Thinking about Hitch and the crisis in Syria
The West is correct to express its outrage over the Russian-Chinese decision to veto a resolution in the United Nations Security Council, which would have called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to remove himself from power. After all, if the Security Council can not agree on something as simple and obviously necessary as this, then what on Earth can it do?
But the resolution’s failure covers up for the fact that the Western tiger stomps on paper feet. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States oft states that it wishes to see the end of the al-Assad regime — a long-postponed act — but does not wish to undertake the one act which would guarantee such a conclusion: liberal intervention, a la Libya, Kosovo, or Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The question is, of course, should it? When the debate was very much raging over the liberation of Iraq, Christopher Hitchens set down four clear criteria by which a nation could be determined to have lost its sovereignty, and therefore be ripe for intervention. These were, if a nation:
- Could potentially misuse weapons of mass destruction;
- Were known to be harbouring terrorists;
- Was occupying or had occupied another member of the United Nations; and
- Was committing or had committed an act of genocide.
Previewing the CNN Debate
It seems odd to have to put the candidates through another debate on foreign policy, not only so soon after the last CBS/National Journal debate, but also given the events taking place (or rather not taking place) in Washington with regard to the supercommittee. That, combined with the economic meltdown in Europe make it a sweet time to talk about economics (again).
But, given that it’s my thing as it were, I would be remiss if I turned my nose up at a second chance to delve back into international affairs. And, in any case, given that Syria is headed for conflagration, given the fluid situation in Egypt and given the formation of a new government and the arrest of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi in Libya, now is a critical moment for the American public to hear what the candidates think on these things.
In fact, it might be argued that if one throws in the spectre of a nuclear Iran, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the shaky situation in Iraq, the transformation in Pakistan into a failed state, and the economic and military rise of China, there has been no more important a moment since the conclusion of the Soviet Union for a Republican president candidate with a clear and dynamic foreign policy.
This evening, suffice to say should I manage to stay awake, I shall be looking out for the following from the candidates:
- Mitt Romney: He needs to be nailed down on a single issue, particularly in terms of foreign affairs. He loosely agreed with Perry on the zeroing out of foreign aid, and was ignorantly bold on China in the last debate to his discredit. He needs to give the voters and pundits something to chew on.
- Herman Cain: It is inevitable that the moderator will throw to Cain on the question of Libya. He needs to give a clear, concise and terse response to any remark, and not laugh his gaffe off as a by-product of the lamestream media with their gotcha questions. (I hold out little hope on this — it’ll be a car crash).
- Rick Perry: He performed more-than-adequately in the last debate, providing the star quote of the evening on moralistic foreign policy. I’d like to hear him talk more and with greater specificity on his foreign aid programme, and moreover not divert back to the matter of energy independence whenever he is stumped.
- Michele Bachmann: She needs to be more consistent. In the last debate, she was lucid on Pakistan and terrorism, then provided a clanger on China as a model for the United States in terms of reforming its social security and welfare.
- The others: Ron Paul to highlight the moralistic side of his foreign policy (and I’d like someone to nail in on the consequences of his isolationism, other than Santorum); Jon Huntsman to provide light on China, and go after Romney for his brazenness in the last debate; Rick Santorum to speak authoratively on Iran at this critical juncture (and if possible to clarify his stance on Israel).
I suspect and fear however that the attention and focus will be on Newt Gingrich, or as Paul Krugman put it recently, the stupid man’s vision of what a clever person sounds like. On Gingrich, I expect nothing: simply more guff and bluster, snipes at the media, and competent, perfunctory, and unremarkable answers which sound full of wonder and fuzzbox to the layman.
Wish me luck!
CBS/National Journal Debate: Perry Up, Cain Down, But a Lack of Vision Haunts All
Perhaps I expected too much of a Republican presidential debate. I had hoped, after what seems like fifty or so discussions on the economy, on jobs, on Obamacare, that this foreign policy in South Carolina would act as a delicious interlude overflowing with analysis and big ideas.
Sadly, the format prevented it. The CBS/National Journal debate was anchored by two great journalists, and Major Garrett in particular was tenacious, but they were hindered by the strict time format and the brevity of the event in general. Only sixty minutes on primetime, network television on the some of the biggest questions of our time? plus thirty minutes on the web? If it’s not important enough for two hours on CBS on a Saturday, then they shouldn’t have hosted it at all.
