The Russia Question
Submitted to The Script, the LSE's Student Journal
In a February speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, US Senator John McCain called on world leaders to boycott July’s G8 meeting in Russia. McCain, an odds-on bet to be America’s next President, argued that “The Kremlin seems to prefer the pursuit of autocracy at home and abroad, to prefer blocking concerted action against rogue states, to prefer weakening what it views as democratic adversaries. This is a Soviet mindset, not a post-Cold War one…Under Mr. Putin, Russia today is neither a democracy nor one of the world's leading economies, and I seriously question whether the G8 leaders should attend the St Petersburg summit.” The speech drew a strong response from Russian representatives, who accused McCain of playing Cold War politics.
The spat does not yet represent modern Russian-American relations. The Kremlin’s ties with the United States remain cooperative on the Iranian nuclear crisis, they work together on energy policy (despite recent events), and they share similar goals in international economic and security forums. Their relationship bears no practical relation to the ideological dogma that shaped the Cold War.
And yet the controversy that McCain’s comments provoked is revealing. American attitudes toward Russia have changed dramatically in the last few years, with resigned disillusionment replacing the hopes of a decade ago. In its concern about Russia’s future America is revealing a historical continuity to its diplomacy. American foreign policy has been here before, and the policies it adopted sixty years ago solidified the Cold War. Should it decide that a policy of alienating Russia is the best answer to the perception of Putin’s autocratic rule, it will succeed only in strengthening Russia’s authoritarian direction.
In the aftermath to World War II most Americans saw the Soviet Union as a loyal ally. Wartime propaganda promoted a kindred “Uncle Joe” Stalin presiding over a courageous and amiable Russian people. That the American government had gone to war against the Bolshevik regime and had then suspended diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union was subtly discarded.
Within just a few years, however, the popular image of the Soviet Union changed from reliable friend to an expansive threat focused on global communist infiltration. By 1950, America was embarking upon a national paranoia that found its roots in Moscow’s perceived ambitions. McCarthyism was a consequence of the wider American tendency to misunderstand the Soviet threat. To the American establishment, it seemed that if the Soviet Union was not a loyal ally it was a profound and dangerous threat.
American actions did not cause the Cold War, that conflict’s roots were deeper and probably unavoidable. American policy did, however, make the conflict more dangerous. The United States’ inclination to universal doctrine limited the effectiveness of its policy. For example, its decision to provide support to anti-communist forces in Greek and Turkey, a rather specific episode, was soon clothed in the wider conventions of the Truman Doctrine. Truman explained that it would be “the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” wherever this occurred. Suddenly the response to a crisis at the South-Eastern tip of Europe was an element of a global strategy against communism that held no stated regard to specific circumstance. The Truman Doctrine, like McCarthyism, was rooted in America’s tendency to sweeping universalist policy that placed only a secondary regard to actual fact. That inclination is again being seen in the increasingly influential view of Vladimir Putin as a burgeoning tyrant.
Throughout the 1990s Boris Yeltsin was seen in America as a generally liberal (if lush) leader, presiding over a Russia that was becoming a prosperous, democratic, and constructive actor in world affairs. That optimism has largely disappeared. Putin, in particular, is now seen as a sort of dictator in disguise, steadily rolling back democratic reforms, restricting the independent media, interfering in neighbor’s affairs, intruding upon the nominally independent judicial system and generally ensuring his prolonged and dictatorial rule over Russia.
The widely Western perception of a Russian shift from burgeoning democracy to dictatorship is simplistic. Yeltsin was never the leader the Western establishment hoped him to be, far too many of his actions were far from being either liberal or democratic for that. In 1993 he illegally disbanded the Russian parliament by decree, then shelled the legislative supporters who barricaded themselves within the Russian White House. Yeltsin initiated the first of the vicious Chechnyan wars and illegally promoted close friends to senior government positions (his daughter, a computer programmer, became a presidential advisor). At the close of his term Yeltsin obeyed the constitution and resigned, but not before all but ensuring the election of his hand-picked successor Putin.
Despite it all, Yeltsin was given the benefit of the doubt by the Western establishment. Putin’s contrasting sly demeanor has received no such warmth. When George W. Bush said he was able to get a sense of Putin’s soul, it enforced the image of a simple-minded US President much more than it promoted his Russian counterpart as honest. The later disclosure that Putin had won Bush over with stories of personal faith only increased the cynicism.
