The Home of Toddism

February 9, 2010

The consequences of the EU’s “enlargement fatigue”

Filed under: EU Politics — Tags: , , , , , — jonathantodd @ 2:32 pm

Philip Stephens has previously written in the FT that “Turkey has turned east as Europe clings to the past“. Today Gideon Rachman writes in the FT:

“It was Ukraine’s misfortune that the Orange Revolution took place just as the European Union was succumbing to “enlargement fatigue” – following the shock of moving from 12 members in 1995 to 27 members today. As a result, the EU has given Ukraine an almost criminal lack of encouragement, as the country attempts to secure simultaneously its independence, its democracy and its prosperity. Everybody knows that actually joining the Union is a long and arduous process – since it involves transforming the laws and economies of the applicant countries. But it would have cost the EU very little to give Ukraine the encouragement of holding out the prospect of eventual membership.”

While Turkey probably also remains “a long and arduous process” away from EU membership, Turkey has been knocking on the EU’s door for decades. This article in Newsweek suggests that they got tired of getting no answer and focused instead on becoming a dominant player in the Middle East.  

The transformation of central and eastern Europe that the EU encouraged by opening itself up to membership from post-Communist states is one of its great successes. So, it is all the more sad to witness the consequences of the present “enlargement fatigue”. We all know – most especially people in states like Turkey and Ukraine – that EU membership for many of the states that border the EU remains, for better or for worse, a long way away. Nonetheless, the EU should still be capable of acting as a stronger magnet to these states than it has been in recent years. The carrot doesn’t have to be as big as full membership in short order. But it has to be substantial enough to retain the interest of these states. Otherwise, they will drift away towards other centres of power (the incoming Ukrainian president is notoriously close to Moscow and the Turkish president describes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his “good friend”). The ‘soft power’ of all EU states is all the weaker as a result.

February 3, 2010

Evil Superman is back … and he is driving a truck! (Or is he?)

Filed under: American Politics — Tags: , , , , , — jonathantodd @ 11:33 pm

My wife tells me that when she first moved to the UK in the early years of the presidency of George W Bush her European friends would introduce her by saying: “This is Monica. She is American … But she’s not mental.” Obviously, this was impolite and unnecessary; as if 300 million citizens of a democratic state could be made mad purely by statehood.

At that time, however, as Charlie Brooker noted, “watching America at work was like watching the scenes in Superman III where Superman, under the influence of red kryptonite, goes ‘bad'”. It was thought, presumably, that people needed to be reassured that Monica wasn’t similarly bad, mad or dangerous to know. Then came President Obama and Americans were welcomed back into polite European society, without caveats or health-warnings.

However, recently Massachusetts – a supposed bedrock of liberal sanity in a continent of madness – voted to have one of the most dedicated campaigners for universal health care (Ted Kennedy) succeeded as Senator by someone whose opposition to the best ever chance for universal health care seriously threatens, due to Senate maths, to extinguish this chance. The first action of this new Senator, Scott Brown, was to telephone President Obama and inform him:

“Would you like me to drive the truck down to Washington so you can see it?”

I’d have thought that if Obama – Europe’s dream President – burst into laughter upon being told this then we’d have heard about this by now. Many Europeans would have done. And then they would have worried that “evil Superman” was roaring back into life at the wheel of a truck.

It was always daft to presume, as many Europeans did, that Obama’s election had fundamentally changed America in almost every possible respect. The cultural forces that powered “evil Superman” were very deep rooted. No presidential election, no matter how unprecedented and spectacular, was ever going to wholly sweep them away. But the fact that this presidential election was possible also shows that Superman was never entirely evil. It was just that the political manifestation of the cultural forces behind Superman was so strong that Superman somtimes seemed evil (I know that this is a very pejorative term but, while its use would be justified by Abu Ghraib, I hope it is clear that I do not use it in a wholly serious way).

Essentially, there are a lot of people in America and they are very different (I know that this is a supremely obvious thing to say, but sometimes the obvious can be forgotten in such moments of elation and excitement as Obama’s presidential election). Some Americans even like trucks and allow them to take on a significance that Europeans find odd; indeed, comically and strikingly so. These people have long been part of America. They are not going away. But, just as the nice liberal Obama voters that Europeans find so much more reassuring and familiar couldn’t stop the Dubya years, all the trucks in America couldn’t have created a roadblock big enough to keep Obama out of the White House. We know this because they made their best try (It’s called Sarah Palin).  

The election of Scott Brown doesn’t mark the return of “evil Superman”. Superman was never evil; he’s just made much show of the many and varied sides to his character over the years. As well as being a headache for health care reformers, the election of Scott Brown was a reminder of the diversity of this character.

