Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's Missing Piece

As many of you well know, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Address last night. (Okay, it wasn't technically a "State of the Union Address", but for all intents and purposes, it acted as one.) As expected, his focus was planted solely where it should be: on repairing the sorry state of the domestic economy and attending to neglected domestic policies. But what was urgently missing from these remarks was enough attention to challenges outside of US borders, particularly a vision for the world.

To be clear: Obama's priorities seem to be in the right order. Yet the weight he gave each priority in his address to the nation was skewed too much toward domestic priorities. Put another way, prioritization is not the same as single-mindedness.   

Before going on, though, it should be stated that his domestic policy seemed well-organized, smart, and focused on the right areas. Beside the immediate stimulus plan, Obama said that he would focus his energy on three areas: energy, health care, and education. He talked about instituting a carbon cap in the US market and making clean energy technology profitable. Although he shrugged off the specifics of a health care plan, Obama rightly stressed the importance of universal health care for competitive business and the significance of preventive health care. (A note: Obama has made a clear political commitment to obtaining universal health care within a year when he said health care reform "will not wait another year." If he fails, then this could drain a good bit of political capital.) In education, Obama declared that the high high school drop rate would be reigned in and that significant college tuition credits would be given to students in exchange for volunteering. These are all positive steps to take.

And attending to all three issues is imperative for the long-term health of the US economy. But so is a global system of free trade, a halting of climate change, and stable international relations. Of course, none of the the latter concerns can be attended alone. 

Yet of Obama's 5,902 words spoken last night, 515 were in reference to foreign policy. That's 8%. In an hour-long speech, that is about 5 minutes. 

I don't want to overplay the numbers; they are relatively arbitrary by themselves. But it gives you an idea of the lack of attention given to foreign policy.

More importantly is what the remarks lacked in substance. In three sentences, Obama said that he would soon be unveiling his policies for Iraq, Af-Pak, and the general struggle against terrorism. Then he paid respect to American troops and spent a couple sentences denouncing Guantanamo and torture. 

For the moment, let's forget that he provided no specifics on the important issues above. Understandably, this was not the forum to discuss the nitty-gritty of securing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. As promised, Obama will likely roll these details out in the coming weeks.

Then the president went on to make a valiant -- but failed -- effort at presenting a grand foreign policy. He stated that the US needs the world just as the world needs America -- a true statement. Obama declared that a "new era of engagement has begun" in which the US will negotiate with friends and foes alike, using "all elements of our national power" to tackle global problems in concert with other nations. This sounds very near to Joseph Nye's concept of smart power. (Clinton invoked the term explicitly in her confirmation hearing -- see page 4.) Obama even goes on to give the approaching G20 meeting in April as an example of how the US must engage with the world.

But neither engagement nor smart power is a grand strategy. They are tools in a foreign policy toolbox. They are means to an end. But what end? 

Sure, we want a stable Afghanistan, a democratic Iraq, a stop to climate change, peace and development in Palestine, etc. Everyone can agree that they want the most pressing problems resolved. But it is not enough for any country, especially a global superpower, to leap from crisis to crisis, reacting to flashpoints as they present themselves. The US must have a vision. America must actively shape the world it wants to see five, ten, or twenty years from now. 

And on a bureaucratic level, a lack of grand strategy is destructive. If the scores of policy planners in the State Department, Defense Department, and Commerce Department are not linked by a common overarching strategy from the White House, then the administration risks disparate and conflicting policies across issues and regions. Policy planners must have general guidelines from which to work.

Far be it from me to declare the grand vision for the United States, but there are various strategies that could be pursued by the US for, let's say, the year 2025. (Conveniently, I will pose them as rhetorical questions.) Should the US still be the unquestionable, sole superpower? Should a more robust system of international law regulate state behavior and begin to shape a more powerful world government? Should a multipolar system of 4 or 5 global powers be working together to provide international security? Should all failed states be nonexistent? 

I have a thousand of them. It is easy (and quite fun for policy wonks) to come up alternative visions for the world. But this should not be an academic exercise. It is a governing necessity. 