Like the simplistic view of Yeltsin, most American opinions of Putin are inaccurate. He is not a tyrant but a leader in the classic Russian mold, whose emphasis is on order, consensus, and stability. He leads a government that pays lip service to Western ideals of democratic principles but pursues what the Russia scholar Bobo Lo has termed a “managed democracy”. Putin’s position is, in fact, better understood as one of relative weakness, not excessive power. He is popular, but largely incapable of wielding effective control over Russia’s bureaucracy and its chaotic and ineffectual borders. As a result many of his actions seek to consolidate executive power, which in the West is perceived as a creeping authoritarianism.
Nor does the image of Putin persecuting a liberal opposition hold under close scrutiny. His most influential and troubling opponents are not liberal democrats but a loose alliance of communists and nationalists who oppose reform more than he does. The mass of Russian voters are reform-averse; the word itself is pejorative in today’s Russia, a reminder of the difficult post-Soviet era. This is important, because Western alienation of Putin’s regime will likely help only in consolidating the success of the conservative old guard.
The point here is not that Putin is a more or less democratic or liberal leader than Yeltsin. Both have sought to extend the executive’s power in response to the chaotic environment over which they govern, and both have used anti-democratic means in doing so. Of more importance is how the West can best push Russia in a more liberal democratic direction. Using the lack of immediate success in that effort to conclude that the Kremlin is dictatorial will be counter-productive.
In diplomacy, perception is more important than reality. As America acts on its perceptions and begins to hold Russia at a diplomatic arms-length because of what it perceives as increasingly anti-democratic trends, Russian leaders will have no choice but to resume an anti-Western policy.
American leaders should adopt more substance than form in dealing with Russia. They must resist the temptation to approach Russian affairs in broad terms of shared values and common futures and other essentially meaningless platitudes. Constructive US-Russian relations will place an accurate focus on how things are in Russia, not how the West would like them to be.
The most effective policy will be one of constructive engagement, cooperating on areas of shared concern and leaning on Putin to adopt a more democratic domestic agenda when appropriate. McCain’s idea of a boycott is a particularly bad idea, one that is likely directed more to his own domestic agenda than it is at serious debate.
Russia’s history is separate from the West as much as it is a part of it, and it will not become a strict copy of the Western democratic mold. Internal Russian disorder ensures that its system of “managed democracy” will not be reversed in the short term. The US has a much greater chance of influencing its development in the long term by exercising patience and better understanding in its diplomacy. It should focus on issues in which there is room for positive cooperation instead of broad and misplaced doctrine. If it imagines Putin to be a leader with dictatorial ambition, America will only push him further in that direction.
The Uncertainty of Human Rights
A rather straight piece of reporting on Louise Arbour's February 16 address at the LSE
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour addressed an LSE audience on the topic of “Human Rights in an Age of Uncertainty” in the Old Theatre on Thursday.
In a speech that touched on the variety of challenges that face her field, Arbour urged for the reformulation of the idea that human rights and security are engaged in an absolute trade-off. “Human rights do not impede the protection of national security” she argued, “the most profound insecurity does not rest from foreign threats, but from internal fear.”
Arbour possesses a distinctive career as an international jurist. As a Canadian national she has held positions on the Supreme Court of Ontario and the Supreme Court of Canada. In the late 1990s Arbour joined the United Nations as Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, where she led the indictment against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. She was appointed to her current position as High Commissioner in July of 2004.
Arbour opened with a recognition of the challenge posed by international terrorism. She argued that when faced with a clear threat, governments are responsible for the protection of their citizens. This recognition was central to the United Nations’ adoption last year of an international “responsibility to protect”, which encodes the duties national governments hold toward their citizens and legitimizes the international community’s responsibility to protect threatened populations.
The danger, Arbour stressed, is that commitments to security can be self-defeating. She pointed out that in limiting human rights as a part of their quest to increase security governments may foster an anger that promotes further terrorism. The most profound strength of Western society is the human rights they are founded upon, Arbour argued, and these must not be compromised.
