Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.

American Exceptionalism from an Exceptional President

April 5th, 2009

On his victory lap through europe trip to the G20 Obama seemed to impress, well, everyone. While he didn’t seem to get much for Afghanistan (c’mon guys – 3K troops?) the G20 came up with more than nothing. At least the great powers are taking steps to cooperate more than they did in the runup to the Great Depression.

The bit that impressed me most, though, was Obama’s response to questions at a public town hall.

Er, stop. Yes, that’s right. An American president went abroad, had a press conference, and took questions. Yep, it happened.

Anyway, one question was posed on American Exceptionalism. Dangerous ground, since it’s easy enough to sound messianic or just plain jingoistic about it.

And yet, on the fly, Obama provided this answer:

Obama on American Exceptionalism

If I was a trained speechwriter I couldn’t have put it better. We do have a lot to be proud of in this country, dammit, and the last eight years are not enough to have destroyed the extraordinary accomplishments and potential of the US.

This Obama guy might have a future in public speaking. I’m gonna have to keep an eye on him.

Bad economy? Throw da bums out! And if you can’t?

January 22nd, 2009

A friend forwarded me some analysis from UBS’ China desk. The expert cautioned that economic growth this year might only hit 6.7% in the Middle Kingdom. 

Not too shabby compared to the US – we had an anemic 1.2% last year, and it will probably be significantly negative in 2009. (Though I expect miracles of our new President.)

China’s got a problem, though. With population growth, migration out of the countryside, and the ongoing dismemberment of what remains of the state-owned dinosaurs, Chinese economists see 9% as the real floor to prevent social unrest and make sure there are enough jobs to go ’round.

Here, we just have the habit of taking it out at the ballot box and kicking the bums to the curb.

So whaddya do in China? Considering the ongoing problems of mass incidents and social unrest (for which there are no longer numbers available) there’s some disgruntalment out there. If the CCP can’t deliver on ongoing prosperity, people no longer believe in their ideology, and the government is seen as ridiculously corrupt and ineffective.

Things could get interesting.

Or Vodka-Fueled Disaster?

September 28th, 2008

Russian Standard VodkaRussia is riding high on the oil money, as we’ve mentioned. But if demographics are destiny, thelong-term future’s lookin’ grim. Russia’s population growth rate is currently negative, at -.5% per year. (By comparison, America’s is positive 0.9%. Japan is considered to be in a disastrous position, and is -.13%.) (figures from the terrific CIA World Factbook) 

Despite its huge land mass, there are only 140,000,000 Russians out there – less than Bangladesh, and less than half that of the United States.

They’re also drinking themselves to death at extraordinary rate. The average Russian imbibes 20 litres of vodka a year, and beer is not even regulated as alcohol. Partly because of that, life expectancy for men is under 60 years.


Heroin abuse is dramatically up with the floodgates from Afganistan open. 1.6% of the population is a user in Russa – more than anywhere in the world apart from Mauritius (who knew) and Iran (huh). Ahead, even, of Afghanistan. (UN World Drug Report, 2008)

Given the vicious cycle of corruption and authoritarianism well under way, I doubt that things will get turned around any time soon. 

They can rebuild their moldering nuclear program given enough time and money, and obviously they are capable of stomping all over a tiny neighbor, but this ain’t a long-term peer competitor to the US. The more they growl, the more they’ll lose in the multilevel games that are international relations these days. A bully can take the little kids’ lunch money, but don’t expect him to be invited to dinner.

I still think learning Chinese was the way to go. Now there’s a long-term peer competitor. But they ain’t perfect, either.



Texas Tea Party…

September 23rd, 2008

Since I have been thinking about the Russkis of late, some more thoughts on why we shouldn’t be worried about the Arctic Fleet’s joy ride to Venezuela

“Sustainability” is a real buzzword in the US these days- growth should not sew the seeds for our future destruction. Not a bad idea.

If there’s anything that meets the definition of unsustainable growth, though, it’s Russia. The intimidating growth in foreign reserves over the last decade, the 60% increase in GDP, the halving of poverty – all very daunting.

In that time, though, check out the increase in oil prices-

Oil Spot Prices

And the production level for Russia:

Soviet-Russian Oil Production

Multiply ‘em and it explains why they’ve been rollin’ in rubles.

