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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

29 September 2005

Oil spare capacity

In response to a comment to my “Petroshenanigans” post (20 Sept 05), I came across this graph that might help explain my argument: it plots two variables—OPEC spare capacity and oil prices—and it seems to suggest that spare capacity and oil prices move in opposite directions. My own point—that when a cartel preserves spare capacity to artificially increase prices it indirectly serves to cushion excess variation in prices—was based on this relationship.

References:
Testimony of J. Robinson West Chairman PFC Energy 9/21/05 (link)

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FEMA graph

This was in The Daily Show last night and it is worth reproducing here; it is a graph from FEMA’s website meant to illustrate the agency’s function (link). It seems that its primary role is to help the sequence that leads from disaster back to disaster :-)

28 September 2005

Takeover nationalism

“National security … cannot take a second place to economic considerations. There needs to be balance, but we cannot sacrifice our safety for economic gain” (1). Thus declared Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senator Banking Committee, in reference to a report by the GAO on the process by which foreign bids will be evaluated by the American government.

My feeling is that America is driven more by emotion that by common sense in its effort to secure the “national interest.” Save some obvious exceptions (defense contractors), America’s hysteria to takeovers by firms from non-democratic states (read: China) is exaggerated.

Americans are afraid that foreign companies will play the game of their governments rather than abide by the rules of the market. To be sure, American companies serve American interests abroad just as well (and the perception abroad, rightly or wrongly, is very similar to the one Americans have of those “malicious” foreign firms,). But more importantly, the fear that companies will become a vehicle for political hostility confuses the political with the economic.

When a foreign government engages in hostile activities, the issue is no longer economic, but political. So the American reaction will be political; to think that foreign states can expect to hide behind their corporations and “attack” America without suffering retaliation is to accord them with more naiveté than they deserve. And for those states that want to take their chances, they will probably find that it is best to compete with America economically, rather than politically, and so will refrain from using corporate pawns to play a rough political game.

References:
(1) Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “Takeover panel under fire,” Financial Times, 28 September 2005

Indonesia fuel subsidies

Yesterday, the Indonesian parliament approved a plan to limit fuel subsidies to $8.7bn (the current estimate is that Indonesia spends about $14bn a year subsidizing fuel). The resulting price hikes are to come into effect this Saturday (Oct. 1), triggering fears about the impact on Indonesia’s politics; after all, fuel price hikes were part of the spark that helped topple former dictator Suharto. If anything, this decision shows political courage (it includes help to 15 million poorer families); but it also underscores the limitation of subsidies, as they create a sense of entitlement among the people which makes their abolition all the more difficult.

Asterix village?

“I get the feeling sometimes that our friends across the English Channel and across the Atlantic think that France is somewhat like an Asterix village. That is not the case.” (1). So quipped Gerard Larcher, France’s employment minister, who held meetings with Hewlett Packard, following the company’s decision to slash 1,240 jobs, a quarter of its French staff. But in its effort to preserve these jobs (HP promised to “limit job cuts”), Mr. Larcher will likely scare other companies that will attach a higher cost to doing business in France. That’s the price to pay for a little over a thousand jobs.

References:
(1) Martin Arnold, “France says support for intervention does not make it an ‘Asterix village’,” Financial Times, 28 September 2005

27 September 2005

Propaganda minister

The Financial Times, reporting on Karen Hughes’s trip to the Middle East, referred to her as “the new US minister for propaganda.” I always thought propaganda would be more successful when it is subtle—when it sways and convinces, instead of confronting and challenging. And so Mrs. Hughes’ trip puts a public face to American propaganda, a face that the conspiracy theorists will allude to when they need to discredit the pro-American tunes that are sung their way.

Energy-saving plea

President George W. Bush has made a public plea to cut down energy use; he said: “We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy. I mean people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they are able to maybe not drive, on a trip that’s not essential, that would be helpful.”

This statement is welcome, because at least it recognizes that there are two sides in the supply and demand equation, something the administration has often ignored when it comes to energy. But at the same time, it risks treating the permanent as transient—regarding the long term structural challenge of energy supply as a short-term disruption problem caused by an act of god.