But, they did, so here are some thoughts. To rattle off some of the other candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were competent, if perfunctory and unremarkable. Ron Paul was correct to say that waterboarding is torture, that it is illegal under international law and that it is immoral, but in general he was as mad and unhinged as ever.
Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum were able to shine through in the moments that they were given. Sadly, they wasted too much of their allocated segments complaining about how they had so little time, and in the case of Huntsman, merely listing his past experience. Santorum was essentially correct on the two most important questions of the evening: Iran, and Pakistan. Were he not a homophobic, napkin-waving lunatic, he might be more electable.
Which brings us to Herman Cain, who easily gave the weakest performance of the evening. Whilst in the economic debate, his stock answer is “9-9-9! Grow the economy!”, in this forum, every response was coloured with, “I’d assemble a great team and ask them”. Cain seemingly prepared an answer on Iran, but had little knowledge (or rather no knowledge) of the Arab Spring, or Afghanistan, or Gitmo.
It was embarrassing, and he ought to be shamed by the fact that his entire ‘peace through strength and clarity’ schtick was exposed in one brutal and naked exchange with Garrett. He was asked, point blank, is Pakistan friend or foe? After a pause, his best answer: “We don’t know.”
Michele Bachmann displayed signs of lucidity on matters of foreign intelligence, particularly with regard to Pakistan, and the termination of bin Laden and others. But her grasp of the issues remains blinkered and decidedly ignorant, and she seems unable to speak without reaching for the old tropes on President Obama. And, if there’s any justice, her clanger of a comment on China as a model for the United States in terms of reforming its social security and welfare programmes, will loom over her until the end of all things.
But it is Rick Perry who, once the make-up is removed, will feel most pleased with his performance at the CBS/NJ debate. It was — up until the invention of the word, ‘forwithall’ — like we were witnessing the second coming of a more articulate and clear-minded candidate. He will, more likely than not, receive some blowback in the form of some negative ads from his comments on Israel — even though they were decidedly in favour of maintaining “substantial” aid links with that nation.
Rather, it was Perry who made the most salient remark of the evening. Speaking on China, and after some rambling preliminaries on Reagan (who else?), Perry stated:
I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues.
Whilst the grammar of the remark is off-kilter, the essence of the comment is on-the-mark. Nations which do not afford their citizens rights and freedoms, and governments absent of virtues, values, and a decent moral compass will inevitability implode, crumble, or be dismantled by their own peoples. Witness the Arab Spring.
The problem the Republican Party has, based on the debate, is that there exists amongst any of the candidates no actual credible foreign policy to back this up. Romney, for example, nearly declared war on the Chinese for currency manipulation and fictional trade offences. The candidate who can seize Perry’s sentiment, and formulate a moralistic yet pragmatic foreign policy which will appeal to the American people’s sense of their own especial place in the world, will ease their passage to capturing the nomination, and maybe even the White House.
Israel’s Future in a Multipolar World
“Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability. In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American.” - - Benjamin Netanyahu, May 24, 2011
Netanyahu’s “speech of his life” may have been damaging for an already weakened peace process, but it did hit the mark in its analysis of the special relationship between Israel and the United States – two exceptional nations that compliment each other like gin and tonic. As Netanyahu put it in his speech to Congress: “We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism”.
Their relationship has been beneficial for both parties, for indeed the United States has been able to rely on Israel as the “one anchor of stability in a region of shifting alliances”. American presidents haven’t had to nation-build or construct democracy in Israel – these are things the Jewish people achieved for themselves, along with the capacity to fight their own battles in a region flush with nations none too pleased at their presence.
Going the other way, and as Netanyahu recognised in his speech, the United States has always been “very generous” in giving them the “tools to do the job of defending Israel” on their own. The most recent deal of note came when economic aid came to an end in 2007; President Bush signed a ten-year deal which gave Israel $30 billion in military assistance.
This past of unwavering fiscal support during a time of (to a minimal degree) American economic expansion is now a forgotten season, as the nation turns inward to confront its crippling national debt (at a level of, as near as makes no difference, 100pc of GDP). The rise of the Tea Party would indicate that, when the time comes for the budget to be slashed, foreign aid and the Defence Department might have to bear the brunt. The spirit might be willing in most quarters, but the body will be weakened to a point where Washington can no longer afford to be so charitable to even its best of friends.
