Chris Smith

The future for US foreign policy?

The new American right is displaying a woeful disregard for foreign policy…

 

Iraq © U.S. Army

 

What will be the big question and narrative dominating the 2012 US presidential election? At present (and barring extreme events) it isn’t hard to imagine the race now – Democrats and Republicans pummelling each other over how many ways there are to say:

it’s the economy stupid

Significantly however this isn’t just because we are living through possibly the biggest crisis of global economics ever. But because the US is gripped by a rising tide of political philistinism that venerates Manichean thinking and withdrawal of engagement from the rest of the world.

I of course refer to the Taxed Enough Already party and the rabid right wing discourse it has succeeded in consuming the Republican Party with and is now soon to have its first chance to plunge a presidential election to an intellectual standard that must gaze up to glimpse lowest common denominator status.

The Republican primaries have been a glimpse what is to come: nothing but inflammatory (whilst simultaneously vacuous) rhetoric blaming too much government and too much Obama Socialism for too few jobs and not enough American power.

The New York Times recently picked up the lack of foreign policy as a feature of the Republican debating platform, and the party front runner Mitt Romney attempted to address this point, whilst using it to consolidate his position as the only sane candidate in a speech to army cadets at the military college in Charleston, S.C.

The most striking aspect of the weekend’s event (far and above any actual policy) was the sympathy aroused for the sheer thankless task facing the man. In his endeavour to win the Republican nomination as the man best placed to debate ideas with President Obama and win moderate voters he is hamstrung by being unable to persue (or even suggest pursuing) a moderate foreign policy by the need to placate the far right.

When asked how Romney foreign policy would differ to Bush foreign policy the best an aide could manage was a bumbling:

Clearly the governor recognizes the importance of soft power resources. On the other hand it’s not all soft power.

Whilst it was then revealed the impressive sounding fifty person foreign affairs team was dominated by former Bush veterans Cofer Black, Michael Chertoff and Christopher Burnham

Although Mr Romney failed to present an inspiring (or coherent) vision for global America we shouldn’t write him off or immediately or panic for the future of geopolitical balance for this failure alone. George Bush senior famously described himself as “not good at the vision thing” before masterfully overseeing the velvet revolution of the former states of the Soviet Union after all.

What should have us deeply worried is the introverted narrative the Tea Party has forced to the centre of American politics.  The ridiculous black and white thinking previously confined only to Fox news pundits has resulted in the ridiculous situation where Barrack Obama can be portrayed as weak on national security issues by following a policy of engagement with foreign nations, as opposed to the unilateral cowboy foreign policy of George W Bush.

The Bush presidency should have taught Americans to pay more attention to the rest of the world and beware the dangers they let themselves in for if they accept Disney-fied interpretations of international relations. I.e. America and all with it are good and anybody against it or just different are bad. It should also be remembered that it was Bush’s lack of a foreign policy that first had critics needling him as ‘dumb’.

Bush fought his election campaign promising an end to the adventurist foreign policies of Bill Clinton, preferring not to waist American money around the globe in places most decent folks had never heard of. It is either tragedy or farce worthy of Shakespeare that the Republicans will again be fighting for the Whitehouse using this language.

What is more disturbing I suggest is that if the Republicans recapture the Whitehouse the new president will be coming to the job in a foreign policy vacuum just as Bush did. It was the lack of an individual foreign policy that made Bush so susceptible to the calamitous Neo Con response to 9/11 which the likes of Paul Wolfowitz had to hand readymade.

Political vacuums necessitate filling, and when the next crisis strikes America if its president does not possess a foreign policy of their own they will grasp for one close to hand and ready to use from the box just as Bush did. The world is a vastly complex place populated by people whose motivations and passions cannot be put in good and evil boxes, and it doesn’t make you a squeamish liberal intellectual to admit this. Despite all his faults (and I will paraphrase to protect him from the worst of himself here) even Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged this through his references to “unknown unknown’s”.

It is an interesting quirk of American politics that foreign policy is perhaps the key to how a US president is perceived in office and remembered out of it. Jimmy Carter is the only president for over a century to not have presided over foreign wars and is popularly remembered as one of the worst presidents in the nation’s history (although that opinion is starting to be revised). A nation as powerful as the US is by necessity an impact player on the global stage. All American citizens appreciate this (in their own way) and this puts certain expectations, some would say unrealistic ones, on US presidents.