As a rhetorical plea amidst catastrophe, the president’s words are welcome; but as an antidote to the energy problems confronting America, this statement is merely a joke.

26 September 2005

Dr A A

I had the pleasure to watch Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of Afghanistan, speak today. There is one thing he said that was most telling: “Somebody asked me a few days ago, what is the problem that is waking you up in the middle of the night? I told him, look I’ve been through a very troubled life, nothing wakes me up.”

Harvard geese

Lucy Kellaway, of the Financial Times, writes today:

“On a perfectly normal day at Harvard a couple of weeks ago, a dozen future leaders of the world sat in a circle and cried: honk! honk! honk! For an hour or so these 12 stopped being second-year masters students at the Kennedy School of Government. They became geese.

And yet the goose story at Harvard still manages to shock. It shows that a sharp brain and a huge amount of education are no protection against management stupidity. When America’s pre-eminent graduate school of politics starts honking it is time to admit that intelligence can no longer triumph over claptrap.”

It’s a wonderful column, with many more insights; but I just couldn’t resist quoting this part.

What goes around...

Yesterday, the Greek National Basketball team won the European Championships in Belgrade (for the first time since 1987). I remember following the team’s run to win these same honors in 1995 in Athens. Then, Greece lost a semi-final to Yugoslavia, and the overwhelming feeling was that the referees had been unfair to us; at a time when FIBA’s most powerful man was a Serb, conspiracy theories ravaged the competition. And what an irony it is (without implying anything about referee irregularities then or now) to see Greece win the title in Belgrade, in 2005, at a time when a Greek is the head of FIBA Europe. How things change…

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Rally for war & peace

This weekend, protestors gathered around the world to demonstrate their opposition to the Iraq war. But in Taiwan, there was a different kind of rally: 30,000 people took to the streets to urge parliament to approve an $18.4bn purchase of US weapons (it has been turned down 29 times already). I thought I would put that piece of information up here because we don’t seem to get many pro-weapons rallies these days...

20 September 2005

Petroshenanigans

It is inauspicious to find oil making the front pages—usually it spells trouble. Surging prices have been propelled by the Chinese dragon’s vociferous demand for oil and the fears that supply could be disrupted by political turmoil or terrorist attack. The net effect has been noticeable, particularly on roving drivers who are forced to rethink their transportation patterns.

But while this price hike underscores some of the oil industry’s weaknesses— particularly low investment and unequal attention to upstream and downstream activities—it also underlines a hard truth: that an oil cartel might be an essential component of the industry’s structure.

As a matter of principle and practice, I favor free markets: there is no doubt that if the oil market were to ever approach what would resemble a normal market, both the industry and consumers would benefit. But for geopolitical and economic reasons, this is unlikely. What is more, the oil industry lives with long-term investments that have to be made based on future projections of oil demand; these are always subject to change, making the permanent matching of supply and demand a very tricky and inexact science.

That brings us to OPEC (or any oil cartel for that matter). OPEC’s modus operandi has been to restrict supply by not marketing oil it could produce. (This is different than not producing oil because of lack of investment.) While this raised prices in the short term, it offered the market some stability and predictability that prevented prices from spiking too much by allowing OPEC to release oil short term and help demand find its supply.

All the same, OPEC has its failings. Its spare capacity, it turns out, consists largely of heavier crude oil, which is not what the market needs right now. And most countries (save Saudi Arabia) have been operating at near full capacity for many years—a sign perhaps that more investment should have been in the offing.

But while OPEC’s practices may have been suboptimal, the idea of an oil cartel that maintains spare capacity even for the sole purpose of raising prices, might not be an undesirable second best alternative to a truly free market. Think of these higher prices as the premium that consumers are paying for relative stability in the supply of oil.

Of course, this is the most benign view of OPEC that one can conjure up. But it is in difficult times that one is forced to think of—and remiss—of the good old days when oil was cheap; and what is life, after all, if one cannot put in a good world for such lowly regarded people as the ministers who make up the OPEC cartel?    

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19 September 2005

Six-party talks agreement

North Korea has announced its willingness to give up all its nuclear activities and rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty; America, in turn, has committed to not attack North Korea (1). In principle, this is not surprising; I have written elsewhere why North Korea would probably be amenable to abandoning its nuclear weapons (Nuclear Hermits, 16 July 05).