After last night's speech, we all know what the ideal US economy would look like under the Obama Administration: buildings powered by solar panels, booming clean energy companies without the burden of employee health care, and a population dominated by a highly educated workforce.   

But based on last night's remarks, I defy you to tell me what the ideal international order would look like under the Obama Administration. You cannot. And that is the missing piece.    

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting the Priorities Straight

State Secretary Hillary Clinton just finished her trip through East Asia, ending it with a few days in China. 

In her meetings with Chinese officials, Clinton expressed a clear, unequivocal (and correct) message: climate change and economic agreements will be prioritized in US-China relations over human rights and Tibet. The latter set of issues is intrinsically important, but if America and the PRC do not find common ground on halting carbon emissions and economic spiraling, then political freedoms become overshadowed by risings seas, crop failure, natural disasters (in the long-term) and economic collapse (in the short-term). More simply put: how can you talk about someone's rights if you cannot assure their basic necessities?

By striking this note in its first contact with the Chinese, the Obama administration has signaled that it understands the formula above. This is a good first step. But China and the US now need to act very quickly to reach agreements on carbon limits, technology sharing, and green energy investment (for the climate) as well as an agreement to stem off any moves at protectionism (for the economy). 

Then, once each country has specific carbon limits and stable economies, the US can shift more attention to the balance across the Taiwan Strait, the future of Tibet, and the rights of dissenters, media, and the religious in China. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gandhi He is Not.

This month, Martin Luther King III, leading a delegation of prominent civil rights leaders, retraced the Indian path that his father traveled in 1959. King Jr. went to India to learn methods of nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi before taking these lessons back to America and leading one of the most successful nonviolent campaigns in history. 

King III's trip was described recently in a Washington Post article. At the end, the article discusses the nonviolent struggles of Gandhi and King being continued by Barack Obama. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga), a leader during the civil rights movement, was quoted as saying, "Many years ago, Gandhi showed the world that nonviolence was one of those immutable principles in the struggle for justice. Today, everybody in the world feels, 'If Barack Obama can do it, so can I.' " 

Barack may yet still prove to be an historic leader of social change. But Gandhi he is not.

These comparisons of the president to King and Gandhi, about which I have too often heard and read, need to stop. 

You might wonder why I would take the time to make a fuss about this. And my reason is simple: Obama is not nonviolent. As admirable as Obama's rhetoric and many of his actions have been, the courage to lead a nonviolent campaign in the face of severe hate, blatant oppression, and death threats exists on another tier altogether. 

It is incredible that the success of the Indian independence movement, American civil rights movement, and Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution was driven by the suffering and instinctual fear overcome by millions. These struggles were a refusal to meet cruelty with cruelty, hate with hate. At its core, nonviolence is the most honorable of strategies. It is both an appeal to your aggressor's humanity as well as an adamant conviction to keep your own. 

President Obama has already allowed three Predator drone attacks in Pakistan since he took office, killing dozens of people. And he will continue to fight the war in Afghanistan with military force. Implicitly, then, Obama is supporting social change through violence -- obviously the opposite of nonviolence. 

This is neither meant to be an indictment of Barack Obama nor a discussion of whether or not nonviolence is realistic on the international level. (Though it may be.) Indeed, as the political leader of the most powerful country in the world, you can be sure that Obama would have never been elected if he had declared on the campaign trail that the US would eschew all violence under his presidency (see: the campaign of Dennis Kucinich).

That said, stop comparing the nonviolence of Gandhi, King, and others to the political movement of Obama. I admire the president for many of his principles, but none of those is the refusal of violence as an instrument of change.   

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Slippery Slope of Germ Warfare

In a recent column in Slate, Christopher Hitchens argues that the international community now is legally justified in using force to arrest Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. There may be a case for the international community to prosecute Mugabe, but one of the reasons that Hitchens lists is a dangerous precedent in international law: unintentional germ warfare.

