Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Decline of Military Force?

Global Politics students discussing the future of war and military force could do worse than visit this article by BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Global Politics and Conservative Traitors

A quick round-up of some useful reading for students, not to mention the interested reader.

On Global Politics (A2 students):

Andrew Bacevich in the Spectator wonders about the usefulness of an American army that no longer wins wars.

In another edition of the Spectator the same author reviews an interesting new book on America's foreign policy in its post-Iraq era; has the age of unipolarity ended?

Gideon Rachman, meanwhile, in the Financial Times sees an alarming nuclear shadow behind Russia's new bellicosity (you need to register to read this).

UK Politics and the Conservative Problem:

Peter Oborne has been trenchant in his criticism of UKIP fifth columnists within the Conservative PArty, originally in this article, and then on the eve of the Rochester by-election in this one where he memorably describes the new UKIP MP Mark Reckless as "brutish" and "low-grade", a man whose leaving of the Conseravtive Party undoubtedly made it a better place.  But Oborne's real ire is reserved for the treacherous Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who acts every bit as a UKIP MEP but has so far not needed to leave the party he now acts against.  Fascinating stuff.

Finally, an education interlude, as the Spectator's Fraser Nelson examines the failure of the state system in upwardly mobilising the poor.

Obama Shows How You Do Leadership

President Obama has issued an instructive lesson to any weak-minded British politicians who might be minded to try and follow the UKIP line on immigration in order to appease the voters.  Don't.

After having received a drubbing - or at any rate watching his party receive one - in the mid-term elections, you might expect the president, faced with a Congress now wholly controlled by his opponents, to lie low.  Not a bit of it.  Believing in the justice - even morality - of his cause, President Obama has shown how you do leadership.  You stay fighting for your principles, and you do so in a way no-one can possibly misinterpret you.

The immigration issue is as toxic in America as it is over here, but at least in America they have a leader willing to tack against the simple bigotry of hating immigrants.  That is not so clear in the UK.  Where Obama has used his executive power to protect some 4 million "illegal" immigrants, the Conservatives' most recent pronouncements suggest they might be keen to deal with the paranoia surrounding UK immigration by, er, embracing it.

Away from the specific issue, the president's move throws the issue of executive power into the spotlight, helps to secure a huge Hispanic vote for the Democrats, and almost begs the Republican hard liners to come out fighting and opposing it.  Now that is sublime politics.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Evolution of 'Soft Power'

We've got to discussing 'soft' and 'hard' power in our A2 Global politics lessons, and I must confess that the concept of 'soft power' having much traction seemed to be away with the fairies.  Challenged to name a successful instance of where soft power had a significant impact, I fell back upon the example of western culture having influenced - in some degree - the people power which brought down the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.  There are others I know, but they are undoubtedly disparate and similarly highly contentious.

Just to be clear, soft power is that power which is essentially persuasive; it stands in contrast to the exercise of hard power via military or economic means.  Now, if I were to look at how the use of hard power might be graduating from military to economic dimensions in a more successful way, as for instance with regards to Russia and the Ukraine, I might be getting somewhere.  But soft power?  Come on.  Is American culture or western materialism really what is going to win the current war of ideologies raging in the Middle East?  Even worse, for the West at any rate, its own soft power alternatives are being turned very effectively against it.  Look at how Russia has expanded its global news organisation, Russia Today (for a searing indictment of Russia Today as a news organisation read this article by Nick Cohen for the Observer).  Look at how IS are using twitter and other social media outlets to advertise their brutality and their cause, and attract similarly minded westerners in the process.

The term 'soft power' was coined by Professor Joseph Nye, and the BBC have just published an interesting assessment of its use by their reporter Ritula Shah on the BBC News site.  A2 Global Politics students should certainly read it, note from it and use its lessons as they seek to assess the importance of soft power in relation to its more quantifiable cousin, hard power.  Ms Shah looks at both the vaunted 'successes' of soft power use by the West (and notably America), and how it is now changing to favour other nations and organisations.  She examines Chinese use of soft power in particular, and notes that the term's originator, Joseph Nye, now prefers to talk of 'smart power', as an evolutionary concept.  For now, concludes Shah, America remains pre-eminent in soft power use.  Others may argue that soft power does little more than reflect the international contours put in place by hard power.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Obama - Still the Best Bet

If the 2010 mid-term election results delivered a “shellacking” to President Obama, the 2014 ones probably go beyond the reach of the standard dictionary of slang.  Barack Obama now governs – as Bill Clinton did before him – without his party controlling either the senate or the House.  Worse, the Republicans who are now in charge have a clear agenda to overturn and stop any reform that featured on the Obama agenda.   And if politics was polarised under the Clinton-Gingrich axis, it is far more polarised now, with McConnell and Boehner unable to control their reddest, most reactionary members, even if they wanted to.

There’s a danger with election results such as these that they warp our view of the man in charge.  After all, as we’ve been so regularly told, these were a verdict on the president himself.  The election was as much about Obama as anything.  Well, if it was, only about a third of the electorate took part.  And as for Obama being the focus, he was focused through a lens expertly distorted by the Republican campaign. 

Obama is a fine speaker – one of the best orators to inhabit the White House – but he is a relatively poor communicator in all other respects.  His team, whilst efficient, have failed to make the inroads into the national political psyche that they need to, partly because they academicise things too much, partly because they sometimes don’t realise that everything – every single action, every single defence, every single policy – needs to be relentlessly simplified, broadcast and repeated until everyone “gets it”.  Mass democracies are not marketplaces for complex theoretical reasoning.  They are harsh, simple, fickle places and the Obama team has been poor at realising this.  The Republicans suddenly became pre-eminent in this game – not least because they have a natural yen towards negative advertising and campaigning.

Thus the fact is that, despite the odd and perverse verdict of the electorate, Obama remains the best bet for Americans, and the world community which depends so much upon competence and rationalism in the White House.

This is a man who took the presidency in the most unpropitious circumstances – possibly the worst ever inherited by a president since Lincoln -  but who has yet managed to pass significant reforms and re-balance what was becoming an irrational and dangerous foreign policy.  Andrew Sullivan, as so often is the case in commentating upon Obama, provides one of the most vigorous and persuasive defences of the president in his post-election Dish piece.  After assessing the responsibility that the president needed to take for failures in 2013, Sullivan goes on to say this:

The truth is: the Obama team subsequently achieved a near-miraculous rescue of Obamacare, achieved real success in enrollment, and have seen core healthcare costs slow down in such a way that could yet shift our long-term fiscal liabilities for the better. Obamacare is almost certainly here to stay – surviving one pitched battle after the next. As for Syria, Obama turned that crisis into opportunity, by seizing a compromise brokered by Russia which managed to locate, transport and destroy all but a few traces of Assad’s chemical stockpile. This remains a huge, and hugely under-appreciated achievement – and if you think I’m exaggerating, imagine what the stakes would now be in that region (and the world) if ISIS had a chance to get its hands on that stuff.
The same can be said of the economy. No other developed country has achieved the growth that the US has after the stimulus – including austerity-bound Germany. No other administration has presided over a steeper fall in the deficit.

Sullivan’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I finish with this thought.  Obama may have received another electoral punishing, but when we start to eye up the sort of leadership and vision offered by his successful opponents in the Republican Party, it really does beg the question of whether electors are capable of voting properly in their own interests.  A few months down the line, with McConnell besieged on the right by the likes of Ted Cruz, and trying to obstruct everything the Obama White House does, and proper reform stalled endlessly, who then will the fickle electors blame?  It should be themselves.