What is necessary now is to avoid the fate of the 1994 Framework Agreement, which both sides delayed in implementing. While a deal on electricity, aid, security, and nuclear weapons forms the cornerstone for any meaningful agreement, the success will ultimately hinge on how North Korea can be integrated into the world. That is why the normalization of relations with America and Japan, and the promises “to promote economics cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment, bilaterally or multilaterally” are the key parts of this agreement.

The parties have agreed to meet again in November to discuss this issue further. While the more pressing issues will need to be resolved (particularly about inspections), it is success in the broader themes that will make or break today’s agreement.

References
(1) Full text of Agreement @ BBC News (link)    

16 September 2005

Responsibility to protect

Of the ideas that will be discussed in the next few days in the United Nations, one stands out: the UN is likely to endorse (in a declaration) the principle of the “responsibility to protect,” an idea which has been brewing for a while and which pledges the world “to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (1).

The immediate reaction is twofold—on one hand, such a declaration is welcome, particularly as it codifies the growing sense that sovereignty is not an absolute good that can shield homicidal governments from foreign scrutiny and military intervention. On the other, there is hardly an expectation that such a declaration will mean much—after all, the UN has adopted a convention on the prevention of genocide that will soon celebrate its sixtieth birthday; but declarations don’t stop brutal regimes, force does, and countries will continue to intervene based on what they perceive their interests to be, not what UN declarations dictate.

There is another hope: that this acknowledgment will shame countries to act by establishing a new norm in international law. Again, this might be an exaggerated hope: remember that in February 2005, the United States confirmed its belief that the events in Darfur constituted genocide even though the UN fell short of attaching that label. No matter. No serious efforts have been made to pacify Darfur. While the telegenic absurdities of the Rwandan genocide have been avoided (when the US kept talking of “acts of genocide” to avoid using the word genocide), the international reaction has been equally muted as it was ten years ago in Rwanda.

There is one final risk to bear in mind: the prospect that this “responsibility to protect” will be hijacked to the point where it becomes meaningless. This can happen in either of two ways—the first will be an over-sensitized interpretation of its applicability: in other words, when people “cry wolf” all too easily thus diluting the true meaning of the idea. This could also lead to premature unilateral action from countries that are eager to resolve a conflict in their neighborhood. The second is that UN member states may twist resolutions to form exceptions to the “responsibility to protect.” This could either mean a stiff resistance by countries who will try to put up excuses (counter-terrorism, maintaining internal order, etc) to evade punishment.

Either way, it is too soon to tell how important this “responsibility to protect” will be in the long run. Most likely, it will add to a pile of documents that make for good reading in international law, but marginal reading in international politics.

References:
(1) Mark Turner, “UN ‘must never again be found wanting on genocide,” Financial Times, 16 September 2005

14 September 2005

Public diplomacy limits 2

Adam Garfinkle, editor of the newly launched American Interest, writes: “Moral clarity is an insufficient basis upon which to win a war or achieve a strategic victory, and to deny this is a confusion of the first order.” This is the perception that guides America’s public diplomacy campaign that I wrote about yesterday. And this quote (and article) captures the gap between what a country can intend to happen and what might actually happen in the ground—and how it is not enough to conduct foreign policy based on good intentions alone.

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13 September 2005

Public diplomacy limits

Last Friday, Karen Hughes was sworn in as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, underlining the Bush Administration’s renewed emphasis on “winning hearts and minds” abroad. But while the sentiment that pervades this appointment—that America needs to improve its image abroad—is welcome, its underlying tone is misguided: it is premised on the belief that the gap between America and its “enemies” rests on differing perceptions.

To begin with, the case for skepticism comes from all sorts of corners—it is doubtful whether America can remain so overwhelmingly powerful relative to other countries and maintain a likeable image abroad; it is also questionable whether anti-Americanism is as harmful to American security as policymakers presume it to be; and, it is not obvious that America can square off its national security interests with the need to be liked abroad—there is no easy formula to resolve this foreign policy tradeoff.