Barrack Obama still enjoys high approval rates outside the US, despite wide spread recognition of his foreign policy as a disappointment that has come nowhere near the phenomenal expectation laid upon him by winning a Nobel peace prize in advance. Obama’s foreign policy is most remarkable for what he has failed to achieve; to close Guantanamo; to meaningfully reform relations with Castro’s Cuba, and to tackle Israel over settlements and renew the peace process. Is Obama’s global standing a result of him simply not being George W Bush?

Possibly, but I suggest this is not all there is to it. Rather I suggest it is because although Obama has largely been unsuccessful he has clearly articulated an inspiring vision of an America that is a responsible global citizen and has tried to bring it about. With his failure in part being the tenacious opposition he has been faced with at home.

The United States appears to be faced with two choices. The global crises from the banking crash to Middle East turmoil to combating climate change require genuine leadership to navigate. The US can provide this. But only if it accepts it can benefit from other nations and that international relations is not a one way zero sums game, with gains by one nation necessarily equating to losses by another.

Alternatively it can opt for refusing to understand the world or to learn from it; instead adopting a twisted logic where America retains its status as the world’s premier nation but accepts none of the responsibilities such a status brings upon it.

 

Chris Smith holds an MA in International Relations, and has spent three years volunteering for the Green Party

 

Revisiting Castro

Looking at Fidel Castro’s legacy following his recent 85th birthday…

 

© Carolonline

The former Cuban premier’s birthday in mid-August was marked by week-long celebrations throughout Cuba, with the man himself conspicuous by his absence, and media attention from the western world, particularly The United States, similarly lacking. In comparison to other events occurring in the world Castro’s birthday was a footnote.

What is interesting to observe is how Castro no longer seems to inflame the US to the extent he once did. In years gone by American politicians and commentators would never have missed an opportunity to denounce Fidel loudly and publicly as the worst dictator since Stalin, and that the US would not rest until he and his repugnant regime had been cleansed from the American doorstep.

The lack of such widespread comments to mark his birthday this year raises a few interesting questions about the relationship between Cuba and the United States. It is easily argued that the historic downgrading of US creditworthiness and the perpetual crisis gripping international banking, combined with the former leader’s lower profile, makes Fidel Castro the last thing on the minds of American leaders. But does this mean Castro is less offensive to Americans than he was when he was at 84 or 83? Of course not.

85 provides as good an excuse as any to cast an eye over Castro’s legacy, especially with the light of the Arab Spring helping to put into context the nature of his dictatorship when placed next to those of Arabic regimes who have received nothing resembling the treatment of Cuba.

There are enough books and studies covering communist Cuba and its troubled relationship with the U.S to cover the 90 miles of water between the two nations.

In the US Cuba shares dubious political ground with Israel as the only issue on which the nation’s infamously partisan politicians can talk the same language (a telling fact in itself). I do not intend this piece as an examination of the problems with depictions of Cuba in the mainstream and political discourse so will suffice to say depiction of Cuba and Castro is (far) more often than not overly simplistic. I also don’t intend this piece as an defence of Castro.

Discussion of Cuba in western media is almost universally undermined by failure to correctly contextualise the nation’s political, economic and social position in the world. Firstly Cuba is a Latin American Nation, a region who’s most prevalent form of government from the early 1970s to late 1990’s was military dictatorship. Characterised by the absence of all civil liberties and organisation of opposition politics and enforced by death squads and disappearances and torture of dissidents.

Cuba has attracted the attention of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International –Amnesty’s 2011 report on Cuba- among others for good reason, but it must be acknowledged that these abhorrent methods of rule at least have never been in widespread operation. The imprisonment of political dissidents, and any who engage in what the regime arbitrarily declares as counter revolutionary activity has been a sad fact of life under Fidel Castro and one he must bear responsibility for. The graphic novel Cuba: My Revolution by the artist Inverna Lockpez depicts vividly how the Revolution’s treatment of its own people has in large part destroyed the ideal of society it was trying to create along with the lives of too many innocents.

The book is the author’s personal story charting how owing to nothing more than the whim of officious bureaucrats she went overnight from being a poster girl of the revolution (literally as she was employed as an artist creating celebratory Cuban art) to enemy of the state imprisoned for collaborating with the enemy (because of contacts to a boyfriend who had emigrated to America before the revolutionary struggle had begun). Lockpez now lives in the US but intriguingly the strongest emotional element of her story isn’t hatred of Castro but rather remorse at how what could have been never was, and for multiple reasons, not just the megalomania of one man.

It is a telling facet of Castro’s personality I suggest that he has at least accepted the premise of human rights, and displayed distress when international observers have condemned his human rights record. This may be genuine, it may be for show, and Castro is a skilled politician after all despite there being few who would ever grant him any praise, if that is even praise.  Dictators such as Mubarak, Assad and Ben Ali for example never even acknowledged the existence of human rights for the citizens they oppressed for decades, or even had the decency to deny violations occurring. Their victims (like the others of Latin America’s dictatorships) didn’t exist.