January 21, 2010

The King of America and the Queen of England

Filed under: American Politics, British Politics, Culture, History — Tags: , , , , — jonathantodd @ 2:26 pm

He is going through a tough time at the moment. However, it is still fascinating to learn that Barack Obama said, when asked by his wife prior to running for President why he wanted to do so, that:  

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be. And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”

And so it came to pass, as it never could in the UK. According to last night’s edition of QI on BBC 2, Germans think that Brits are “obsessed with the Monarchy”. Are we? I haven’t noticed as much. But the world never really looks at Britain differently. This isn’t such a surprise when a child cannot be raised in this country and truly be told “you can rise to any station”: the most important path is forever closed and other paths seem – perceptions ultimately harden to realities – all the more closed because of this. While David Lloyd George did not see fit to choose even spaniels on this basis, the British head of state is determined by birth and the freedom that Obama so magnificently and spectacularly renewed in America can never be fully known in Britain so long as this is so.

January 19, 2010

Two Sorry Tory Stories (or some differences between the UK and the USA)

James Crabtree has written a fascinating and much commented upon Prospect piece on the role that an apology might play in a quick return to Labour government should the Conservatives win the General Election later this year. This has set me thinking about the role of contrition in politics in general and two sorry Tory stories in particular.

These sorry stories are: First, seeing (tacit and non-formal) apologies for being slow to make peace with the 1960s and for the excesses of the 1980s as being integral to the rebranding of the Conservatives sought by David Cameron (a project that is now threatened by a sense that the credit crunch and the scale of public debt have caused the Conservatives to renew their marriage vows to Margaret Thatcher and the 1980s); and, second, conceptualising the Republicans as being split between those who see a need for some kind of apology for the years of George W Bush as necessary to their political renewal and those who do not.

Some recent events – the reaction to the attempted Christmas day terrorist bombing in the US; the election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts; the tea party protests; the spike in retirements from Democratic Congressmen; and President Obama’s approval rating – would seem to strengthen the position of those who are unapologetic for the Dubya years. But my default sense – which I am increasingly having cause to question – is that in the long-term more contrition than that which the likes of Karl Rove are presently prepared to offer will be required for the Republicans to fully recover. That said; there are signs, which are worrying to a European and (in the American sense of the word) liberal, that an unreconstructed Republican party might return to the White House in 2012. An example of such a sign is that when I departed Dulles airport, just outside DC, 48 hours ago I noted lots of t-shirts on sale like the one below.

Dulles may be in Virginia, but it is hardly in the heart of red state territory; Massachusetts is even less so. I can only fear what they are now thinking in such territory. But let’s return to American politics via a review of the role of an apology (of sorts) in the fortunes of the Conservative Party in recent years.

“There is no such thing as society.” This was one of the most outrageous and defining claims of the Thatcher years. So, for Cameron to repudiate this by saying that “there is such a thing as society” was for him to grasp towards an apology for the excesses of Thatcherism in the form of a Clause 4-esque moment. In actuality, he failed to fully seize this moment by following this line up with words (“it’s just not the same thing as the state”) that amounted to a Burkian little platoons view of society that is little removed from Thatcher’s notion that “there are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

Notwithstanding this I am with James Crabtree – pace Luke Akehurst – in conceding that lines such as these from Cameron, as well as a focus upon such non-traditional Tory themes as poverty and the environment, amount in tone, at least, to a sustained Tory apology and repositioning.

But that is soo 2005/7. You know, PCC (pre-credit crunch). We are now in a very different era. Philip Stephens has captured well what this meant for the Cameron project:

“The cuddly, environmentally friendly prospectus he offered during his early years as leader has collided with grim economic reality. The Tory leader used to promise to share the proceeds of economic growth between public services and lower taxes. There is nothing left to share. The choice is between what services to cut and what taxes to raise.”

David Goodhart touches upon another aspect of the Cameron project, “after Labour embraced the 1980s (the turn to the free market) the Tories have recently made their peace with the 1960s (race and gender equality, environmentalism and so on).” Part of the “friendly prospectus” involves an apology for not previously being at ease with the 1960s. While Labour had to adapt to the 1980s to reinvent itself under Tony Blair, the 1997 election constituted, in part, a rejection of the dogmatic firmness of the Tory faith in the free market. Consequently, as well as finally reconciling themselves to the 1960s, Cameron has sought to apologise for the 1980s Thatcherite dogma that lead to 1997. He’s the “heir to Blair”, remember.

This strand of Cameron’s apology – the 1980s strand, if you will – has gone flaky since the need to control public debt (and the implied requirement for restraint in public spending) has become more apparent. This is because the Conservatives have seemed more keen than Labour to address this need. Peter Mandelson tried to increase this flakiness by speaking of the “barely disguised glee” of the Tories at the prospect of spending cuts.