But the limits of America’s public diplomacy are to be found elsewhere: in America’s Manichean view of the world where America is inevitably good; from this flows a rhetoric that much of the world is uncomfortable with; from this belief also comes a presumption that foreign policy motives ought to be understood in conjunction with deeds.

In other words, Americans want their foreign policy critics to account for American motives as well as their acts; and since Americans are confident in their good intentions, the verdict will inevitably exonerate America. It is this thinking, for example, which leads many Americans to ask, when something so important and good is at stake (say democracy in the Arab world), shouldn’t the world give us, Americans, the benefit of the doubt?

This is an unbridgeable gap. It is not only that the world is hardly trustful of America’s motives (in many cases for good reason too, since idealism is only one strand of America’s foreign policy nexus); what is more important is that Americans are unable to comprehend the objections that many foreigners raise. While many foreigners might endorse America’s broad strategic goals, they can remain distrustful of America’s ability to bring them about (especially when force is involved)—it is a question of ability, not motives.

As the State Department intensifies its pubic diplomacy campaign, it should realize that explaining America’s intentions to the world is not enough; in fact, it is often the ambition of America’s motives which troubles much of the world.

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11 September 2005

Four years on

The forth anniversary of September 11 offers an opportune moment to ask whether the West is winning the war on terror that began on that fateful day.

At first glance, it is clear that neither al Qaeda nor the West have been able to reach their overarching strategic objective— al Qaeda’s dream to push the United States out of the Middle East is proving elusive with America occupying both Iraq and Afghanistan; and America’s quest for security has been compromised by the proliferation of jihadists that are wrecking havoc in Iraq and elsewhere.

But to move past this confusing picture, it is necessary to ask anew the basic questions: what does al Qaeda want and what does America want? What is America’s strategy and what is al Qaeda’s? Only then can we possibly engage the bigger issue of all: who is winning the war on terror?

As best we can gauge it, Al Qaeda’s goal is to transform the Islamic world, give it a theocratic character, and, in the longer term, redraw it as to wash away the boundaries that signal the regions’ encounter with modernity. For its part, America’s primary objective is security; but given that security in no absolute good, America’s aim is to achieve a level of security that is consistent with prosperity—in other words, enough security so that Americans will not fear foreign threats that will compromise their way of life.

AL QAEDA

Al Qaeda’s strategy has changed over the years. It began with the assumption that America was weak and disinclined to fight—at least, that was the lesson that the terrorists took from America’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Somalia. But a series of attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen undermined this belief—America seemed unwilling to retreat from the world in light of these attacks.

September 11 marked the response to his failure—a bigger attack was needed to bring about al Qaeda’s objective. It is unlikely that Osama bin Laden expected America’s reaction to September 11 to be soft—war was what he expected, and a war is what he got. For al Qaeda, war was acceptable; after all, the jihadists had beaten a superpower before in Afghanistan, a likely battlefield in this war as well given that al Qaeda’s landlords were the Taliban rulers of that country. What is more, a war would make the Muslim world defensive against America, offering potential recruits to Osama bin Laden and his network. The third strategic calculation underpinning the September 11 attacks was to demonstrate America’s weakness and al Qaeda’s strength, since the relative perception of power between al Qaeda and its enemy would do much to affect others’ decision of who to join.

In the long run, al Qaeda’s bet is twofold. The first possibility is for Muslims to respond to its message and topple the corrupt governments that have strayed from Islam’s true word and have allied themselves with the West. This has yet to happen: there has been no mass uprising in the Muslim world with that call. This is partly due to al Qaeda’s own strategy: by attacking both the West and its allied governments in the Muslim world, al Qaeda achieved ideological coherence at the expense of strategic advantage; the result has been an alliance between America and regional governments against al Qaeda. Remember that even the Taliban, probably al Qaeda’s model of what a theocratic Muslim state ought to look like, required outside assistance, Pakistan’s, to consolidate power and survive. Al Qaeda has sympathizers all over but no backers that can help it convert its movement into a state-like entity.