It’s also fair to point out, though not to excuse, that unlike the countries above, the Cuban regime has both overtly and covertly been targeted by its superpower neighbour for decades, desperate to bring an end to Castro’s rule. At the same time America was covertly supporting other far more brutal Latin American regimes. Henry Kissinger is on record backing the Argentine military junta in the 70s and 80s, even acknowledging the human rights abuses that saw up to 30,000 disappeared and tortured during just a few short years.

The massive material hardship that the Cuban people endure is the second most widely reported fact of life in communist Cuba after their restricted liberties. The Cuban peso is virtually worthless internationally; its biggest industry is tourism and its people survive on state rations. Understood in the context of Cuba’s region, its own history and the fact it is a developing nation not a developed one, the key word here is survive. Cuba is unique in the developing world not just Latin America for its citizens universally having access to food sufficient to avoid famine, or mass malnutrition, characteristic of other similar states especially its immediate neighbours Jamaica and Haiti. It also famously has extraordinary levels of life-expectancy and literacy that rival many developed Western nations.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 further exacerbated hardship caused by the infamous US trade embargo to unprecedented levels. That the Cuban government was able to avoid complete social breakdown and failed statehood (another tragic characteristic of the developing world) in a country virtually overnight deprived of oil, food, mechanical spare parts and every imaginable consumable is a minor miracle.

It seems obvious to me that the jury is out on Castro and will be for a long time. However it is testament to the bizarre and superficial understanding of the man emanating from the US that such a statement would inflame many who regard him as evil incarnate whilst being balanced and intelligent individuals in every other area (former US president George H W Bush being a prime example of this).

American presidents from Teddy Roosevelt onwards had regarded Cuba as nothing more than a holiday resort, inhabited by locals with no purpose other than serving American tourists. The idea that it could be a foreign policy concern was entirely alien until Castro shattered the comfortable illusion. Which is in part why Americans have regarded him with nothing but loathing ever since, irrespective of his credentials as a political leader, or whether he represented a more or less wholesome character than other American allies.

For this Castro will undoubtedly go down in history as a unique enemy of the US, (a cause celebre or mark of Satan depending on one’s own persuasion) with unparalleled ability to frustrate it into doing nothing more than embarrass itself. The American body politic’s inability to dispassionately discus communists and Latin American nationalists has resulted in policies that would be comical if they weren’t worrying. Even in the current financial crisis the US still spends hundreds of millions of dollars financing radio and TV Marti, media stations designed to undermine the Castro regime as they are beemed into the Cuba. There’s nothing wrong with promoting democracy, it’s the fact that the US is selective in its promotion of it that is the problem.

Ultimately for the legacy of Fidel Castro himself, it is the Cuban people who must make the decision to venerate him in or exercise him from their history.

 

Chris Smith holds an MA in International Relations, and has spent three years volunteering for the Green Party

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The boomerang generation

The Daily Organ is now ReadSheet, with a new mission to curate the best writing from around the world. Hit the logo at the top of the page to explore the new site, or scroll down to read this archived content.

As a new crop of school leavers rush for university places, recent graduate Chris Smith considers what the future may hold for them…

 

© Ben.Gallagher

What is the most accurate moniker for this generation of mine?

The first contender is ‘the boomerang generation’, referring to how life has forced us to return to the parental home from university as opposed to branching out on our own.

Second comes ‘the throw away generation’, referring to how lack of decent job opportunities has left this crop of graduates -and maybe future generations- to fall through the gap in the rungs of the ladder of professional life.

Sadly both are labels I can affix to my own reality, with my peer group dividing between the two.

When discussing the situation with fellow graduates, the conversation usually takes on the philosophy of ‘pick your poison’. Do you return to parental housing and have a disposable income and the chance to save for the future, or do you sacrifice that for the opportunity to live independently?  We don’t know, although speaking as the latter case in that scenario I can say the experiment has provided little conclusive evidence that it has been worth the effort put in to keep it going.

I must however acknowledge the fact that at least being one of the ‘boomerang generation’ does require the blessing of supportive parents. Those who attend university broadly come from homes that are stable emotionally and economically and it is still the case that those from the poorest and least emotionally sound homes possess the lowest aspirations that often do not extend as far as higher education.

However, not attending university is fast becoming no sign of a lack of aspiration, rather calculating acceptance that the road to social mobility does not run solely through higher education.