But what happens when Russia hits peak oil (already there?) or we have a real green revolution? When the music stops, there’ll be hell to pay.

This is not a diverse economy, and Dutch Disease looks to be a big issue.

Apart from the host of governance (how’s that whole democracy thing goin’, fellas?) and corruption issues, there’s a lot of other reasons why Russia is a paper bear, and probably won’t really rate more than a crusty regional power for the foreseeable future. More on that tomorrow.

Anyway, about that trip to Venezuela? Nice this time of year, but the flagship Peter the Great may not make it. In 2003 Half a mil worth of parts were literally ripped off and sold. Interesting metaphor.

Bear-ly tolerable?

September 21st, 2008

Tom Friedman (the Mustache of Understanding) wrote a book aeons ago (ok, last century) called “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”. The book, and most of Friedman’s writing, gets dismissed as layman’s schlock by highbrow IR folks, along with progressives who hate him, mostly for Friedman’s early support for the Iraq war. And his ridiculous metaphors. And perhaps the fact that his writing does really well. Me, I like him ‘cuz he’s a Minnesotan.

Anyhoo. In LntOT (not to be confused with LotR) Mr. F talks about the “golden straitjacket” applied by international financial institutions, banks, and investors. No modern economy can survive without the capital, liquidity, and confidence provided by a decent investment climate. I leave the discussion of the current American disaster to the real eggheads - but  it certainly emphasizes that no modern economy can really function without these fat cats behind them.

Maybe that’s not the right turn of phrase, because it looks like the investors have indeed been leaving Russia behind them. After an already-bad summer, the main Micex index has lost another 30% since the Georgian invasion. Gobs of money have fled Russia. Increasingly, folks are getting the sense that Putin’s Medvedev’s Putin’s Russia is not, well, normal. Not-normal places are bad for investment. Not-normal places with tremendous oil teats to suckle at sound all right, until you realize that you’re either gonna get locked up or nationalized. After that, well, they mostly sound like a bully who happens to control the playground where everyone wants to ride the hydrocarbon swings.

Er, sorry. Channelling Friedman. Anyway, the point is that Russia is paying a price for this incursion, and perhaps the neoliberal market economist dovish peace-love-dope hippies will be right, and Russia will find that crime trans-border conflict does not pay. So you can hold on the panicking for the moment.

If they go for Ukraine, well, then you can panic.


The End of the Innocence

August 18th, 2008

One of my favorite parts of my grad program was being a teaching assistant for Intro to International Relations. 

The question that demonstrated the fundamental differences in the class – and was always good for an argument where I could chill out, sit back, and watch the fireworks – was simply “Will there be a World War in our lifetime?”

No way, I though to myself, drifting off as the students started calling each other impolite names. The world is so economically integrated; it would be financial armageddon. All countries pay at least lip service to liberal democracy; apart from the fringe Salafist Islamic elements, there’s no existential enemy left out there. Peace will prevail. You silly Realist students gunning for another epic conflict were simply not getting enough multi-player Counter Strike in the dorms.  It was The End of History. It’s a Small World After All. Let’s all sing Kumbaya.

And then Russia stomped all over Georgia.

A lot of people have run the analysis of the situation in the Caucasus better than I will; if you read this, I’m sure you’ve read them already.

The main takeaways for me: Territory matters. Nationalism matters. As long as there are authoritarian regimes, the whim of the president prime minster matters.

The whole international system is built of beautiful stained glass – an intricate piece of delicate art, constructed over generations, that seems substantial – but the first time a thug throws a brick through it, as ephemeral as the air. 

As the power of the United States has been sapped in Iraq and a resurgent Russia and expanding China have caught up, we’re back to the era of the Great Powers. Not two superpowers, facing each other with the prospect of worldwide destruction, but something closer to the bad old days. The unipolar moment is past – if either of those countries committed to war in their sphere of influence, America would be faced with the choice of acquiescence - or another World War.

Maybe the teacher – despite my time overseas and expensive education – was the naive one in Intro to IR.