To this must be added a second reason why al Qaeda has failed to bring about the requisite change—it lacks the organizational capacity to topple regimes in the Middle East. In a way, al Qaeda has chosen to fight the West because it is easier to do so—political organization, much less armed struggle, is almost unthinkable in the countries that al Qaeda would most like to attack: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Hence, al Qaeda has substituted the war it wants to fight for the war it can fight. But al Qaeda has hardly weakened the Middle East countries’ capacity to quell down whatever political opposition al Qaeda can muster. Even more, al Qaeda lack a political message—it can articulate grievances but it does not have the organizational capability to do anything other than fight wars. Even if a power vacuum were to be created in the Middle East, it is unclear that al Qaeda would be able to fill it.

It is the weakness of this strategy that makes Al Qaeda’s have a second bet—to believe that it can win the war by forcing America to lose it. This could be accomplished in either of two ways: one possibility is that America, and the American public in particular, will tire of fighting in the Middle East, pack up and go. There are signs that Americans are growing weary of the war in Iraq; but that is partly because the situation in Iraq seems unmanageable and partly because the link between the war in Iraq and the war on terror has been severed in many public minds. What is more important, however, is that Americans are unwilling to make the sacrifices that would ensue were America to minimize its meddling in the Middle East—particularly a move away from reliance on resources which are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Middle East. Put otherwise, to withdraw from the Middle East would necessitate a change in the way of life that Americans are not prepared to make—hence, the case for attaching a high geopolitical importance to the region will remain strong.

The other prospect for al Qaeda to win this war is to force an American withdrawal; similarly to the Soviet loss in Afghanistan, this scenario would mean that America can no longer fight or maintain heavy forces abroad. But the structure of the world economy—and its financial dependence on America—and the flexibility of America’s own economy in running deficits without immediately negative consequences are both assets in America’s advantage. What is more, the American economy is sufficiently robust to handle high levels of military spending without forcing a reconsideration of American life or society, as happened in the Soviet Union. The one upside for al Qaeda is that many of America’s traditional allies have shied away from sticking in full with America’s policies, which explains al Qaeda’s emphasis in trying to drive a wedge between America and its European allies. But although America is finding that there are limits to what military power and unilateralism can do, this has yet to lead America to rethink its entire military posture or alliance network in the world.

What emerges from this analysis is that al Qaeda has the tactical upper hand, by remaining a continuous nuisance for the West, but the strategic disadvantage of not being sufficiently powerful to bring forth the change it aspires to in the Muslim world.

AMERICA

America’s search for security from terrorist groups consists of three separate components: first, America can deny terrorists the operational capacity to attack it; second, it can decrease the desire that people have to fight America; and third, it can make itself more likable in the world, thus diminishing the extent of the preoccupation that foreigners have with America. America’s strategic advantage is that its security can be preserved by achieving any of the three, while the terrorists depend on a combination of all three to win (they need people who hate America and have both the capacity and the desire to fight it).

The first component lies in the tactical battle—freezing assets, pursuing and jailing terrorists, controlling the materials they need to carry out their attacks (or materials to carry out attacks involving chemical, biological or nuclear weapons), and so on. In this battle, the verdict is mixed: yes, America has locked up many jihadists, but not only do the masterminds remain at large, but also there seems to be a large supply of people willing to die for the cause of fighting America. In other words, the tactical battle is a necessary but insufficient protection for America.

The second component requires that people become unwilling to fight. Many Europeans, for example, have the means to fight America if they chose to; others still might rejoice in seeing America humiliated. What most Europeans lack, however, is any desire to sacrifice—they have no reason to upset their normal lives to fight America. This is largely a byproduct of prosperity and democracy. It is this thinking that has led the Bush Administration to make democracy the cornerstone for reshaping the Middle East.

To be sure, democratization is welcome; but it is unclear whether America has succeeded in this objective. On one hand, there are democratizing overtures heard in various corners of the Muslim world; Lebanon’s “cedar revolution” and Egypt’s recent election being the most obvious examples, though it is still too early to grasp the full import of these events. On the other, the Middle East lacks the basic ingredients of modernization—a healthy economy, a vibrant middle class, institutions of liberty and accountability. Even more important for America’s security, it lacks the mechanisms for providing jobs to all those who see life as little more than a disappointment.

