an act of citizenship, in the same way that going to vote is making a civic contribution even if you are convinced that your vote is unlikely to alter the election's outcome.
Consider how an industry association shapes public life. It is almost a default reaction for politicians to seek credit (or be given blame) when the local job climate changes, but the vibrancy of the industry association can play as significant a role as general economic policy.
At the local level, most operators define their competition within their own product area.
In other words, a widget manufacturer only sees his or her competitors as being other widget manufacturers.
The nature of a global economy, however, is such that real competition happens between sectors rather than between companies.
While Company A may see Company B against whom they bid for specific jobs as their competitor, in the larger scheme of things a local industry is competing as a group against other similar groups in other regions (or depending on the product), on the other side of the globe. It is often the industry association that does the legwork that provides the opportunity for Company A and B.
How can a single company manufacturing widgets in Calgary hope to exert real influence in this sort of world? Well, it can't. Or to put it another way, it can't do it individually, but it can create a voice if it acts through or forms an industry association. Effective companies have known this for years and have acted on the local level to define and act on issues of shared interest through groups like the Calgary Motor Dealers Association and the Canadian Home Builders Association -- Calgary Region for dealing with local matters. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is better equipped than government to deal with certain issues that impact the Calgary economy than is government.
A vibrant industry association is a vital component to a healthy economic sector. Another function of trade associations is to build social capital.
Often these associations assist in the development of the skills necessary for individual social capital capacity. They also assist by organizing events and opportunities that allow members to interact with customers, partners or competitors that individuals are unlikely to know or meet otherwise.
It is important that citizens vote and are engaged in the political processes if our democracy is to be sustained. But there are other things that also need to occur.
Civil society institutions need to be vibrant and active and also retain the engagement of their constituencies.
This is necessary both to sustain the public conversation and to carry on what they can do best.
Joining and being involved in such an association is as much an act of citizenship as voting.
Our democracy would be strengthened if more of us did both.
Ray Pennings is the Vice-President Research for the Work Research Foundation, a think-tank dedicated to the renewal of Canada's social architecture.
August 1, 2008
Missing Dean Acheson
By DAVID BROOKS
We’re about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II, and they’ve asked: Why can’t we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today’s problems?
The answer is that, in the late 1940s, global power was concentrated. The victory over fascism meant the mantle of global leadership rested firmly on the Atlantic alliance. The United States accounted for roughly half of world economic output. Within the U.S., power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class — men like Acheson, W. Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett.
Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.
This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.
This week, for the first time since World War II, an effort to liberalize global trade failed. The Doha round collapsed, despite broad international support, because India’s Congress Party did not want to offend small farmers in the run up to the next elections. Chinese leaders dug in on behalf of cotton and rice producers.
In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a vast global process tumbling down.
And the Doha failure comes amid a decade of globosclerosis. The world has failed to effectively end genocide in Darfur. Chinese and Russian vetoes foiled efforts to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. The world has failed to implement effective measures to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The world has failed to embrace a collective approach to global warming. Europe’s drive toward political union has stalled.
In each case, the logic is the same. Groups with a strong narrow interest are able to block larger groups with a diffuse but generalized interest. The narrow Chinese interest in Sudanese oil blocks the world’s general interest in preventing genocide. Iran’s narrow interest in nuclear weapons trumps the world’s general interest in preventing a Middle East arms race. Diplomacy goes asymmetric and the small defeat the large.
Moreover, in a multipolar world, there is no way to referee disagreements among competing factions. In a democratic nation, the majority rules and members of the minority understand that they must accede to the wishes of those who win elections.
But globally, people have no sense of shared citizenship. Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so. There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism. The autocrats of the world don’t even want a mechanism because they are afraid that it would be used to interfere with their autocracy.
The results are familiar. We get United Nations resolutions that go unenforced. We get high-minded vows to police rogue regimes, but little is done. We get the failure of the Doha round and the gradual weakening of the international economic order.
A few years ago, the U.S. tried to break through this global passivity. It tried to enforce U.N. resolutions and put the mantle of authority on its own shoulders. The results of that enterprise, the Iraq war, suggest that this approach will not be tried again anytime soon.
And so the globosclerosis continues, and people around the world lose faith in their leaders. It’s worth remembering that George W. Bush is actually more popular than many of his peers. His approval ratings hover around 29 percent. Gordon Brown’s are about 17 percent. Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda’s are about 26 percent. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi have ratings that are a bit higher, but still pathetically low.