23%-40% of Homeless are Veterans

November 15th, 2007

National Alliance to End Homelessness

The US Department of Veterans estimates that as many as 200,000 homeless people are veterans, and that over the course of the year, as many as 500,000 veterans experience homelessness. … Recent media accounts highlight a small but growing trend of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan showing up in shelters.

Happy Veterans’ day!


November 12th, 2007

So, as predicted, we aren’t going to remember Nov. 11th as the Day the Internet Stood Still.

Jihadist E-Bomb Fails to Explode

Unsurprisingly, combine two things that journalists don’t understand – Salafist insurrectionists and the magic tubes of the Internet – and you’ve got great press but bad facts.

Of all the things to worry about out there, massive cyber-warfare isn’t high on the list. Even, I would think, in a time of real war.

Fortunately this won’t overshadow future celebrations of the signing of the Mayflower Compact


November 2nd, 2007

Uncowed by David Horowitz’s fatuous IslamoFacismAwarenessWeek , Al Qaeda has called for an Internet jihad against its enemies for November 11th.

I’m dubious about this stuff. Massive denial-of-service attacks, even if they occur, ain’t gonna do much. If a huge flow of data from the Middle East was swamping American servers, they’d simply cut off the link. A nuisance, but not a big one. Remember, DARPA was thinking about nuclear war when they designed the Internet.

The real malevolent force trying to destroy our American Internet-surfin’ way of life? the sinister backhoe.

Anyway, mark your calendars. If the Internet shuts down, go for a walk. It’ll be back in a minute.

Worst… Soda… Evah.

November 2nd, 2007

Public service message:

Bleeech.I don’t know why this seemed a good idea at the time, but I can tell you that Diet Pepsi Jazz Carmel Cream is terrible.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from a drink that could obviously contain neither of its eponymous “carmel” nor “cream” ingredients, but the outcome wasn’t pretty.

Hope springs eternal. Anyway, economists tell us that if you have a decent lifespan ahead, you might as well experiment – if you find something you like, you get to consume it for a long time, and if you don’t you can avoid it henceforth.

Here’s hoping I’m not hit by a bus tonight such that I wasted my last soda-drinking experience.

Politics Quote of the Day

October 29th, 2007

Kevin Drum made me snort my coffee through my nose with the best quote I’ve seen this month. He’s talking about the anti-Bogeyman-of-the-moment current in Republican foreign policymaking (Mahmoud is the anti-Christ!) but it applies to right-wing politics in general.

When people who believe stuff like that are dressed in rags and yelling at passersby from street corners, we call them crackpots. When they dress in suits and, say, edit the Weekly Standard, we call them foreign policy analysts. Weird, huh?

My Daily Constitutional

October 29th, 2007

While we’re on the topic of Constitutions, Kyrgyzstan just got itself a new constitution.

It’s a bit depressing; the little “Switzerland of Central Asia” is setting itself up to be another of the banal autocracies across the region. It’s a significant step backwards from the document that was forced through a year ago under dramatic popular pressure. The referendum passed with almost Hussainian levels of support with 80% of the people voting and almost all of them backing the president’s plan.

Read the rest of this entry »

Location, Location, Location.

October 25th, 2007

The Tobin & Mitchell Funeral Home is located at 666 Massachusetts Ave in Boston’s South End.

I thought that too amusing to let pass without sharing.

Mao is Ironic in China Now, Too

October 24th, 2007

Showing just how far they’ve come, China now has a string of restaraunts with a Mao-era collective mess hall theme. Imagine Applebee’s with portraits of Mao and Lenin and little red books rather than the Americana schlock. And perhaps without the indiffrently cooked steaks.

“We are not mocking that era. Our goal is to use history as a mirror to show how good things are now.” Right. So they’ll be beating their customers or making them stand with humilitating placards to get the atmosphere just right?

Anyway, the fact that one can rather irreverantly deal with such a tragedy is itself a step forward.

(hat tip: Foreign Policy Passport)

Constitutional Theory: Let’s Not Have A Revolution

October 23rd, 2007

In the least surprising breaking news of the week, Hu Jintao has been re-elected for another 5 years as China’s supreme leader. More interesting is that his personal contribution to Marx-Lenin-Mao-Deng-Jiang thought has been incorporated into the Chinese Constitution: Scientific Development.