He argues that Mugabe's governing negligence has led to Zimbabwe's widespread cholera outbreak -- which has taken over 3,000 lives in less than three months -- that is threatening to drive many infected peoples into bordering countries like South Africa. Based on this, Hitchens claims that Mugabe leads an implicit aggressor state against his neighbors, and under the UN Charter, this is grounds for defensive action (i.e. international intervention to dethrone Mugabe).

But this is a legal slippery slope of black ice, if there ever was one. No matter how negligent -- and he is a terrible leader of his people -- Mugabe did not intend for the cholera to spread like a biological agent via desperate Zimbabwean citizens. Mugabe has no interest in attacking his neighbors.

So if the new precedent is 'unintentional germ warfare' as grounds for invasion, then the implications are frightening. China would be invaded biannually whenever it suffers from an outbreak of bird flu in its southern provinces. Any country could declare war on any other if it could prove that a sick person from a foreign nation had transferred a disease to their own citizens. The US -- with its widely traveled population -- would be invaded by Summer 2009. This is absurd.

It seems like Mr. Hitchens wanted to derive reasons for a conclusion from a pre-determined conclusion. In other words, "Mugabe is a horrible person and should be removed from power, so what evidence can I find to prove my desired outcome?" This is not how reason should work. The evidence should drive conclusions, not the other way around.

All this said, there still may be a case to intervene. The Responsibility to Protect -- an international agreement solidified during the 2005 World Summit -- surrenders a state's sovereignty to the international community if the state's government cannot or will not protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing. Under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the horrible economic depression and disease that has continued unabated in Zimbabwe for eight years may be defined as a "crime against humanity". 34-year life expectancy and 200,000,000% inflation is not a societal order; it is a nightmare.

Of course, with the recent political compromise and subsequent swearing-in of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, it may now be an illegitimate time to invoke R2P. Nevertheless, with state failures like Zimbabwe, we must begin to debate a broader definition of "crime against humanity".

Correction (2 February, 2009): Zimbabwe has experienced 200,000,000% inflation, not 200,000%... as if the currency wasn't worthless enough.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

China should play a greater role in “Af-Pak”

Earlier this week, I described two approaches to solving America's foreign policy challenge in Afghanistan. One of those solutions involves, among other things, significantly more troops -- but not necessarily American troops.

On February 12, a newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post published my op-ed on this issue. You can see it as it appears in the paper here. Conveniently, the article is sandwiched right between Tom Friedman and David Ignatius (lower-left corner). Let's hope that draws a few eyes to my argument!

Editors at the Morning Post have a tendency to tweak opinion pieces without permission (or without thought to what they are cutting out). So below, you will find the full essay as I originally wrote it. (Importantly, it includes a more complete defense of my proposal.)

Original essay:

Next week, Secretary of State Clinton makes her first trip to Beijing. She must make a case for China – a regional stakeholder – to play a greater role in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Currently, the Obama Administration is undertaking a major review of the war in Afghanistan. The president has already indicated that the US will probably scale back its objective there from installing a democracy to stabilizing the country and ridding it of terrorist elements.

There are two major impediments to achieving stability in Afghanistan. The first is resources. Despite plans to send 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, the total allied forces will not be able to cover the vast expanses of the country. Further manpower seems unlikely to materialize: Iraq is not going to simply go away and NATO is resisting deeper involvement.

The second challenge is Pakistan. The tribal regions of the country’s northwest has given space for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to plan attacks on allied forces in Afghanistan. These militants are hard to reach due to a lack of central rule from Islamabad as well as adamant Pashtun resistance against any foreign presence. For eight months, the US has tried to fight inaccessible militants with drone attacks, but this tactic has only served to exacerbate tensions with Pakistani politicians and anger local tribes.

China could assist in both “Af-Pak” challenges.

The People’s Republic has strategic energy and economic interests in maintaining stability in both nations. Pakistan and China share a free trade agreement and did over $6 billion in bilateral trade last year. The “All Weather” allies are aiming for $15 billion in the coming years.