On a global scale, however, terrorism is dwarfed by other challenges. Poverty, hunger, dramatic levels of inequality, inequities in the provision of education and disease each pose a profound challenge to human rights. Arbour stressed a renewed response to these broader threats. “We must possess a more holistic understanding of the right to life” she said, “and the indivisibility of that right from all others.”
An appropriate response should not be based on what Arbour termed a “charitable disposition or embarrassment.” Development is instead the legal duty of the international community, she argued, and an important first step is ceasing to categorise human rights along social, civil, and economic lines. Arbour called instead for the recognition of a holistic view of rights that recognizes what she called the “inextricable link between social and economic development and human rights.”
Arbour was impressed by the range of questions directed at her in the question and answer period that followed her speech: “Each of these is an excellent masters or doctoral topic” she said, “I hope they will be published so that I can read them!”
The Value of Democracy
Published in The Beaver on 14 February 2006
Democracy, in the West, is often viewed as a stage very near to the end in the evolution of liberty. In that idea lies the public justification of contemporary American foreign policy. George Bush has repeatedly invoked the belief that the United States’ role in the world is centered on an almost messianic duty to spread liberty, the primary means of which is the imposition of democracy. There is, of course, a rather large gap between the White House’s rhetoric and its accomplishments. The question is whether the rhetoric hold in its own right. Is the forceful spread of democracy worthwhile, or might it do more harm than good?
Democracy as a promoter of tolerance has certainly taken a hit in recent weeks. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian elections, the strong showing of an Iranian inspired Shia religious list in Iraq and Hamas’ victory in Palestine have each represented a move away from peaceful accommodations of diversity. George Bush is left in the untenable position of justifying his appeals to democracy while refusing to deal with those who enjoy democratic support, unless of course they behave a little more like the parties they defeated.
There is an important need in this debate to distinguish between qualitative levels of democracy. The American commentator Fareed Zakaria stands as one of the more articulate critics of George Bush’s foreign policy. Zakaria has advanced the concept of “illiberal” democracy, rightfully arguing that democracy on its own accord is not a value label. Holding elections is instead value-neutral, revealing the health of the societies instead of working to improve them. Elections can even be harmful when they lead to the radicalization of ethnic and religious divisions in countries that lack a national consensus. This type of balkanization of societal lines was a feature of the electoral process in countries as different as Nigeria, Colombia and Algeria. In short, if citizens feel a stronger identity with their tribe or faith than with their country, political parties will promote narrow communal interests and sharpen ethnic grievances instead of contributing to the national good.
What really matters are those elements beyond elections that contribute to liberal democracy. Foremost is a national consensus that offers an incentive for the minority to accept majority rule. Relatively homogeneous populations make this easier, but that does not mean diverse nations are doomed to tyranny. India has fostered a vibrant democracy with more ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences than anywhere else. Its success has lay in the institutional support of basic freedoms that promote a generally peaceful outlet for the expression of differences. Those institutions were imposed from outside but, vitally, the democratic movement itself was a product of an endogenous leadership.
An institutional commitment to rights and freedoms and sound domestic leadership are therefore as important to healthy democracy as elections. As such, Western policy should focus on supporting opposition movements in authoritarian countries and building stable institutions in those that are newly democratized. Current events prove that the violent imposition of democracy succeeds in little more than radicalizing local and regional divisions. George Bush may be on the side of history in his pursuit of democratic ends, but he has been very wrong in his choice of means.
Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time is a tremendously long book. 300 pages of the first volume alone are dedicated to the description of Swann’s initial love for Odette. The book is bound to drag at times. And yet there’s those moments of incredible insight. The novel’s message is conveyed in its flashes of brilliance.
Proust’s goal was similar to Joyce’s. They sought to create a piece of art that accurately reflected the life of the mind. There are few (if any) objective truths in Swann’s Way. All that occurs is through the prism of the individual and his emotions and his beliefs. Nothing else matters. Truth is not to be found in external reality. Instead, it only exists in the filter of memory, in the remembrance of particular times and scenes and all their corresponding smells and sounds and sights and emotions. It does not seem to much matter whether these memories were even rooted in an objective reality (a concept whose disproval may be one of the objectives of the book).