This sounds like amending the US Constitution to add Compassionate Conservativism (remember those good ol’ days?) to the preamble, but it’s actually great evidence for how far from a rule-of-law society China really remains. The Constitution of the People’s Democratic Dictatorship sits forlorn at the trailing end of the policy parade rather than setting the fundamental rules of the game.

Anyway, the scintillating insight behind Scientific Development is that there are a lot of poor people in China – don’t forget, the country is still really poor, and the $7700 per capita in the big cities really pulls up the average – and if they aren’t helped, they might, oh, riot and overthrow the government.

We’ll see if this is just the most recent in a long series of crumbs tossed to the poor western areas, or if it actually makes a difference. The Chinese Communist Party should certainly remember that rural peasants do have the capability of overthrowing a government.

Cranberries, Mashed Potatos and Cross-Border Turkey Incursions

October 22nd, 2007

Looks like we have a nice lil’ situation brewing in Turkey/Northern Iraq. Remember northern, Kurdish-controlled Iraq? The nice peaceful place? Well, what’s a little internecine warfare between cousins – it’s an island of only occasional mass terrorist carnage. If you need a refresher, check out my friend Matan’s blog on his travels there. I’ll wait.

Anyway, Kurdish separatists snatched a dozen Turkish soldiers, right in the wake of the Turkish Parliament’s authorization for invasion of Northern Iraq.

This whole debacle will only get better if we manage to destabilize our long-time ally and the only real democracy in the region. Hey, maybe the military will revolt against their new (mildly) Islamic overlords and use it as an opportunity to get back in the driver’s seat.

For future reference when you’re wondering how to raise the temperature on Turkey without anyone getting hurt, check here.

In Defence of the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community

September 6th, 2007

Atrios is on one of his snarky tears these days on something that actually hits a bit close to home: the “Foreign Policy community,” which he sees as a bunch of pro-war shills for the administration and general nincompoops.

Here are some examples. (you can’t directly link to posts on his blog, but if you look for “foreign” you’ll find it.)

This gets me antsy, since I hope to be one of those nincompoops once I come out of my cocoon and become a Foreign Policy Community Butterfly.

Read the rest of this entry »

Stay Current with The Current Song of the Day

August 24th, 2007

One of the best NPR stations around has to be Minnesota’s The Current – listener supported indie rock. Good to know it’s not just rich old classical music snobs that can use that model.

Being back in minnesota I really enjoyed getting to listen to it, but what’s a body to do outside of broadcast range?

Never fear- apart from streaming live, they’ve also got one of the best RSS feeds I’ve seen: a song-of-the-day podcast. Not bad- 260 or so weekdays a year makes for a lot of cool new music.

Check it out. I’m currently jamming to the new The New Pronographers track.

Oh, and you should give them money too.

Clint and Amanda, Sitting in a Tree…

August 2nd, 2007

Great friends Clint Bitzer and Amanda Harlow were married last weekend in a beautiful outdoor ceremony. A Carleton-on-Carleton event, it was a lot of fun.

My pics are in the photo gallery.

Pakistani Democracy Not Quite Dead?

July 23rd, 2007

In Pakistan, President Musharraf also faces a threat diametrically opposed to that of Al Qaeda – the fact that the country is nominally a democracy.

Despite the parlous state of affairs there, the not-quite-elected president may have finally reached the outer limits of his authoritarian consolidation; after booting out the Chief Justice back in March, the Supreme Court said “um, no, you can’t do that” and reinstated him.

Months of protests have shown that there are still some folks out there concerned about this state of affairs. Musharraf could have upped the ante by preventing the Chief Justice from taking his seat or perhaps simply sacking the whole lot of them.

Oh, also, he may have to give up either the presidency or the leadership of the armed forces. Considering he only has the former because of the latter, it’s not a pleasant prospect.

Musharraf is a fascinating and rather sympathetic figure; he’s clearly a technocratic leader who isn’t doing a bad job for the economy, and has been a useful ally to the US. Pakistani friends tell me they really like him – too bad about the whole democracy thing, but he’s all right, they suggest.

Still, the threat of Islamists overrunning government ala Hamas seems unlikely given a real election, so I can’t see the Supreme Court’s moves as anything but a good thing.

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