This presents even more food for thought on the subject of how we train our young for the world of work, and what we really expect from them. New Labour’s insistence that up to fifty per cent of school leavers should attend university did little to increase social mobility, but did help ingrain a culture that views manual work as something below the British.

However, university education does more than just prepare one for the world of work, and it is this we must remember to value more highly than at present. Education expands the mind and builds the character in all ways. As a result university graduates do not simply want jobs that pay a premium for having a degree; they want jobs that offer a certain lifestyle and satisfaction.

Sadly is has created the current situation where the idea of aspiring to working with your hands is a rare one among Britain’s university graduates, many of whom studied degrees in the humanities, social sciences and creative industries. The only way a graduate such as I can realistically conceive of providing for themselves via their hands is through the tap of a keyboard.

The present generation of graduates, having missed the boat of Britain’s ‘bubble economy’, could face being left behind again. Those just out of university or those who have been out for a year now, are under terrible pressure to be “competitive in the marketplace”.

This is a marketplace constantly saturated by new graduates, who having the benefit of observing how hard the world has treated their elders, will likely have stocked up on employability points via an internship. The current vernacular legitimising unpaid labour, and closing off many professions to all who do not possess the wealth to avoid paid work for months at a time and/or live outside London and its commuter belt.

The effects on this current generation have already been harsh. Some are suffering from depression brought on by repeated rejection and inability to find work. Many more racking up even more debt taking additional courses (with zero to minimal funding available), or the aforementioned internships in the hope it will lead the way to a career path. The effects for generations to come also must be considered.

An increasingly common narrative of the ‘right’ is that it is the fault of graduates themselves if they cannot find jobs, because they undertook frivolous courses, or that people simply go to university to put off growing up. As a society we need to ask ourselves what education is for. There is more to it than getting a certain job or earning a certain wage.

Healthy societies need empathetic, fully rounded citizens. A commodity we will lose if we convince the next generation of students to forsake the humanistic side of further learning, including a genuine affinity for learning for its own sake, in favour of a Dickensian pursuit of competitiveness and cash yields at all other costs.

Chris Smith holds an MA in International Relations, and has spent three years volunteering for the Green Party

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Short Takes – The English riots

The Daily Organ is now ReadSheet, with a new mission to curate the best writing from around the world. Hit the logo at the top of the page to explore the new site, or scroll down to read this archived content.

Daily Organ writers give their own take on last week’s riots…

Chris Mistry questions whether the riots were a tale of poverty:

As the riots and flames die down around the country, the causes for such an explosion of violence are being explored. The prevailing theory seems to be that an uneducated, impoverished, disenchanted, criminal minority from single-parent families rose up to show the rest of us what’s what.
First up, let’s be clear, the reports of poverty have been greatly overstated. As we have seen. many of the looters had jobs. Also, in many areas where there is greater and more widespread poverty, little or nothing happened. Most looters were wearing designer clothes and used their BlackBerries and other smartphones to instigate and organise their attacks. On the most part they stole things they would want: televisions, more designer clothes and shoes and phones. They did not, on the whole, steal food or destroy high end items as a protest against feckless consumerism. This was the smash and grab materialism that is the product of the last thirty years of Western politics and culture.
Chris Smith speaks out against David Cameron’s diagnosis of a ‘sick society’:

David Cameron (and no other Tories) would ever be found denouncing as seriously sick the bankers, property and debt speculators and private equity city sharks who have caused and are causing more damage to society than the recent rioters. He never uttered anything close to such insulting terminology in reference to the conduct of the News of the World, the rest of News International, or the Police in their abhorrent failure to protect the public from the aforementioned vultures. Would the Prime Minister have dared risk the wrath of those he considers his social equals, by condemning the thieving MPs who stole from the public and then had the audacity to protest at being caught and accused (correctly) of stealing from us?

Thomas Baron suggests that cuts really have had an impact and can be linked to the riots:

Unfortunately, as much as people would wish to believe this to be an act of mindless violence, unprovoked, and un-blamable on society, we must consider the affects that the cuts have had on these areas. Haringey Council, the local council of Tottenham where the riots started, closed 8 out of 13 youth clubs. This combined with low employment is bound to create a sense of boredom, apathy, and of a feeling that they have been left behind by the society they are supposedly a part of. Add to this a sense of discrimination against youths, a discrimination that intensifies as we move into the inner cities and there seems to be an inevitability that this growing boredom encouraged the youth to live up to the opinions society has about them.

We must not be mistaken and attempt to create a legacy around these events as a social revolution. The acts of those days do however show the incredible power and strength this faction of society has and, most frightening of all, how little moral or social compass they have for directing this power. This was not a protest in reaction to mistreatment by society, but rather this was a natural reaction to such mistreatment, easily avoidable.

