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Economics Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

The Highlights From Davos

[digg-reddit-me]Now that the World Economic Forum 2009 meeting in Davos, Switzerland has concluded, let me present some highlights.

The number one highlight, of course, is the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, storming off the stage after not being allowed to finish addressing Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on the issue of Gaza:

Keep in mind that the “spirit of Davos” is supposed to be international cooperation and civil discussion between the business and political elites and the journalists who so eagerly report on them- and that Turkey and Israel are allies rather than enemies. Dr. George Friedman of the Stratfor Institute saw this as the clearest demonstration yet of Turkey’s increasingly prominent role as the leader of the Muslim world – and certainly Erdogan is being lionized for standing up to the Western media and the Israeli prime minister.

But the immediate buzz in the hall wasn’t about the global significance of this fit, but about breakdown of the spirit of Davos. For journalists, Davos is a kind of ideal as William Lewis of London’s the Telegraph described it:

The beauty of Davos is that one can meet large numbers of the world’s most important/interesting/powerful/egotistical people in the space of four days. Interviews that would otherwise take months to arrange, and hours to travel to, take place in a small Swiss ski resort. It’s a journalist’s dream…

More significantly, Lewis noted that this year, for the first time in many years, Americans did not dominate. Barack Obama only sent his advisor Valerie Jarrett. The most prominent American present was Bill Clinton. More on him later. Instead, Davos was dominated by the Chinese premier and Russian prime minister, each of whom confronted America and blamed it for the crises in their countries in a different manner. Joe Conanson of Salon described the mood:

Accustomed to flattering themselves and each other as benevolent masters of the globalizing world, they now confront an unprecedented crisis – actually a conglomeration of crises – that has diminished their financial worth and moral credibility.

What roused the global elitists from their glum torpor was the opportunity to lay blame for the economic catastrophe that has befallen the world. There was one obvious target: the United States of America, whose stupid and criminal bankers have inflicted so much harm on the whole of humanity. It is an undeniable fact that the Russian and Chinese leaders explored with great relish at every opportunity.

The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, in a characteristic manner, did not directly name America as the cause of the financial crisis, but elliptically described it as “attributable to inappropriate macroeconomic policies of some economies and their unsustainable model of development characterized by prolonged low savings and high consumption; excessive expansion of financial institutions in blind pursuit of profit,” etcetera. It was clear to everyone who he was talking about. Wen’s speech was warmly received – but his private remarks to a meeting of Western business leaders demonstrated his real political skill – as he charmed the gathered free market capitalists by referencing such touchstones as the work of Adam Smith (which he had recently re-read.)

Then, there were Vladimir Putin’s remarks on the “perfect storm” that is the current financial crisis. The theory of the perfect storm – “the simultaneous occurrence of weather events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting of their chance combination” – seems to be a rather apt metaphor for the confluence of events shaking the global system. Putin placed the blame directly on America though, in part no doubt due to his honest assessment, and in part to deflect responsibility. While he was giving this speech, violent protests calling on him to step down were being put down back in Russia as many blamed his financial mismanagement as he bet Russia’s economy on strong commodities prices.

Finally, there was former president Bill Clinton. Clinton addressed the assembled world political and economic leaders:

This is not a time for denial or delay. Do something. Give people confidence by showing confidence. Don’t give up. Don’t bet against yourself. Don’t bet against your country. This is still a good time to be alive.

Described as “the lone American to whom anyone at Davos might actually listen as he attempted to uphold the name of his country,” Clinton not only tried to rally the world leaders from their sour mood, but also responded more specifically to Putin in response to a question:

Later, Clinton met with Putin privately for an hour and a half, seemingly with the consent of the State Department and White House.

The overall lesson of this year’s Davos seems to be a reinforcement of the consensus view of the foreign policy establishment: We are now living in a nonpolar world in which, though America retains great power and is the most powerful single force, it will not hold the same leverage that it once did. We can no longer act as the world’s only superpower – but instead can take our place as the first among equals.

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Election 2008 Foreign Policy Iraq McCain National Security Obama Politics The War on Terrorism

Bush-McCain Refuses to Make Tough Foreign Policy Choices

Last night, Barack Obama said:

You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq.