This is happening because voters rightly sense that leaders lack the authority to address problems.
The bottom line is that presidential candidates can talk grandly about global partnerships, but it’s meaningless without a mechanism to wield authority. A crucial question in an authority crisis is: Who has a strategy for execution?
The best idea floating around now is a League of Democracies, as John McCain and several Democrats have proposed. Nations with similar forms of government do seem to share cohering values. If democracies could concentrate authority in such a league, at least part of the world would have a mechanism for wielding authority. It may not be a return to Acheson, Marshall and the rest, but at least it slows the relentless slide towards drift and dissipation.
August 3, 2008
Democracy’s Close Call in Turkey
Turkey narrowly averted an incalculable disaster last week. The Constitutional Court turned back a state prosecutor’s request to dissolve the ruling Justice and Development Party and ban 71 of its leading figures from politics for five years, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.
The court ruling is a victory for Turkey, for democracy and for the politics of moderation in the volatile Near and Middle East. That makes it a victory for the United States as well.
Had it gone the other way, Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union would have been demolished and the clearly expressed will of Turkish voters outrageously thwarted. Worst of all, an alarming message would have been sent to religious-minded voters throughout the Muslim world that scrupulous adherence to the ground rules of democratic politics was no guarantee of equal political rights and representation.
The margin by which these multiple catastrophes were averted could scarcely have been narrower. A majority of six of the 11 justices voted to ban the party. Fortunately, a super-majority of seven was required. Still, the party had half of its public financing cut for the next election and was warned to steer away from policies the court considered too Islamic, like allowing women in head scarves to attend universities.
Those aspects of the ruling provided some consolation to Turkey’s powerful military-secular establishment. But they are hardly consistent with democracy as it is practiced in the United States and the European Union. Nonetheless, Turkey’s ruling party would be wise to move slowly and carefully in its efforts to expand the civil rights of the religiously observant, and make greater efforts to cultivate understanding and support from its wary secular opponents.
Turkey has progressed a very long way from the not very long ago days when the secular establishment and its powerful military and judicial allies felt little inhibition about staging overt and covert coups of every variety against elected governments that did not do their political bidding. The last such event was in 1997.
Since then, the lure of European Union membership, shifts in the Turkish electorate and the generally responsible behavior of the Justice and Development Party in power have brought a healthy change in attitudes, as seen in the votes of the five justices who blocked the ban. Continued restraint by the ruling party can help widen democracy’s still perilously thin safety margin.
Posted: Sun Aug 03, 2008 9:45 am Post subject: well...
I have not read these long posts.....but I guess the topic is about comparison of Forms of Government...............I want to add here my opinion.....I think from among all the prevailing forms of Government Democrachy is Better but its not the Best form of Government.......the biggest flaw in democracy is that quantity is preferred over quality.....Vote of a Lay man is equal to vote of an intellectual.....how can this be .....
Posted: Sun Aug 03, 2008 11:13 am Post subject: Re: well...
I have not read these long posts.....but I guess the topic is about comparison of Forms of Government...............I want to add here my opinion.....I think from among all the prevailing forms of Government Democrachy is Better but its not the Best form of Government.......the biggest flaw in democracy is that quantity is preferred over quality.....Vote of a Lay man is equal to vote of an intellectual.....how can this be .....
Democrcy is not the best in all situations. Below is an excerpt from an interview with MHI on democracy and the Thirld World.
GM: Do you think the masses that you're speaking of understand the West? We spoke earlier about the misconception of Islam.
AK: Yes I think they understand the West, whether they're empathetic with all Western values is a question I would have to say no to. They are not empathetic to all Western values.
GM: Which values?
AK: I would think that things like economic independence they would find it very difficult to find their countries in some way dependent on international financial institutions that make or break the cost of the kilo of rice. I mean, we're talking about very basic issues. Think of the food, the food rebellions that you had when the IMF amongst others said you've got to correct your economy. People couldn't buy their food. You know, how can you expect young people not to react? That is so basic to human rights. So those are things that I think are felt, that people feel very bitter about. I think at times representation of their countries, their people, their faith were just disgusting. That is sensitive. When there is a wilful, or misinformed interpretation of Islam, that is unpleasant. When there are maybe political processes which are encouraged but have failed. Democracy is a wonderful concept, but it's not failsafe. It doesn't work in every country in every time, it doesn't work.