What about the third component: minimizing America’s impact on people’s lives abroad? It is important to recognize that it is America’s imprint in the world that makes people resent it, though different people perceive that imprint differently—some detest America’s power and allure, others oppose America’s policies; some have legitimate grievances, others a litany of irrelevant complains. Put otherwise, anti-Americanism can be thought of as a political failure—the failure to secure American interests abroad without provoking a backlash against the pervasiveness of American influence. It is the failure, to offer an obvious example, to secure a reliable supply of oil in the West without making common cause with the House of Saud and its domestic policies. The question for American security, then, is: how can America achieve what it wants abroad without being so omnipresent in people’s minds that many people identify whatever goes wrong in their lives with America? While there is no easy answer to this question, it is clear that America’s high-pitched rhetoric and powerful military forces in all corners of the globe ensure that America cannot, in the near future, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

SCORECARD

The scorecard is confusing since both sides seem to lose points before they manage to gain them. Al Qaeda is nowhere nearer to achieve its strategic goal of establishing a theocracy in the Middle East than it was in September 11, 2001. America, for its part, has learned that stability cannot be purchased at the expense of democracy; but while it has struck blows to the terrorist network that attacked it, the harder part is sure to come. In other words, this is a recipe for prolonged struggle—both sides sufficiently powerful to harm the other, but neither sufficiently capable to win.      

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07 September 2005

Turkey on trial

On October 3rd, the European Union has promised to begin membership talks with Turkey; it is rather embarrassing, then, that Turkey has just decided to put Orhan Pamuk, a world renowned novelist, on trial for “[complaining] about the conspiracy of silence about the mass murder of the Ottoman empire’s Armenians during and after the first world war” (1). Even worse, however, is the news that comes from polls that capture the European attitudes to the prospect of Turkish membership: in nine EU countries surveyed, only 22 percent thought Turkish membership was a good thing, 29 percent were opposed, and 42 percent were undecided (2).

More than anything else, this public ambivalence offers a hint about the future of the European Union’s relations with Ankara. Currently, the problem revolves around European politics—Europe’s leaders have made gestures and commitments implying that Turkey could one day become part of the European Union while the European peoples retain an enduring skepticism of that membership prospect. The big problem, therefore, is how to satisfy both the European public and avoid a Turkish rebuff.

The answer could be to put the question of Turkish membership to referendum. Under this scenario, Turkey will continue to make progress in implementing the acquis communautaire, therefore making Turkey adhere to standards that it would otherwise not; then referenda will decide the issue of Turkish membership—if accepted, then the gap between what leaders want and what people are willing to accept will have been bridged; otherwise, Turkey will have already been converted into a country whose orientation and sensibility is largely similar to that of the European Union members, thus making some other type of partnership between Europe and Turkey more likely.

But there is one last thought that is worth putting out there—about Cyprus, the only EU member that Turkey refuses to recognize. Whether Turkey should recognize Cyprus before or during the membership talks is immaterial; what is important is that Turkey’s recognition of Cyprus is not reciprocated with concessions from Europe—in other words, it is not part of a quid pro quo. Just as the world would not accept Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip as an excuse to cling to the West Bank, so Europe must refuse to elevate a common sense policy—recognizing Cyprus—into a concession that requires a reciprocal gesture from Europe.

References:
(1) “EU must honour its promise to Turkey,” Financial Times, 5 September 2005
(2) Daniel Dombey, et al, “European public anxious over Ankara EU entry,” Financial Times, 7 September 2005; countries surveyed were: France, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Slovakia.

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The apolitical being

As I begin to study for an advanced degree in international affairs, I know that I will be increasingly annoyed by the superficial discussion of grave political issues, either in the media or among friends who don’t share my passion for politics. In the past this has troubled me greatly; but over time, I have come to see this as a blessing. Let me explain why.

It was Aristotle who said that humans were, by nature, political beings. It is true that humans yearn for social interaction and that interaction will be inevitably political. But I also think Aristotle was wrong—politics is a necessary evil, more so than an organic expression of an innate human characteristic. Surely, not so for people who enter politics in their quest for power; rather, it is true for most people, who treat politics as a medium for improving things. For them, political participation is inversely related to how effectively a political unit is being run.