The consequences of relative American decline are clear, and will have very real consequences for the State of Israel. For, by decade’s end, it is evident that the world will no longer be unipolar, with the United States at its axis. Rather, it will almost certainly be bi- if not multipolar – the direct result of the economic rise and neo-colonial expansion of China, and other nouveau riche nations like India and Brazil. Over the course of the next ten years, the power of America and Israel’s eternal bond as a mechanism for dictating the nature of global politics will evidently diminish.
Therefore it seems clear that, in order to secure Israel’s continuation not only as a player on the world stage but as a nation-state in and of itself, she must continue to nurture its ties with China on one level, whilst maintaining its unique marriage with United States on another.
Israel and China will never have the same transcendent bond the former has with America. After all, unless the waft of jasmine gets carried across mountains and seas as to perfume the polluted Beijing air, these two nations will not be standing side by side in advancing the cause of democracy and human rights. Apparently, when a dove flaps its wings in Cairo, the people of China feel nothing of it.
Nonetheless, they do share some common economic and political interests which will mature their relationship to a level of healthy cooperation. For a start, both nations would appear to face similar existential threats, namely the struggle for the control of natural resources – in particular, water – and also the looming spectre of Islamic terror.
Professor Aron Shai of Tel Aviv University argues further that China has adopted a balanced view towards Israel, since she seeks to be a player in negotiations for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has the potential to manipulate this desire in their favour, provided they demonstrate that their position is concurrent with China’s ultra-realist foreign policy doctrine. Al-Jazeera speculated for instance that it was Israel who above all persuaded China to vote in favour of another round of sanctions against her long-time ally Iran.
Thus when the world becomes bipolar by 2020, Israel could find itself in the position of having good relations with both of the world’s superpowers. Israel will always be pro-American, yet above all, Israel’s foreign policy must be guided by the realisation that its existence depends not only on its ability to defend itself, but on the will of the world’s superpowers to champion their interests on the world stage. Thus in the coming years the State would be wise not to follow blindly Europe and America in their path of closing themselves off to the dragon stirring in the east.
Israel and the United States have a special relationship today. Israel and China must have an essential relationship for tomorrow.
The State of the Union — The State of the World
For Americans and Yankophiles alike, this Independence Day is most bittersweet. As its guardians revel in their hard-won liberty in a festival of feasting and firecrackers (of lights and light beers), we are in possession of a most awful truth that the sun is setting on the unipolar moment. She is not going to become a second-rate power, but certainly by decade’s end the United States will be in the position of being one power among many, as opposed to the world’s sole hyperpower.
America’s dominance following the collapse of the Soviet Union – framed as the unipolar moment by Charles Krauthammer – was based on the assertion that she would be the only nation with the military, diplomatic, political and economic strength to dictate solo the course of world events. Krauthammer argued that the UN was the “guarantor of nothing” and that Europe did not “qualify as a player on the world stage”. The best and only alternative therefore to chaos was “American strength and will to lead in a unipolar world”.
Krauthammer was careful to label this a ‘moment’, for its conclusion was then and is now an inevitability. No hyperpower has been able to sustain hegemony indefinitely be it Athens or Rome, and more recently Paris, London and Moscow. Not only were these nations and empires consumed by internal tension and international overreach, but as their strength diminished new powers arose to assume their role in the world. After all, the United States rose to prominence after 1945 on the back of British decline.
So it is that after decades of decadence – specifically expensive and cost-ineffective welfare programmes, repeated extensions of hard power across continents and a slew of unfunded tax cuts by Republican administrations – America is being moderated in the world by her lead-weight national debt (currently at a level of, as near as makes no difference, 100pc of GDP). As she sinks, China is rising to the surface on the back of not only astonishing rates of economic growth but her soft power, exercised via the buying up of U.S. Treasury bonds and vast reserves of raw materials.
If history were cyclical, then it would appear as though we have seen this tragic opera before. Just as Washington superseded London and then Moscow, Beijing will wax as Washington wanes; China, thus, would be the new hyperpower. This does not have to be, should not have to be, and hopefully will not be the case, provided the American people and the government which represents them get serious about the crisis they face.
First and foremost, it can not be repeated enough that Washington needs to reduce the size of its national debt, or at least devise a long-term solution for doing so. The Simpson-Bowles plan was a more-than-satisfactory starting point, yet this seems have been cast aside as Republicans refuse to discuss tax increases whilst Democrats block cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Any plan will require a combination of the two to be viable, in addition to a diminution of the defence budget and a simplification of the tax code in order to increase global competitiveness and reduce costly evasion.