GM: Has the West been too aggressive in pushing democracy on countries that may not have the same political traditions as we do?
AK: Again, I'm not sure if the issue of democracy per se. To me the issue is how do governments change in developing countries, what are the processes. That's where I think the democratic system has caused problems. It has caused instability. Democracy with fifty, sixty, seventy national parties is not a very solid formula for stable government. So you know, I think that if you look at it from the point of view of the Third World, you can see that there are wonderful concepts but they do need to be worked through very, very carefully. Because if they fail, the concept is rejected.
Solzhenitsyn -- a prophet the West must prove wrong A decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday at the age of 89, requires little reintroduction to anybody over the age of 40.
The great literary rebel against the USSR cast a long shadow over the 1960s and the '70s -- he was awarded a Nobel prize for his writing -- drawing on his own bitter experiences as a political prisoner to produce such seminal works such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago. In doing so, he exposed the utter moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime. If you drew breath back then, you knew about him, and his extraordinary courage in the face of suffering.
This, therefore, is for those who weren't around at the time, and for whom his name is on the list of people one has heard of, knows one should be more aware of, but isn't.
The reason it is important to know about Solzhenitsyn however, is not only for what he said about Soviet Russia, helpful as it was in bringing it down. It is that he had an equally trenchant view of Western values, and it is instructive to review his warnings of 30 years ago for any relevance they have for today.
In my view, they do to a considerable degree.
Solzhenitsyn's story is remarkable. He started out as a Communist's communist. He was, as one biographer put it, "holier than the Pope," and it was this zeal that led to his imprisonment. While serving as a Red Army officer during the Second World War, he wrote to a friend that Stalin was betraying the revolution. The Soviet secret police found it, and despite his military service in defence of that very revolution, he joined millions of other Russians in the camps.
He would spend 10 years in the system. Not surprisingly, he became disillusioned, and surreptitiously gathered material for the books he would write, making notes on anything he had, even toilet paper.
Russia's internal politics during Kruschev's period of de-Stalinization allowed him a brief window to publish, and established his reputation in the West. However, he would be no apologist for a regime that was as repressive as the one it replaced. When the Gulag Archipelago was published abroad, the Soviets knew they had a problem. The stature his works had brought him in the West served him well: Rather than a return to the Gulag, he was simply exiled and, in 1974, took up residence in Vermont.
To his disappointment however, he observed in his new domicile considerable moral failure, if not outright bankruptcy. Invited to speak at Harvard University in 1978, he decided to speak what he saw as a "bitter truth," emphasizing he did so as a friend.
In a 6,000 word verbal blitzkrieg that must surely have curled the toes of his hosts, he accused the West (not just the U.S.) of a "loss of civic courage" among its political leaders and intellectual elites. He went on to slam its legalism as petty, limiting and ultimately dangerous to western survival. He ripped into the West's pursuit of material plenty as enervating, likely to make people ask "why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defence of common values," and warned that the defence of individual rights "has reached such extremes as to make society . . . defenceless against certain individuals." It was time "to defend not so much human rights as human obligations."
There was much more, including uncomfortable words for a press that in its own way was as blinkered and uncritical as that in Soviet Russia.
"It is not possible that assessment of the president's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes, or of unlimited availability of gasoline."
He ended by appealing to the West to look beyond materialism to the Superior Spirit above mankind, to seek "spiritual integrity."
Fast forward 30 years. His old oppressor, the USSR, is long gone. And, in the heady days of its final dissolution, it truly looked as though western values had triumphed. The end of history was proclaimed, and celebrated.
Yet, history is clearly back. Other nations with other ideas, and other players who hate what the West stands for, mean the assumed steady expansion of liberal-democratic government is no longer inevitable.
The question thus becomes the one Solzhenitsyn asked, whether the West does indeed have the will to live, the spiritual integrity to sacrifice life itself for what it says it believes.
Certainly, its enemies do.
Today's economic distress in the U.S. in many ways both justifies Solzhenitsyn's pessimism at Harvard and seems a just consequence of excess. But, has the West gone soft?
There is this to be said for George W. Bush. He may not have handled everything right, but at least he knew after 9/11 that the U.S. faced an existential challenge. And, he did not shrink from it. Nor, by the way, did Canada, and a number of other western countries.
Solzhenitsyn was both right and wrong. From ancient times, he wrote, a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end, and the West's weak points he identified were real then, and are real now. But, it is not too late -- not yet, anyway. It would still be well though, to consider his words -- and heed his prescription.