Proust was an aesthete. He places an incredible amount of effort in the description of a scene’s artistic quality, both in nature and in fashion. I was at times lost in his portrayals of the beauty of a spring morning in the Bois de Boulogne or the elegant gown of a debutante at a Paris ball. More than normal, I found myself lost in my own memories: wandering through the woods of northern Ontario as a child or spending an evening at the Pre-Catelan (mentioned in the book) during my time in Paris last year. These types of memories are radiant when approached in the right manner. I’ve spoken at times of their more detrimental side, of their tendency to hinder one’s enjoyment of the present by being overly focused on a slightly mythical past. Proust proves a memory’s wonder. A single moment is a world unto itself, irretrievable and beautiful. For him, it would seem, little else matters. At the end of my life, I may agree to a greater extent. For now, I am more focused on the continual creation of more memories at which to look back upon.
In any case, a life’s goal is to eventually finish all of the Search. I have a feeling that the first volume only hinted at the full extent of Proust’s philosophy.
Published in The Beaver on 7 February 2006
Rarely has the question of European identity been so contentious. In an era of suddenly obvious heterogeneous populations, European societies are being forced to redefine themselved in a manner that is inclusive to all citizens. Salman Rushdie, in a December letter to the Times, appealed to the necessity of defining who Europeans are in a positive form: "No society," he argued, "no matter how tolerant, can expect to thrive if its citizens don’t prize what their citizenship means — if, when asked what they stand for as Frenchmen, as Indians, as Britons, they cannot give clear replies."
What, then, is a Frenchman? Who is a Briton? In Europe, the answer has relied on history, on the national historical idea of the Western European state that is almost exclusively white and Christian. European peoples, in this view, are the descendants of a storied and unique national population, and therefore possess a distinct tie to the land. "France for the French!" goes the old nationalist cry, "Germany for the Germans!". Contrast this with North America, where the state was, in fact, constructed by immigrants. As Ronald Reagan once argued in his paternalistic tone: "You can't become a Frenchman by going to live in France, but every immigrant makes America more American."
This simplistic conception of a European national identity does not, however, hold up to close scrutiny. An extension of history to its grander scale reveals early Britain as a nation of Saxon and Scandinavian migrants. The arrival of successive groups of European refugees to the United Kingdom proved a source of almost as much creativity as they have to the United States. London's status as a mosaic of national cultures is not new. Modern Indians and Bangladeshis and Jamaicans are but the recent inheritors of a long line of immigrant groups than enriched the city before them. On the continent much of the the same logic applies. The great Greek story-teller Aesop was born a slave of African descent. Napoleone Buonaparte is not the most francophone of names. Marie Curie was from Poland. The Moors controlled a large part of modern Spain for almost 800 years. For much of that period they were among Europe's more tolerant rulers.
The point here is in the importance of historical construction. Identity is anything but simple. The notion of who anyone "is" is open to interpretion upon re-interpretation. We are almost unnervingly multi-faceted: products of a family, a community, a city, a region, a state, a country, and a continent. At the same time, we are atheists or agnostics, Christians, Muslims or Jews, Zoroastrians or Bahai. The idea of a Muslim or a Catholic does not entail ethnicity. A Jew or a Sikh, on the other hand, is a matter of race as well as of belief. A hundred years ago, a Frenchman would quite clearly have been Christian. There is little point in the reminder that this no longer holds true today. Finally, there is the conception of any individual as the product of their own individual experience, constantly shifting and fluid and never easily categorized.
Despite its difficulties, however, identity is clearly important. There is a powerful need for a construction of who and what a citizen of a given state is. To flourish, state populations require some form of common bond; a mild and positive form of nationalism that provides legitimacy to public goods. There is some relief in complexity here, because it ensures that Europe is not doomed to inevitable conflict between the more rooted occupants of its nations and their more recent arrivals. History matters, and a correct interpretation of European history reveals its status as continually changing place. Races, ethnicities, and religions have shifted back and forth over the centuries in a constant state of flux. In that, modern levels of migration, while perhaps unprecedented in volume, are not new.