You can read The Daily Organ editorial on the riots here

 

Navigating the new world order

The Daily Organ is now ReadSheet, with a new mission to curate the best writing from around the world. Hit the logo at the top of the page to explore the new site, or scroll down to read this archived content.

Chris Smith looks at how Britain is responding to a rapidly changing world…

 

© Laura Padgett

 

Foreign office minister Jeremy Browne delivered a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House last week, with the intention of advancing three propositions. In the minsters words:

“We are living through a revolution in the global order. And it is a revolution; I use the word deliberately, not just to provoke. Two: that Britain should not fear this revolution, and has many of the qualities and characteristics needed to respond to the opportunities it offers. Three: to survive, or better still, thrive in this environment, Britain needs to respond with a level of imagination and determination which is proportionate in scale to the impact of this revolution”.

Enlightened sentiment aside the speech was unfortunately short on substantive proposals as to how Britain should go about these goals. The majority of the speech took the noble approach of suggesting that as a mature nation (and formally the world’s most essential nation) Britain is held back most by its own self-deprecating nature. The British should be more confident of their value to the world and embrace the “idea of Britain”.

“Britain remains a major force in the world, economically, politically and culturally. We shape attitudes with the power of our example, our values, and our argument”.

The irony is that this is a message more popularly perceived as being synonymous with another nation, whose current president declared in his inaugural address that: “The true strength of our nation is not the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but the enduring power of our ideas”. That nation was America, if that needed clarifying, and no disrespect to the minister for this is not a critique of him, but his words sound far less convincing than President Obama’s.

We can all talk of and understand “the American way” or “American dream” after all, for better or worse. However, a British dream, or British way, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. This leaves Britain in the awkward position of appearing to simply want to be more like America rather than forge its own path in the world. Something unappealing to all given the connotations of canine qualities the recent history of our two nations conjures up.

Perhaps I am just being a typical cynical Brit. The minister highlights that if we were to look at any other European nation and see one with less than 1% of global population yet the world’s 6th largest economy, membership of key international bodies from the UN security council to NATO, and the benefits associated with speaking a main global language, we would be hard pressed to not call this nation a major power. However the idea that British society and ideals can provide a light for the world to follow seems unconvincing when faced with the US. A nation founded to be such a beacon, and able to at least claim to be so because its citizens possess a shared appreciation of this collective history that is absent from the British.

Despite all the pot holes thrown up by attempts to grapple with these issues, at least the minister’s intentions were clear. To reassure us that Britain need not fear a world in the grip of revolutionary change. Be that change wrought by the Arab Spring, which William Hague has described as the most transformative event of our young century. Or by the financial crisis, changes to the global political economy and rise in power of nations like China and India. For Britain possesses the spirit, history and expertise to adapt; and history is a constant process of reinvention.

Just what reinvention may look like is where more problems arise however, with the speech containing only the most generic of references to the need to increase competitiveness and attract investment. Perhaps worryingly the only things coming close to proposals consisted of following the examples of China and India; making it easier to do business in Britain and more attractive to employ people.

No specifics were spelt out so we mustn’t speculate too much upon what this means. However having a minister of state profess reverence for the Chinese and Indian way of “doing business” does pose a potential point of concern. An argument in vogue right now is that the West is in decline and will soon be overtaken by China, India and other nations developing at rates only dreamed of by western economists. The reason given for this is market liberalisation providing favourable conditions for investment.  The temptation to do things their way must indeed be great but in the absence of any definable “British way”, we mustn’t lose sight of the sheer human cost that such nations are paying for their own industrial revolutions. A cost the West paid long ago.

The minister makes various vague references to Britain being of most aid to the poor of the world when it remains true to the values of freedom and fairness it has always held dear. Such sentiments have been expressed before and much more specifically such as in Tony Blair’s now infamous (in some circles) Chicago speech detailing his commitment to liberal intervention.  Perhaps then this current approach is something to be appreciated on its own merits; an appreciation of the importance of values and ideas, but not a dogmatic and rigid assertion of how they will be applied and enforced in foreign policy.

After all there is nothing to fear but fear itself to quote a great internationalist. In a world where perhaps the greatest challenge facing us is how everything in it is changing faster than ever before we can take a measure of encouragement from the fact that government is willing to admit to this. This is half the battle after all and in a world where all things are possible, it is perfectly conceivable that just as long as we keep looking the British could find their way.

Chris Smith holds an MA in International Relations, and has spent three years volunteering for the Green Party