The 1960s strand is also undermined by a Conservative Home survey that reports that reducing Britain’s carbon footprint is the lowest priority of Tory PPCs. Their second highest priority is “cutting red tape”. How 1980s and John Redwood-like is that?!? It’s like the regulatory failures of the credit crunch never happened. Perhaps, only Boy George and “reducing the public deficit” (aka cutting public spending), which was their top priority, could be more 1980s.

All of which supports Mandelson’s argument and gives the suggestion that Cameron may be a somewhat reformed character who wants to rebrand the Conservatives, but the Conservatives themselves do not wish to be so changed and the public are unconvinced that such a change has been completed. Jack Scott, a Labour PPC, has picked up strong evidence on the doorstep for this view being held amongst the public.

Cameron’s attempt to change the Conservatives has certainly been buffeted, most spectacularly by the credit crunch. However, he remains keen that the perception of change, at least, holds; whether he can make this perception stick in the hearts of his party and the minds of voters are different questions, however.

Returning to America, we note one of the most basic and fundamental distinctions between British and American politics. The Republicans have no politician in an office akin to Cameron’s. Whether the Republican leadership wants to apologise for George W Bush, as Cameron has sought to apologise for Thatcher et al, is immaterial, because no office exists from which a leader might thrust such an action upon their (welcoming or otherwise) party. Cameron may have fluffed his Clause 4 moment but this structural distinction between the US and the UK means that there is much less chance of a Republican Clause 4.

The nearest the Republicans have got to such a moment came in the form of a recently published book by Michael Steele, Republican Party Chairman, in which he discusses why the GOP has often lost touch with typical Americans since the Ronald Reagan era and concedes: “We screwed up.” (Notice another difference between the UK and the US: The 1980s are something for which the party of the right is to apologise in the UK and are something for the party of the right to seek to recover in the US).

However, as E. J. Dionne Jr notes, some Republicans remain on the offensive about the period for which Steele is apologetic. These are the kind of Republicans who are doubtful about Michael Steele.

“Much of the contention surrounding Barack Obama’s presidency is simply a continuation of our argument over the effects of George W. Bush’s time in office. That is why Obama, despite his fervent wishes, has been unable to usher in a new period of consensus. Bush’s defenders know that Obama’s election represented a popular reaction against the consequences of the Bush presidency. Because Obama is both the anti-Bush and the leader of the post-Bush cleanup squad, his success would complete the rebuke. So the Bush camp — Karl Rove’s regular contributions to the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages are emblematic — must stay on the attack.”

The strand of the Cameronista project that is so determined to underline a sense of change within their party, it seems to me, is motivated by a desire to act upon an insight provided by Danny Finkelstein, one of their most sympathetic commentators: the British electorate is never wrong. Change is required, it is thought, to show that the party has moved on from the past mistakes that kept it out of office. However, the Rove strategy seems based on precisely the opposite view: the Dubya years weren’t missteps at all, but coloured by the right actions, and, in time, the American public will come to realise that they made a mistake in evicting the Republicans from the White House. It’s not so much “don’t blame me, I voted McCain” as “sorry, I’ve seen the error of my ways and wish I’d voted McCain.”

As well as on terrorism and foreign policy, the Republicans are unrepentant on their role in the economic situation. This is also noted by E. J. Dionne Jr:

“It’s striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited. The few exceptions to this rule — Bruce Bartlett and Richard Posner, the authors of two bravely dissident books, come to mind — find themselves excommunicated from the conservative movement.”

Until very recently – the Massachusetts vote, etc – I’d have dismissed this lack of contrition, this pig-headedness, this wilful “we were right and we’re not sorry”, as the surest way for the Republicans to keep themselves out of high office for a long time. As Finkelstein argues, all of this is about the Republicans choosing to listen to themselves, not the electorate, who they are convinced can be very wrong. But if the Democrats can lose in Massachusetts, may be, an unrepentant Republican Party can return to the White House.

As Mandelson and Cameron both understand, the perception that the Conservatives have not changed is a real threat to their return to government. The credit crunch has complicated this rebranding exercise, though this exercise is still of great political significance. I’ve always tended to assume that the same rules apply to the Republicans: They won’t win without independents and they won’t gain the support of such voters without demonstrating that they have listened to them by showing contrition for the things that are perceived to have gone wrong under Dubya. 

Yet now I am starting to wonder and worry whether the same rules do actually apply to the Republicans. America is, famously, different. It is the right nation – there are deep reasons why, for example, as touched upon above, Reagan is revered in the US as Thatcher is reviled in the UK – and, perhaps, its slight turn to the left under Obama (always more a rejection of Dubya than a convinced liberalisation) may prove temporary. It gets frighteningly easier and easier to imagine Gideon Rachman’s dystopian dream of a President Palin – the unapologetic pitbull – becoming real 2012.   