The answer that is increasingly being turned to is the importance of a national creed, a “British Dream” (to use the American term) that can sustain the national bond among groups of widely disparate orgins. Here lies the roots of Gordon Brown’s recent call for a “Britain Day” and his desire to increase the visibility of the Union Jack. Britain, as a country built on immigration, will have an easier time than the rest of Europe in this. Not that France, the Netherlands, and the rest have a choice. The era of homogeneous populations is over. So is, for that matter, the confusion of multiculturalism for what Amartya Sen has labeled a plural-monoculturalism. The answer to diverse populations is not the relativistic idea that “you have your ideas, I have mine, and we agree to disagree.” Multiculturalism should represent instead the sustained interplay
of ideas, the mixing of religious creeds and political beliefs in a sustained dialogue of what differs and what unites. That invitation to dialogue, that core freedom to discuss and debate is what we as the West should stand for.
There remains, of course, the core question of what to do when a group of citizens within an open state explicitly reject the values that sustain that openness. The current firestorm over images of Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper (and by now, several others throughout Europe) is a case in point. Freedom of expression should not be confused with deliberate provocation, but heeding to calls for the banning of such images and the sacking of the editors who printed them are a line which cannot be crossed. Appealing to ideals of liberty is not worth much when they are abandoned at the first hint of controversy.
There is of course a key role for security forces in targeting those small minorities who seek to challenge those values, but this should be vigilantly guarded from spreading into the wider arenas of freedom that we stand for. The defeat of Blair’s bill banning the incitement to religious hatred is a welcome development.
The fundamental ideas that can sustain a heterogeneous Europe are, therefore, political. The Enlightenment beliefs of tolerance, of justice and due trial and of freedom of expression and faith have sustained the West for two centuries and will continue to do so. They entail a welcoming of complexity, and they require their own defenders.
It is, ultimately, all too easy to sink into the pit of very simple forms of individuality as an answer to difficult questions. The idea of us versus them is the repository of small minds. Modern Europe was built on the fruits of a wide diversity. Overcoming fundamentalist ideas requires a sustained exposition of the compexity of what Europe is to counter the simplicity of what its opponents (both domestic and foreign) would have it be.
Night of the Iguana
The overriding theme of his plays, Tennessee Williams argued, was the negative impact that society will inevitably visit upon the “sensitive nonconformist individual”. That sense of destiny mixed with a light touch drives the Lyric Theatre’s current production of Williams’ play “Night of the Iguana”, starring Woody Harrelson as the defrocked Episcopalian minister T. Lawrence Shannon.
Producer Bill Kenwright and his crew have constructed a gorgeous set and the play runs well, even if Williams’ eccentric American characters do feel somewhat out of place in London’s West End. Harrelson’s star power does not overpower other performances. As lead, he breathes life and a rhythmic pace into Shannon’s moral confusion. The portrayal of his character’s sense of helpless rage is particularly strong, though it was somewhat difficult (for this reviewer, at least) to imagine a Harrelson character ever possessing the piety necessary to turn one’s life to God.
Williams was one of American drama’s most provocative playwrights. Night of the Iguana, his last commercial success, is no exception. The play holds powerful themes of lost faith, sexual tensions, and the contrast between what the playwright terms life’s realistic and fantastic elements.
Shannon, now a tour guide in Mexico, has stopped his group at a rundown hotel to see an old friend who, it turns out, has recently died. The play’s development then revolves around the conflict between the three women who vie for his affection: Maxine, the widowed and lustful manager of the hotel, Hannah, an aging spinster who represents the type of companion a wiser Shannon would pursue, and Charlotte, the 17 year old whose passionate night with the former minister deepened his moral quandary. All is made more complex by the “spook”, Shannon’s apparent tendency to fall prey to fits of temporary lunacy.
Night of the Iguana was the most personal of Williams’ plays. His closest childhood companion was his sister Ruth, who spent all of her life in and out of mental institutions. Williams feared that he was slipping into madness himself throughout his life. His homosexuality was, in turn, the source of the challenging of sexual convention that is so present throughout the play.
At its conclusion, “Night of the Iguana” offers no clear moral lessons. It does, instead, point to the complex and unfulfilled outcomes that pervade human relations. Social convention to Williams is a sort of looming beast that will break those who do not conform. Unfortunately, when left to our own devices, we as individuals may not fare much better.