The current partisan impasse is a reflection of the corruption of the political class and the polity en masse. As Benjamin Franklin remarked at the Consitutional Convention, “the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other”. Not only are the two wings so entrenched that any deal seems out of reach, but more pressingly the political system the Founding Fathers created to ensure their republic did not slide into absolutism has led to a tedious rancour and impasse. The Constitution is a living document: some minor revisions ought to be considered (depoliticisation of the judiciary; greater separation of the executive and legislature) in order to refresh and rejuvenate it.
In terms of foreign policy, the United States needs to adopt a new attitude towards not only China, but future geopolitical poles such as India and Brazil. The Trump doctrine of slamming the table and threatening other nations with f-bombs and trade tariffs will fail when America is no longer the single dominant force. It is right that the West challenge countries like China over human rights and their African agenda, but it is better to have them as part of a family of nations than as a Soviet-style enemy. Transnational cooperation through institutions like the G20 would ease the transition into multipolarity and aid the prevention of the kinds of armed conflict which usually stain such changes of the guard.
Finally, Americans must above all recall on Independence Day that they owe their existence and prominent position in the world to generations of immigrants who helped to construct this most precious of unions. In order for the nation to thrive instead of merely survive in an age where they must at once compete and coexist with China, the United States must welcome a new generation of innovators and job creators, be they from Europe, Asia or across the Rio Grande.
This July 4 is bittersweet, but it is not without hope.
Geography: boring and irrelevant?
Geography is “boring and irrelevant.” Not my words, I ought to say, but the words of the schools’ inspection body Ofsted. More than 100 secondary schools do not enter a single pupil for a GCSE exam on the subject. Students’ are so cartographically inept that some could not locate Kenya on a map of Africa! “They were not able to locate countries, key mountain ranges or other features with any degree of confidence,” The Independent reports.
While there are of course many other facets to geography other than merely locating nations, seas and mountains on a globe, such as human geography and climate studies, the current crop of pupils’ geographical paucity does speak to an evident and certainly worrying trend in the study of the humanities.
Part of the responsibility for this Gibbonesque downfall rests with the teachers themselves. Ofsted labelled their efforts ‘uninspiring’ and absent of challenge. Just over half of the schools surveyed failed to take advantage of fieldwork, even though results show that such outdoor, interactive activity inspired “a love of the subject.”
Stuck in the confines of the classroom, teachers have turned the subject into an oversimplified object of ridicule. Those reading the subject now are more likely to require a cornucopia of colouring crayons than any classical geographical implement, as to shade the seas, lacquer the land and blush the borders on their incorrectly-labelled maps to the best of their artistic abilities.
This government and the last have set their sights firmly on improvements in maths and science scores as the be all and end all of the nation’s education system. In part, there is something very worthy and earnest about their efforts. British pupils are currently obtaining grades and results below the OECD average for mathematics, and lag far behind nations like China (Shanghai), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
On the other hand, this focus on the more directly applicable subjects is a by-product of the commercialisation of our education system. No longer does learning exist for learning’s sake. Successive governments have destroyed the vision of the classroom as a forum for pupils to grow, to accomplish, to change the way they see the world through exploration of the arts, humanities and languages.
Rather, in a desperate bid to play catch-up with the East, the school has become a factory, constructing functionally-literate monsters on a production line managed by idiots. The quality control, so to speak, are endless lists of GCSE grades now rendered meaningless by the ease of their attainability.
Funding has collapsed for subjects not deemed profitable. Ofsted found that in one in 10 of the primary schools visited, geography was more or less disappearing. Moreover, in approximately half the primary schools visited, pupils in some classes were taught no geography at all.
The decline in the standard of geography teaching is therefore the result of the state’s neglectful and in some instances deliberately reckless humanities policy programme. Blame must be placed upon the practitioners of course, but it too ought to rest with the enablers. How can teachers carry out fieldwork exercises with no funds for equipment or for transport?
When the world’s attention finally turns towards dealing in a coordinated manner with the great ecological questions of our time - climate change; population growth; natural disasters - geography will be as essential as science to those seeking the answers.
Dr. Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society, stresses that “all young people should have the opportunity to experience a good quality geography education so they can understand the world’s places, people and environments.” The government and the teachers need to recognise that such a notion has never been more correct and more relevant.
An edited version of this article was published in London Student, February 14, 2011.