Where would the world be then? Wishing that it and President Obama had acted differently? If not now, when?

January 17, 2010

The Economic Consequences of Peace in the Cod Wars

“The best books … are those that tell you what you know already”, wrote George Orwell in 1984. While, pace the likes of Henry Porter, our country isn’t Orwellian, there is a lot of truth in this line. And so it was when I read Martin Wolf on Iceland last week. He powerfully and intelligently argues for that which I have always instinctively felt about events there.

The British and Dutch governments are seeking agreement with the Icelandic government for the repayment of debts, which now amount to 50% of Icelandic GDP, owed to British and Dutch savers in now collapsed Icelandic banks. If we attempt to see things from the Icelandic perspective, this observation from Wolf is particularly striking: “In the UK context, this would be equivalent to a demand for £700bn. It is not hard to imagine how far Mr Brown would get with a suggestion that the UK should accept such a debt to refund depositors in foreign branches of bankrupt UK banks.”

We most probably do not have to fear the rise of Nazism in Iceland, (though, Icelanders do have unnecessary misery and Brits needlessly lost goodwill to fear), but Wolf’s analysis seems as persuasive and prescient as J. M. Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace proved to be on the Versailles Conference.

“Do Iceland’s taxpayers have a moral obligation to pay this loan? My view is: no. The delusion that finance was the path to riches was propounded by countries that should have known far better. I cannot blame Icelanders for succumbing. I certainly do not want generations of Icelanders to bear the cost.”

Iceland has many things going for it. However, not so many that more measured approaches from the British and Dutch governments could not considerably improve the prospects of Icelanders for many years to come.

“The final and, in truth, most important question is whether these demands are reasonable. After all, in every civilised country it has long been accepted that there is a limit to the pursuit of any debts. That is why we have introduced limited liability and abolished debtors’ prisons. Asking a people to transfer as much as 50 per cent of GDP, plus interest, via a sustained current account surplus is extraordinarily onerous.”

Not only is it extraordinarily onerous but it is only justified if we accept that several generations or more of Icelanders should pay the full price for the follies of a small Icelandic elite. What would the likes of the Labour Party argue in similar circumstances in the UK? Surely, we’d argue in favour of the many and not the few? So, why should we think any differently about an event in Iceland?

Let’s take a deep breath, step back and extend a modicum of decency to a fundamentally decent people, who, incidentally, were amongst the first to get aid to Haiti this week. If Icelanders can do the right thing by Haiti, Brits can do the right thing by Iceland.

January 2, 2010

Dinner Party Politics

Ok, I’ve been to dinner parties. But not in Islington. Though, I probably am in the “chattering classes”. Still, I’ve never been at dinner parties where “innate and uninformed” prejudices against London comprehensives have been expressed, the superior virtues of Harriet Harman to Peter Mandelson have been extolled or Polly Toynbee, Greg Pope, Barry Sheerman and Charles Clarke – aka Mistletoe & Whiner according to John Prescott – have been lavishly praised. In the past day or so, I’ve noticed, without trying, that all of these things have been said to occur at the dinner parties of the chattering classes.

I can only wonder at what horrors would be alleged to occur at these parties – if that is the right word – if I made my observations more dedicated and maintained them for a longer stretch. Thankfully I have better things to do.

Nonetheless, I have to ask: What is going on? Can the honour of non-chattering class status be bestowed on me? I do hope so. Or, alternatively, is all of this chattering classes stuff just a term of lazy journalism and thinking? 

If the clattering classes do exist, perhaps, we’d all be better off if they could take out their frustrations at “murder cafes”, rather than having their frenzied wrongs spill out at their so-called “dinner parties” (Is food even served? Aren’t parties meant to be fun?) The “murder cafes” concept is explained 5 minutes 20 seconds into the video below, which also contains many ideas that David Cameron might want to take up as he takes forward the promised beefing up of his policy platform in the new year.    

December 31, 2009

Charles A Beard anticipated Harvey Milk

We had a fun day at the American Visionary Art Museum earlier this week. There I discovered a quotation from Charles A Beard, which I had never previously come across:

“One of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence.”

Beard died in 1948, but these words still bring to mind one of the best scenes in one of my favourite films of recent times, Milk.

Technically, I think, both Milk and the Wrestler were released in 2008, but I saw both in 2009 and consider them the best films that I have seen this year. While I may have finally got around to watching Milk on DVD this autumn, I walked down the same red carpet as the wonderful Mickey Rourke at the UK premiere of the Wrestler in the first week of January. Rock on.