Economics as a Discipline
I listened to Amartya Sen give a lecture entitled ‘Economics as a Discipline’ at the School tonight. Funnily enough, it wasn’t until the very end of the lecture, as he was receiving a loud ovation, that I fully realized that here before me was unquestionably one of the finest minds of out time. Count me among those who so greatly admire both Sen and his work. He is an academic who understands and makes use of the human element in any of the great questions he addresses.
That humanity breathed through his lecture. I’ll be honest and admit that my background in economic and social choice theory is not developed enough to make full sense of his address. That said, I could relate with his desire to address the extent to which economics must at times broaden its approach into other disciplines to capture a sense of reality.
I’ve given much thought lately to the value of approaching economics as essentially a branch of applied mathematics, as it seems to be taught in so many of the straight economics courses at the LSE. There is, of course, some worth to this. As a friend put it recently, math can express a thought in much clearer terms than can language. And yet, I’m left with the feeling that as a field economics has become all too removed from the reality of the problems it seeks to address, namely those of production and distribution especially geared toward those living in poverty and destitution. It’s important, when saying this, not to confuse an excessive focus on modelling and mathematics with intellectual complexity in general, because Sen combined both a strenuous intellectual approach with some very practical discussions of his discipline tonight. The core of his talk lay in the his belief that ultimate value of the field lies in the twin processes of simplifying and combining. Some simplification is necessary if we’re going to make sense of anything at all, whereas no field, be it economics or anthropology or history, can hope to explain a given phenomenon in its full depth without an at least basic reliance on often disparate (if connecting) disciplines.
There’s some very important epistemological issues to all this. They’re tied to the modern obsession with specializing oneself early on to carve out a niche, at which point one can begin to branch out, as Sen himself has. The problem is that the increasing search to focus on a particular problem may be leading academics down more and more obscure paths, making it that much harder to connect one’s specialization with that which is more general. Not everyone has the intellectual capacity of an Amartya Sen, who can combine the highly specific with the very general so effectively. Perhaps what is needed are a balancing number of academics who focus explicitly on the general, and who can then plug in the gaps, so to speak.
Walmart is not the question
Walmart’s business practices have been the target of several attacks in recent months. Criticism has focused on the extent to which Walmart's perceived obsession with price gouging has contributed to the movement of manufacturing jobs to low-wage nations like China.
Walmart's status as a controversial market leader ensures that there is benefit in attacking its business model. It is, however, the messenger in this debate. It is unfair (and ultimately impractical) to blame a company for a model that is legally reducing prices and saving consumers' money. Walmart's success has lay in exploiting the dominant current trends in the global economy. Advanced information technology and outsourcing combined with ruthless cost-cutting at the margins ensure that it is now able to undercut its rivals on almost everything it sells. This broader picture should be the issue of debate.
A recent documentary focused on a Thomson television manufacturing company in Circleville, Ohio. The plant had employed 1300 people until Thomson was forced to move the jobs to China so that it could afford to remain a supplier to Walmart. The story here is nothing new; it was a dominant issue of the last American presidential campaign, and it is a feature of political debates in all Western countries.
Economists are rarely consistent, but they have been close to unified in arguing the merits of free trade. According to theory, the money that is saved by consumers when they buy cheaper goods at Walmart will be spent elsewhere, and new jobs will be created in those suddenly flush sectors to replace those that have been lost. There has been growth in the service sector, for example, and western economies have seen net increases in jobs in the years since China and India have come onto the scene as outsourcing havens. Unfortunately, the solid empirical evidence of where these gains have occurred has been lacking. We're bound to hear more from those who lose out in the new economy than those who gain. In the end though, perhaps the anectodal evidence is most important in this debate. The question of how to respond to so many communities losing bread and butter jobs requires a better answer than statistics.
The trends that Walmart has exploited so effectively are good for the global economy. There are losers though, and they are an increasingly vocal segment of Western voters. Setting up effective policies to protect those who are losing jobs to the rest of the world will ensure that the positive benefits to free trade are not stopped cold. Modernized unions have a role to play, for example, in promoting re-education as a condition of being laid off. Western economies retain a manufacturing edge in more specialized products. Left wing parties should therefore better serve the cause of their supporters by arguing for policies geared toward small business and innovation. Ironically, perhaps, the left's modernization can now be best served by some of the right's traditional means.