Joe Biden, in a 2004 interview with Joshua Marshall of the Talking Points Memo, made a similar point, but in a more roundabout way that encapsulates some portion of the difference between the two men and their approach to speaking:

No, I really mean it, ask Norm [communication director Norm Kurz]. I mean Norm’s had to sit through, listening to me in all these things. This is the point that I was trying desperately to make to my colleagues and I tried to articulate it on Stephanopoulos’ show. The fundamental flaw in the neo – forget flaw, the fundamental difference between Joe Biden, John Kerry on the one hand, and the neoconservatives on the other is that they genuinely believe – I’ll put it in the negative sense – they do not believe it is possible for a sophisticated international criminal network that will rain terror upon a country, that has the potential to kill 3,000 or more people in a country, can exist without the sponsorship of a nation state. They really truly believe – and this was the Axis of Evil speech – if you were able to decapitate the regimes in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, you would in fact dry up the tentacles of terror. I think that is fundamentally flawed reasoning. If every one of those regimes became a liberal democracy tomorrow, does anybody think we wouldn’t have Code Orange tomorrow in the United States? Rhetorical question. Does anybody think we don’t have to worry about the next major event like Madrid occurring in Paris or Washington or Sao Paulo? Gimme a break. But they really believe this is the way to do it. [My emphasis.]

Richard Haas, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, has been making the point in broader terms – explaining that we have moved from a unipolar world in which America’s power in every sphere was unrivaled to a nonpolar world in which power is decentralized – and many large corporations have more power than states and local power often trumps world power. Haas sees America as the single greatest power on earth – but rather than understanding the entire world as a system of countries, he sees a vastly more complicated power structure – where a loosely organized band of a few hundred can change the course of the world, and corporations operate according to their own interest rather than national interest; and large countries can exert influence in their backyard without American retaliation (as China and Russia proved recently).

McCain and Bush just don’t get these two realities of the world we live in today – a world in which power is decentralized and not exclusively held in nation-states and a world in which America cannot impose it’s will everywhere all of the time. They act as if we have the power to force our will upon every nation and organization. They do not believe we need to choose between Russia’s cooperation on terrorism-related issues and expanding NATO to Georgia and the Ukraine. They believe we can do both. They do not believe invading Iraq took away resources from Afghanistan – because we can do both. Their is an unreality in these positions, a determined insistence that refuses to make the tough strategic choices that foreign policy is about. That cowardice is at the heart of the Bush-McCain foreign policy. They do not acknowledge the central truth that drove America’s greatest foreign policy successes – in World War II and in the first years of the Cold War:

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.

They insist instead on our absolute power and on our moral purity. Coupling this with a mistaken view of the nation-state as all-powerful, a view substantially at odds with the titular Republican position of focusing on the power of individuals and corporations over that of government, they led us into Iraq, and now they are playing games of brinkmanship with Iran and Russia, in the vain hope that neither sees how weak our hand has become since we invaded Iraq.

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Election 2008 Foreign Policy McCain National Security Obama Politics

America: Kind of Like Spider-man

Fred Kaplan of Slate asks and answers the question that McCain will keep posing to the American people for the next five months: “Is Barack Obama too naive to be president?”  Kaplan’s answer:

No matter who is elected this November, the next president will have to take extraordinary steps to translate this global reach into power and influence—to restore American leadership. One of the main challenges in this effort will be to prove to others that this leadership is desirable.

The new reality is that to a degree we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, the United States is a normal country—a very powerful country, but normal nonetheless: not a superpower. A presidential visit, in this light, is not such a big deal. Or, to the extent that some countries might still regard it as a visitation from on high, it may be just the jolt to get things moving.

Either way, not only was Obama’s remark not naive; it reflected a more instinctive understanding of the post-Cold War world than either of his opponents seem to possess.

This does seem to be the growing consensus in the world of those who study foreign policy – as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests we are in an age of nonpolarity and Fareed Zakaria writes that we are now entering a Post-American world.  All of these figures believe that America still has the power – and the responsibility – to be the first among equals.  But we are no longer the single hyperpower dominating the globe or one of two dueling powers competing for every corner of it.  Instead, we are one of many – a nation with unique gifts and great responsibility.

Kind of like Spider-man.