Think of the motto, “All politics is local.” More than anything else, this cliché encapsulates the basic reality of politics—that people enter politics to change things that affect them. It is poverty in the developing world that motivates people to study international development, just as the attacks on September 11 stimulated people’s curiosity about the Middle East. For most, the time to think about politics is when the lights go out, gas prices climb high, taxes are excessive or children can’t read; and historically, people have been involved in politics when governments have given them reason to do so, usually by denying them basic freedoms.

Why is this important? After all, human fallibility will always be mirrored in political imperfection and hence people will continue to be involved in politics whatever their motivation. But recognizing politics as a necessary involvement leads to a different conception of political life. It is easy to forget that democracy arose from practical realities rather than philosophical argument; and that without the practice the philosophy of democracy would wither away in books that need translation to be read, and meticulous study to be understood. Here is Robert Kaplan, drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s wisdom:

“In this ‘Author’s Introduction’ to Democracy in America, Tocqueville showed how democracy evolved in the West not through the kind of moral fiat that we are trying to impose throughout the world but as an organic outgrowth of development. European society had reached a level of complexity and sophistication at which the aristocracy, so as not to overburden itself, had to confer a measure of equality among its citizens and allocate some responsibility to them: a structured division of the population into peacefully competing interest groups was necessary if both tyranny and anarchy were to be averted.”

What I am getting at here? To begin with, political apathy is not the devil incarnate that political junkies make it out to be, as it often reflects on the marginal importance of politics; where it does, it is most welcome. But the broader message is that the guarantors of political freedom are neither education nor awareness—it is interests. Interests give people the incentive to protect themselves—and interests can give people the means to check government power.

This is a sobering message that runs counter to the instinctive idealism that pervades people who, like me, are seeking to extend their political education and better prepare themselves to understand and change the world. But it is a blessing, and evidence of our success, to find ourselves less and less relevant amidst people who want to get on with their lives rather than listen to us, heralds of political news.

05 September 2005

Supreme crisis

The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist will inevitably inflame public debate about the Supreme Court. But while the media’s attention will focus on the personal beliefs of the candidates to replace him (as it has done with John Roberts, potential replacement for Sandra Day O’Connor), a broader question is unlikely to receive as much airtime as it deserves: does the institution of the Supreme Court work well?

There are reasons to think that it does not. The Supreme Court has two functions: first, to balance between the constitution and the laws, and hence check the power of legislatures to pass laws that could threaten enduring values of the American character or undermine the functioning of the American federal system; second, it is supposed to “decide cases,” as Justice Byron White succinctly described the Court’s purpose in 1962 (1).

But while the Court has two political functions, its modus operandi is one: deciding cases. “Courts are supposed to resolve cases, not make broader policy, which is exactly what happens when they decide more than the question a case presents,” writes Mr. Wittes, explaining the complaint of Laurence Silberman, of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (1). It seems clear from the furor about Supreme Court appointees that the public perceives justices as policy-makers and not umpires between two competing legal adversaries.

What is more, the justices seem less and less inclined to follow precedent. A study by James Fowler, of the University of California at Davis, shows how the Rehnquist Court has reached new lows in citing precedent, “reaching an average of a mere five citations by 2002” (2). This is evidence that the Court perceives its own role to be less the custodian of sacred principle than the maker of public policy.

All the same, the Court is ill equipped to be a policy-maker. For one, the justices are unelected by the public; what is worse, they have no external restraint (save Constitutional Amendments which are rare and cumbersome). The only way to change the Court’s mind is to change the Court itself; but “longer life spans and justices’ increasing reluctance to retire have raised their average tenure from fifteen years before 1970 to twenty-five years since then” (3).

To this should be added another problem, noted by Stuart Taylor Jr. in The Atlantic Monthly: the distance that the justices have from the real world. “Debates over the Court’s ‘balance’—ideological, ethnic, gender—will doubtless heat up as Congress considers the current vacancy [O’Connor’s]. Yet there is likely to be little discussion about the greatest imbalance—the one in the collective real-world experience of its justices” (3). It is this imbalance, Mr. Taylor believes, that leads the Court to rule without due regard to the practical application of its decision on the day-to-day running of lower courts or business.