Beijing also considers Pakistan critical to energy security. The Gwadar port – 400km from the Straight of Hormuz – along with a network of rail and roads through Pakistan assures the convenient transport of Middle Eastern oil and gas to China through Xinjiang Province.

In Afghanistan, China has deep interests in acquiring natural resources. In 2007, after President Karzai opened up his country to foreign investment of natural resources, China Metallurgical Group won the rights to develop the world’s largest undeveloped copper field in Anyak for $3.5 billion. China’s state-owned companies are also likely to pursue Afghanistan’s untapped oil, gas, and iron resources.

Beyond these motivations, the circumstance in Af-Pak is an opportunity for China to take another next step toward its stated goal of becoming a responsible regional power and major world player. Beijing can allay concerns in the international community over its growing influence if it shows – through action – that it is ready to contribute to stability in trouble areas in its own neighborhood.

China can help in two primary ways: aid and troops. In Pakistan, China has been providing military aid for decades. This funding should increase to support Pakistani forces in rooting out violent militants in FATA. (Of course, the funding will not do any good without a successful effort by Special Representative Richard Holbrooke to convince Pakistani troops to fight.) Developmental aid will also be needed to encourage tribes to reject Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

China can help tackle the most urgent problem in Afghanistan – a lack of manpower – by lending some of its 1.7 million ground forces to the mission. Not only will this bring the stability necessary for economic development, but Pakistan would be much more comfortable with a large build-up of Chinese troops in Afghanistan rather than US forces.

Here too, China must commit aid – not just business investment. Without sufficient infrastructure, Afghanistan will continue to see its resources extracted with minimal gain to its people, therefore remaining vulnerable to militants who might offer an alternative.

Some would doubt the ability of Chinese and US or NATO forces to work together, citing underdeveloped military relations. But this is a chance to boost military cooperation. There is no more convenient time for building trust than when both sides want the same outcome: a stable Afghanistan.

Another complaint might be that China, as a one-party state, does not share the values of NATO, which was founded around democracy, and the mission to leave a viable democracy in Afghanistan. Yet this is irrelevant for two reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, the Obama administration has become more focused on the objective of stability than democracy. Second, given that security is the paramount objective, the pragmatic choice would be to leave ideology at home and obtain the manpower necessary to achieve stability.

China could be a critical part to success in Af-Pak. And given so many common challenges, this could be the first of numerous problems that China and the US tackle together.

Kevin Slaten is a Junior Fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

An Approaching Power Shift

In January 2009, more autos were sold in China than the United States. 

This is significant. It is yet another indication of the gradual power transition to which we all are witness. 

Of course, China surpassed the US in car sales last month due, in part, to the grinding recession in America. Furthermore, China has an annual boost in sales during the Spring Festival at the end of January. So for 2009, expect to see the US with more sales altogether.

But this news is important not because of the auto numbers themself; rather, it is important because it means that China is within "striking distance" now. A decade ago, the same slowdown still would have left the US far ahead of other countries in auto sales. But today, after a decade of 10% annual growth, China will periodically begin to surpass the US in some raw economic measures.

Before long, the US will enter a neck-and-neck horse race with the Middle Kingdom. With 1.4 billion souls, China can not help but to enter this competition as it develops. Its consumer market will continue to grow. And as this happens, producers the world over will begin to tailor products and services toward China's growing middle class with an abundance of household savings.

This trend should not seem alarmist. Even with the US economy sputtering, China likely will not surpass the US in total GDP for 15-20 years. Furthermore, once it does happen, it does not necessarily portend negative consequences for Americans. There is plenty of room for both nations -- as well as the rest of the world -- to prosper. 

But the effects should also be confronted realistically. Business competition will only get more fierce. With the Chinese market becoming more attractive by the day, the US will lose more business to that country than ever before. Quality of life in America will not increase as quickly as it has in the past as more capital goes elsewhere in the world. People will have to be more willing to move to find opportunities -- possibly even overseas.

However, the most urgent effect of the shift is neither risks to Americans nor benefits to Chinese. It is the risk to the human race. China's selling more cars than the US also signifies the risk to our climate. China cannot develop in the same way as the US has. It must be far less carbon-intensive. And a Chinese society heavily dependent auto transportation -- in its current gas-combustion form -- will magnify climate change severely.