The left and the web

The convincing portrait painted by James Crabtree of a possible future Cameron government having to “square up to a turbocharged swarm of pissed-off progressives with laptops” reminds me of my blog claim, post Moir-gate, that the left will need no vanguard to stay alive.

I also note that Ray Takeyh writes in the Washington Post today:

“The most remarkable aspect about the events in Iran since June has been the opposition’s ability to sustain itself and to generate vast rallies while deprived of a national organizational network, a well-articulated ideology and charismatic leaders.”

Whether this opposition can be considered of the left or the right insofar as these terms are understood in the UK, or simply the basically decent, is another debate, but, given the extent to which my Twitter feed is full of comment from Iran, I have to wonder about the extent to which the internet explains this very welcome sustaining quality. It seems to be proving quite a handful for the Iranian regime, as bloggers of the left may prove for a Cameron government.

All of which makes me doubtful about Evgeny Morozov’s argument that the web helps dictators most of all. That said; I agree with Crabtree that “the internet is not intrinsically amenable to either left or right”, while also agreeing with him that the full potential of the web has not yet been exploited by the British left, though this may be changing and continuing to do so.

December 29, 2009

Yes, we still can (but leadership and disciplined support are needed)

The striking thing about the most powerful person in the world, as he approaches one year in office, is how, err, lacking in power he appears.

Disappointed and, according to Mark Lynas, insulted by the Chinese in Copenhagen.  A Health Care Bill that isn’t yet on the statute; is much delayed on his original timetable; and, by his own admission, is only “nine-tenths of a loaf” – some would say that half a loaf is nearer the mark and it comes with lashings of pork barrel whatever way you look at it. An Afghan strategy that even he doesn’t seem wholly convinced by and the backdrop to which Andrew Sullivan commented upon by saying:

“Obama arrived in China last month as a fiscal supplicant, not the leader of the free world. He cannot corner the Iranian regime without Russian or Chinese support. He cannot even get Israel, a country receiving $3 billion a year in aid and protected by America’s veto at the United Nations, simply to cease its construction of settlements in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.”

All of which simply serves to illustrate my point: How devoid of power the most powerful can be. That’s not to excuse any disappointments that President Obama may have caused or to defend his record (though, there is much more to defend than the increasingly naysayer conventional wisdom suggests). It is simply to place his presidency in context.

This is a context in which his power is more obviously finite and constrained than has been the case for most modern US presidents. Internationally, this is the consequence of the “unipolar moment”, first proclaimed, I think, by Charles Krauthammer in 1990, waning (or, perhaps, being more obviously exposed as the hubristic delusion it always was). Domestically, this is the bitter fruit of what appears to Paul Krugman to be an increasingly dysfunctional Senate. This is a dysfunctionality that means that the Democrats control the presidency and both Houses but are still held to ransom by (dilute to taste) filibustering, partisan, pork barrel-seeking Republicans.

The international dimensions of this are well illustrated by Philip Bobbitt.

“What if Iran simply agrees to limited inspections, and continues enrichment to the point where weapons-grade nuclear material is created? What then? … Israel has resumed the construction of settlements in the West Bank, and it seems clear that Abbas cannot sustain domestic support in the face of the challenge from Hamas if he goes back to the negotiating table without even a temporary freeze on settlement expansion. Obama has little leverage on this issue—as his predecessors also found—but has committed himself to the proposition that “talks must begin and begin soon.” Or what? … Having previously announced it would not renew talks in the six-party format, North Korea has now indicated to the Chinese that it would re-engage in that forum, provided the US simultaneously opens bilateral talks. The US has insisted, quite sensibly, that regional multilateralism is the best way forward. But what if North Korea continues to refuse?”

The growing worry is that the Iranians, Israelis and North Koreans – not to mention the Chinese, Russians, the Taliban and others – have concluded that “nothing much” is the answer to every “What then?” In other words, as the Economist notes:

“The doubters argue that, however decent and articulate, Mr Obama is gaining a reputation as someone who can be pushed around. This month, after the president pandered to China by refusing to meet the Dalai Lama, China pushed for more by banning questions at his Beijing press conference with Hu Jintao, its president. When Mr Obama demanded that Israel stop all work on its settlements in the occupied territories, Binyamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, defied him and still, staggeringly, won praise from Hillary Clinton.”

It is even said that this praise from Clinton lays the groundwork for her to run against Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2012. This argument goes that she will need an issue on which to split with Obama to do so and support for Israel would fit this bill. It is to be hoped that this argument is nonsense. But the mere suggestion that the President does not command the absolute and complete loyalty of all of his team implies weakness in a manner as profound as the swipes and pushed envelopes that have come his way via China, Israel et al.