Take a step back, then, and the picture that emerges is clear: the Supreme Court has too much power and too little check, hardly the ideal for a system built on checks and balances. The most sensible reaction to the current crisis is to make the Court more flexible and hence make it likelier to meet its equilibrium position where it can serve both its political function and its primary obligation to “decide cases.” And there is no greater way to achieve this by placing a limit on the justices’ tenure and hence bring about a continuous infusion of new ideas on the bench.

References:
(1) Benjamin Wittes, “Without Precedent,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2005
(2) “The wisdom of Hercules,” The Economist, 27 August 2005
(3) Stuart Taylor Jr., “Remote Control,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2005

02 September 2005

Katrina effects

Rarely has the human and geopolitical cost of a weather event been as great as that of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina will have a lasting impact on America’s economy; short term because 12% of America’s refining capacity has been impaired due to the hurricane (1); and long term, because the port of South Louisiana is the world’s fifth largest port and a major trade artery for the United States (2).

But there is one story that will make surely headlines as time passes: the limited refining capacity that the United States has and the fact that there has not been a single new refinery built in America in the past twenty five years (3). This explains in large part why America’s refining industry has been operating at near full capacity and it also underlines why the effects of Katrina on energy prices is likely to be severe.

In there, however, lies a bigger truth about American politics: the tendency to refuse that politics is about tradeoffs. More so than any other, the Bush Administration has consistently denied that political acts are interconnected, and that what may be comfortable today might prove dangerous or reckless when seen from a distance.

Take the economy. It was Vice President Cheney who pronounced the deficits do not matter; and it is the general policy of the Bush government to remain uninterested in the broader effects of its twin deficits on the American economy. At its core, this overlooks certain inescapable realities—that a deficit today means either that a government will have to run a surplus in the future, or at least that a greater percentage of the government’s revenue will go to service debt. And a trade deficit means that the credit that foreigners are extending to America will, sooner or later, have to be repaid, most likely by switching the consumption patterns of Americans (who will need to save more to repay the loan).

Or take energy. The Bush administration is emphasizing that increasing energy supply—for example by drilling in Alaska—is the solution to America’s problems. And what about climate change? “Technology” is the answer. These two positions are not unreasonable—but they are reckless when offered as the only remedies. You can’t thin an obese man just by taking away his food—at some point, you have to curb his appetite as well. As the refining story that comes from New Orleans reminds us, it is not possible to avoid building new refineries whilst not compromising the country’s vulnerability to a shock such as Katrina.

Or take foreign policy. After Katrina, the Bush administration might have to approach European countries with whom it has quarreled over Iraq to tap into their petrol reserves; given that Germany, France, Spain (and Italy) have the largest petrol stocks, this is a foreign policy predicament that gives unilateralism and multilateralism a new face (4). But Katrina is hardly the whole story; Americans, not limited to this administration, have only recently awakened to the link between supporting oppressive regimes and fostering enmity among their citizens towards America. And the Bush motto after September 11, “live your lives as usual,” is hardly attuned to the drums of war that the president is beating.

The list could go on, and Bush is hardly the only culprit. To be sure, there is something inspiring about trying to square the trade-off circle and about offering opportunity and hope where none exist. But there is a point when refusing to accept certain political linkages does more harm than.

That’s food for thought in the aftermath of a great catastrophe that is likely to rejuvenate the energy and other debates in America.

References:
(1) Sheila McNulty, “US pays the price of years of living dangerously,” Financial Times, 2 September 2005;
(2) George Friedman, “New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize,” STRATFOR Geopolitical Intelligence Report, 1 September 2005
(3) The reasons offered vary, but they inevitably have to do with the NIBMY (Not in my back yard) syndrome whereby local communities shun efforts to build new refineries close to where they live, to environmental requirements that make refining less attractive, and to the fact that oil companies have invested less in refining than in other parts of the business. Ref. 1 and also, “US stockpile approach proves too crude,” Financial Times, 2 September 2005
(4) Carola Hoyos, Javier Blas, Edward Alden, “Europe’s offer of petrol places Bush in quandary,” Financial Times, 2 September 2005

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