Hopefully this issue tops all others on Secretary Clinton's packed agenda when she arrives in Beijing next week. 

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Solving Afghanistan

The new Obama team in the White House has refocused on Afghanistan. Largely neglected -- especially in manpower -- for years under the previous administration, Afghanistan has witnessed a resurgence of the Taliban. And their funding derives from the a poppy trade that accounts for a bigger illicit GDP than Afghanistan's official GDP ($3 billion versus $2 billion), which continues to reveal the country's lack of development.

The goal of a more prosperous, peaceful Afghanistan first requires a stable security environment. There are two competing views on how to achieve this. One solution is to significantly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. Saturate the country with enough boots on the ground to suck the oxygen out of the room for militant flames. If security can be imposed for long enough in this way, then perhaps time can be bought for true and meaningful infrastructure and economic development. The troop numbers, though, cannot be found among US or NATO forces -- the political will or available manpower is hard to come by. So the solution here would be appealing to regional neighbors -- especially India and China -- for assistance. I will write more on this option in the coming week or two.

The alternative view is to give up the idea of a troop build-up and use small, covert operations to strike important strategic blows to militants. George Friedman, the head at an intelligence firm called Stratfor, espouses this view. Basically, Friedman says that -- given the trouble of hindered supply lines and obtaining troops for Afghanistan -- the US should use a combination of intelligence-gathering, special operations, and airstrikes to achieve the most pressing objective: security. Not only is this option politically easier to sell (because it is cheaper and no one has to read about a published list of CIA casualties), but this also allows the US to avoid the difficult task of convincing other countries to commit their people to the struggle.

It is debatable whether or not such a minimalist approach as Friedman's could achieve stability in a country about the size of Texas. Moreover, it seems that the Obama Administration is leaning toward increasing the troop commitment rather than reducing it. Nevertheless, an in-depth policy review is currently being conducted; now is the time to debate the options.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Power of Stereotypes

I recently listened to a podcast of the radio show Radiolab, in which the "Obama effect" was discussed. Before Obama was elected or inaugurated, a 20-question performance test was administered on black and white students, and blacks scored significantly lower than whites. The exam was administered two more times -- after the election and inauguration, respectively -- and the performance gap disappeared.

Why? Stereotypes about black intelligence.

There is a growing body of research on the effect of stereotypes on test-taking -- called the "stereotype threat". Blacks, when given an exam that tests their intelligence, consistently score lower than whites. But when told that the exam they are taking is simply practice, blacks score on par with whites.

The key is distraction. If given a test that explicitly measures their intelligence, blacks will become distracted by the those things that others says about their intelligence. Even if a black person is absolutely positive that the black intelligence stereotype is, in fact, myth, then that person is likely to be distracted during the test by the thoughts of the stereotype in their head. If a test is time sensitive -- like most SAT or GRE exams are -- then a couple minutes of accumulated distraction can make a significant difference in scores. Now, replicate a stereotype threat across many years of schooling and many tests; a student is likely to suffer.

Of course, this is not limited to black stereotypes. The same results have been found with women on math tests -- it is "common knowledge" that women are not as proficient in math as men -- and whites on exams when compared to Asians. In all cases, the gap disappeared when the stereotype was put to rest.

This lends new evidence to restraining oneself from the use of stereotypes. If the fact that these hasty generalizations are false does not dissuade you, then maybe the knowledge that the proliferation of the stereotype significantly and negatively altering the lives of others will convince you. As long as a stereotype is strong enough in society to enter the minds of the target group during critical moments -- be it an exam or an interview for a job -- the affected people will continue to suffer, individually and as a group.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe the rubbish we consider "common knowledge" about different groups of people, then that rubbish will find a way to, at least in part, be expressed at important moments.

So in using stereotypes, remember the power you wield. Ask yourself if you think the generalization is really true. Moreover, ask yourself if you want it to be true.