August 10, 2008
Make Diplomacy, Not War
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Iraq and Afghanistan are the messes getting attention today, but they are only symptoms of a much broader cancer in American foreign policy.
A few glimpses of this larger affliction:
¶The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.
¶This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service.
¶More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane.
In short, the United States is hugely overinvesting in military tools and underinvesting in diplomatic tools. The result is a lopsided foreign policy that antagonizes the rest of the world and is ineffective in tackling many modern problems.
After all, you can’t bomb global warming.
Incredibly, the most eloquent spokesman for more balance between “hard power” and “soft power” is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Mr. Gates, who is superb in repairing the catastrophe left behind by Donald Rumsfeld, has given a series of astonishing speeches in which he calls for more resources for the State Department and aid agencies.
“One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” Mr. Gates said. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps — about 6,500 people — is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service.
“It simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs,” Mr. Gates said. “As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators.”
With the Olympics unfolding in China now, the Navy and the Air Force are seizing upon China’s rise as an excuse to grab tens of billions of dollars for the F-22, for an advanced destroyer, for new attack submarines. But we’re failing to invest minuscule sums to build good will among Chinese.
For the price of one F-22, we could — for 25 years — operate American libraries in each Chinese province, pay for more Chinese-American exchanges, and hire more diplomats prepared to appear on Chinese television and explain in fluent Chinese what American policy is. And for the price of one M.R.E. lunch for one soldier, the State Department could make a few phone calls to push the Chinese leadership to respond to the Dalai Lama’s olive branch a few days ago, helping to eliminate a long-term irritant in U.S.-China relations.
Then there’s the Middle East. Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle East peace negotiator, says he has been frustrated “beyond belief” to see resources showered on the military while diplomacy has to fight for scraps. Mr. Ross argues that an investment of just $1 billion — financing job creation and other grass-roots programs in the West Bank — could significantly increase the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But that money isn’t forthcoming.
Our intuitive approach to fighting terrorists and insurgents is to blow things up. But one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism methods in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan may be to build things up, like schooling and microfinance. Girls’ education sometimes gets more bang for the buck than a missile.
A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.
“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” the report declares. “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended.”
The next president should absorb that lesson and revalidate diplomacy as the primary tool of foreign policy — even if that means talking to ogres. Take Iran. Until recently, the American officials in charge of solving the Iranian problem were not even allowed to meet Iranians.
“We need to believe in the power of American diplomacy, and we should not believe a military conflict with Iran is inevitable,” said Nicholas Burns, until recently the under secretary of state for political affairs and for three years the government’s point person on Iran. “Our first impulse should be a serious and patient and persistent diplomatic effort. Too often in our national debate we focus on the military option and give short shrift to the diplomatic option.”
So here’s a first step: Let’s agree that diplomats should be every bit as much of an American priority as musicians in military bands.
August 12, 2008
Harmony and the Dream
By DAVID BROOKS
The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.
This is a divide that goes deeper than economics into the way people perceive the world. If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.
These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.
When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow. They’re both animals. Most Asian people, on the other hand, would pick out the cow and the hay, since cows depend on hay. Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships.
You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other.
The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts.
Researchers argue about why certain cultures have become more individualistic than others. Some say that Western cultures draw their values from ancient Greece, with its emphasis on individual heroism, while other cultures draw on more on tribal philosophies. Recently, some scientists have theorized that it all goes back to microbes. Collectivist societies tend to pop up in parts of the world, especially around the equator, with plenty of disease-causing microbes. In such an environment, you’d want to shun outsiders, who might bring strange diseases, and enforce a certain conformity over eating rituals and social behavior.
Either way, individualistic societies have tended to do better economically. We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.
But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.
The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through Western, liberal means, but also through Eastern and collective ones.
The ceremony drew from China’s long history, but surely the most striking features were the images of thousands of Chinese moving as one — drumming as one, dancing as one, sprinting on precise formations without ever stumbling or colliding. We’ve seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present — a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China’s miraculous growth.
If Asia’s success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge.
For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts.
Scientists have delighted to show that so-called rational choice is shaped by a whole range of subconscious influences, like emotional contagions and priming effects (people who think of a professor before taking a test do better than people who think of a criminal). Meanwhile, human brains turn out to be extremely permeable (they naturally mimic the neural firings of people around them). Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.
The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.
It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.
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