The counter to this line of argument is also provided by the Economist:

“Mr Obama has pulled off the urgent tasks of starting to withdraw troops from Iraq and resetting America’s dysfunctional relations with Russia. He has boosted the G20 as a new global forum. This week Israel announced a partial settlement freeze. With health-care reform under his belt, he will soon be able to turn to world affairs with his status enhanced. Besides, you could hardly accuse Mr Obama of timidity. In three speeches in Prague, Cairo and Accra, he set out a new foreign policy that rejects the Manichean view of his predecessor. He means to negotiate deep cuts in nuclear weapons, make peace between Arabs and Jews, engage Iran, heal the climate and establish America as the strongest and most upright pole of a multipolar world. Yes, this work lies ahead, but how much can you ask in a year of war and recession?”

Health care reform is, just about, under his belt and it is hard to argue with the view of the Obama camp that this reform needed to be taken on in the first year of his presidency before mid-term elections which are likely to further undermine his ability to impose his will upon Congress. His presidency moves into a new phase with this reform behind him. However, perhaps, there are lessons to be learned for this next phase from the protracted way in which this reform was secured.

While the dysfunctionality of the Senate bemoaned by Krugman may make it all the harder for Obama’s will to prevail, it is important, no matter how great this dysfunctionality, that Obama exerts a will. In other words, he needs to lead. The tactics of how he does so can be debated, but the President does need to show genuine leadership. As Clive Crook writes:

“Mr Obama promised to strive for consensus. On issues such as energy policy, healthcare, education and immigration, there is no reason why moderates on both sides cannot make common cause. That is something many Americans long for. It was the great hope independents had of Mr Obama. In his first year, he rarely even tried. He simply chose not to exercise this kind of leadership.”

I must confess that I am both surprised and disappointed by the absence of such leadership. I anticipated that it would be forged on the radical centre (or center). Crook is right to worry that the absence of leadership that works towards such radicalism threatens “a drubbing in 2010 that will do for Mr Obama’s agenda what the wipe-out of 1994 did for Bill Clinton’s”.

While a drubbing can be averted, it is likely that the mid-terms will weaken the Democrats in Washington. This underlines the importance of strong leadership from the centre, of the kind which Crook described thus:

“On health, on energy, on public spending, independent voters want him to exercise centrist leadership, as he promised he would. Can’t he even pretend? For the sake of his Democratic majorities, he had better show voters he is listening, even if his allies in Congress are not.”

But there are plenty of willing allies for Obama in Congress who want the Democrats to behave in this way. A key example being Mark Warner, excellently profiled in the Washington Post this week. That he defines his philosophy as “radical centrism” should be a massive hint that this is the kind of Democratic Senator that Obama needs to work with and through to build consensus, bi-partisan if at all possible, for his agenda. It may be indicative of where things have gone wrong for the Democrats and Obama in the past year that the sense that Warner feels a little left out in the cold by his party pervades the Washington Post profile. It cites John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of large U.S. companies, saying of him:

“Obviously, in 2008, America voted for change. But they are maybe finding out now that they didn’t want to vote for big government spending that’s unchecked, or government intervention to a very, very low level into the economy. Mark Warner really represents that kind of middle ground that wants government to help solve problems but not so much interfere with all areas of the economy.”

There is nothing that Democratic Senators like Warner would like more than to work with the President on this middle ground to get America’s economy growing as strongly as it can do in 2010, control public debt and to seriously correct the US’ disturbingly high unemployment. These are causes which, if approached in the right way, these Senators are likely to be able to build bi-partisan support for. Moreover, in terms of the Democrats avoiding mid-term meltdown, we really are looking at a case of “it’s the economy, stupid”.

Obama should be Bill Clinton-like in recognising the political centrality of the economy and also take some lessons from another great Democratic pragmatist: LBJ. While we can all join Anthony Painter in hoping that Afghanistan does not see Obama transformed into Barack B Johnson, Obama should seek to be – pace E. J. Dionne Jr – LBJ-like in terms of working Congress and building up support for his policies amongst Congressmen.

So: insofar as his domestic agenda is concerned, the course which I would recommend to President Obama in 2010 is to reach out to the nation and Congress, particularly colleagues like Warner, through centrist leadership, with a strong focus upon improving America’s economic outlook. This will be the best way to be economical with (indeed, grow) his political capital (which is now dangerously low after the ending of his all too brief honeymoon in the White House). Furthermore, the policies of true radicalism are invariably to be found in policies that are that are the stuff of such leadership, rather than the stuff of Democratic or Republican sacred cows. Essentially, independent voters remain the key demographic (and the biggest threat to Obama being a two term President would come if the Republicans selected a candidate more capable of reaching out to them than someone like Sarah Palin) and the policies which appeal most to these voters are also the policies which will do most to change America in the ways that it should change.

Improvement in America’s economic prospects is a key linkage point between his domestic and international agendas. Niall Ferguson claims that noting that “the yawning US current account deficit was increasingly being financed by Asian central banks, with the Chinese moving into pole position, was, for me at least, the eureka moment of the decade”. He’s right to see this as such a moment and to see this as “the decade that tilted east” and away from the supposed uniploar dominance of the USA.

Given that the Chinese are re-cycling the massive trade surplus that they are running against the US to finance the US current account deficit, part of the correction to this – and an end towards which Obama can work with the likes of Warner – is to reduce the Chinese trade surplus by growing American exports. Another part is to control public debt. There are great opportunities for the American (and British) firms that come to satisfy the wants and needs of the rising middle classes of the BRIC economies, who have got rich (or richer) by producing the exports that are the stuff of the trade deficits (and maxed out credit cards, etc) experienced by both the US and the UK.

But the imbalances in the “Chimerica” economy are too substantial to be corrected by the innovations and efforts of American exporters alone. We’ve have all, allegedly, become Keynesians in the past year or so, but while there has been much talk of fiscal stimulus, there has been much less of the deep concern which Keynes had about surplus economies, which lead to the creation of the Bretton Woods system (though, this system did not conform to the plans Keynes actually had).

There is, perhaps, no better indicator of the way the world has changed than that today the relationship between the Chinese economy (running a massive trade surplus) and the American (running a massive trade deficit) directly parallels the relationship between the American (running a massive surplus) and the British (running a massive deficit) at the time in the 1940s when Keynes’ concerns about surplus economies fed into the debate which resulted in Bretton Woods. 

It is no coincidence that what Derek Scott has described as the “re-emergence of genuine capitalism, including large-scale private sector capital flows” has come about in the decades after the demise of Bretton Woods. This development has been broadly welcome, lifting millions of people in places like the BRIC economies out of absolute poverty. But Bretton Woods increasingly seems something that if it doesn’t exist, as is obviously now the case, is in need of (re)invention. What is required, in essence, is some global mechanism to correct for the imbalances between surplus and deficit economies that are the real story of the economic crisis. 

Andrew Sullivan is, of course, right to lament that “Britain in the late 1950s had a friendly superpower to whom she could surrender global hegemony. America has no such luxury”. In contrast, the future seems one of contested modernities, with values and visions that would please most Americans and Europeans being ever more marginalised. One of the great dangers that I perceive in coming decades is that the “west” will react to this by lashing out in ever more ill-advised and dramatic ways. It is again hard to argue with Niall Ferguson’s argument that great episodes of violence occur at the end of empires and the end of America’s empire seems much closer than its beginning.

This would seem much more likely if the “right nation” were to swing back to the right under a President Palin or similar in 2012. The alternative to World War III under Palin, given the absence of a friendly superpower, is to now fashion a multilateral world in which it is much more likely than otherwise that American (and European) interests and values will be best served in the decades to come during which the notion of a unipolar world will be as laughable and out-dated as the excesses of the British Empire now seem (or, at least, the notion of an American unipolar moment may be so, but the Chinese Charles Krauthammer may be closer than many would wish).  

The creation of the global institutions that will form this multilateral world and attempt to steer our Chinese century, now a decade old, is one of the great tasks of Obama’s presidency, and will most probably be passed on to the next president, whether they are as under-qualified or ill-prepared to execute this task as Sarah Palin or otherwise. Obama has made a solid start in this regard, not least through the beefed up role of the G20, but there is much more that remains to be done and, given the significance of the imbalances within the “Chimerican” economy to literally almost everything else, I would commend something along the lines of a Bretton Woods Mark II as a prime candidate for the next round of global institutional building.

The window of opportunity for success in such building is rapidly closing. While the Copenhagen conference itself may be the stuff of such a multilateral world, the outcome of this conference suggests that the Chinese are more interested in looking forward to a very different kind of unipolar world from that envisaged by Krauthammer than working in and through multilateral institutions (i.e. one that would be the stuff of the Chinese Krauthammer’s world view). As one developing country foreign minister said to Mark Lynas: “The Athenians had nothing to offer to the Spartans.” The obvious way to change this dynamic is for the Spartans to have more to offer the Athenians, which, to my mind, takes us back again to the importance of strengthening the American economy, and in turn to Obama working productively with the likes of Warner.

It might seem inane and obvious to propose that America seek to strengthen its economy, but Niall Ferguson is also right that this will require a serious plan for the management of public debt, which may very well require the slaying of some spend-and-tax, Democratic sacred cows, meaning that strong centrist support and leadership will be needed to carry through such a plan. Not least as China’s population is more than four times that of the USA, in the longer-term, it also seems likely to require a immigration system that both provides the labour needed by the American economy and commands the broad support of the American electorate. Such a system is again something which centrist leadership is best able to deliver. 

It might also seem inane and obvious to argue – as I do when I argue that the US should seek to improve its economic performance relative to China and the importance of American exports to Chinese growth – that the negotiating position of American is improved by increased American strength and prestige, but this cuts to the core of many of pivital exchanges confronting America. It is as true around the G20 table as it is in the counterinsurgency battle with the Taliban or battles of will with Iran, North Korea or anyone else. 

The way in which these exchanges are likely to play out could be walked through in game theory models (and such models probably exist in the State Department and elsewhere) but, as any game theorist knows, threats are only of consequence if they are credible. It is clear that American strength is declining as compared with the heady days of the alleged unipolar phase and it is also clear that Obama seems less eager to use force than a Palin or a Dubya (which might be what, ultimately, leads us to the nightmare of a President Palin). However, it is equally clear that America is not without force and influence. To bring this to bear in the great exchanges that confront Obama, a willingness to use this force and influence has to be credible. That’s to say real and seen to be real. In other words, as Obama himself put it in a section from one of his speeches citied by the Economist: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

So: insofar as his international agenda is concerned for 2010, I suggest that President Obama continue to work through and towards the kind of multilateral institutions that will best protect American (and European) interests and values when the world is very much less unipolar than it has been, but without having this faith in multilateral institutions confused with American weakness and seeking to ensure that American strength is brought to bear credibly on all the vital engagements with China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan et al ad infinitum that confront the US.

This is an agenda that Europe should warmly support. However, it has all too sadly been the case that, while Obama is the President that Europe dreamed of, European governments have been far too slow and unwilling to support Obama in material ways.

If Europe really wants the change that Obama promises, this must change. If liberal America (or liberal anywhere) really wants the change that Obama promises, it too must change. It should stop moaning about Obama and start supporting him. Indeed, all with a stake in the change that Obama seeks (i.e. everyone), should come to genuinely be the change that they want to see in the world. After the poetry of his victory, the prose of the presidency can seem a painful hangover, but change never did come easy.

 “We tend to think”, as Michael Tomasky notes, “that Rosa Parks sat on a bus, Martin Luther King gave some great speeches, decent Americans recoiled at racist violence on the nightly news, and boom, change happened. The reality was that nine long years passed from Parks’s act of civil disobedience until Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights bill – nine years of often mundane and inglorious work.” (That is, of course, by no accident or coincidence the same LBJ that I praised earlier in this blog). “And even then, the civil rights bill didn’t really fix the problem of African Americans being denied the vote, so Congress had to go back the next year and pass the voting rights act.”

Change is tough. But change is already here. “Measured against what different groups of voters thought he had promised – everything they desired – the administration’s performance looks poor”, argues Crook. “Measured against what voters were entitled to expect, it looks much better.” That provides much for liberals to take solace in as they redouble their support for Obama and the Democratic candidates in the mid-terms, but it is what is at stake in terms of the future that should really motivate them in seeking to fortify their President. I am scared of the climatic scenarios painted after the failure of Copenhagen and would be very scared indeed if I came from the Maldives, but the prospect of World War III should scare us all very much more no matter where we come from.

In making recommendations that seek to avert this outcome and bring about the most possible positive change under President Obama, I have probably argued for things which may annoy some liberals or people on the left: “radical centrism”, focusing on the economy, controlling public debt, not being afraid to be prepared to use force to enforce the rules of a multilateral world. I’m sorry if I’ve upset anyone in these ways, but, may be, one lesson of Obama’s first year in office, contrary to what his campaign may have left some people thinking, is that it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time.

No one would read Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation and ever think this possible. However, if this classic text were as widely read and understood as it should be, then, possibly, the kind of leadership from Obama and support for this leadership, which I have argued for here, would be more readily forthcoming. Perhaps, this might be a little worthwhile reading for many of us in what remains of the Christmas holidays.

December 23, 2009

Danny Finkelstein: Is it really so strange?

Filed under: British Politics — Tags: , , — jonathantodd @ 6:52 pm

Danny Finkelstein is shocked that none of the Tory leadership are amongst the top 5 politicians of the year identified by PoliticsHome. But it doesn’t seem so surprising when set against an observation made by Rod Liddle last month:

“There are few names on the opposition front bench who seem to be possessed of either gravitas or chutzpah, still less conviction.”

Is Liddle really so wrong? If he isn’t, then the PoliticsHome result isn’t so strange at all, but it does illustrate a significant problem that the Conservatives would seem to have.

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