Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Lost Decade

I found Paul Krugman's The Big Zero - how the first decade of the twenty-first century eroded value rather than creating - interesting. This article is deservedly having an impact and references to the Big Zero are springing up everywhere, at least in the liberal press. Many people may actually disagree, particularly in India, which has gained significantly over the last decade, and thousands, if not millions, have their lives transformed by the emergent opportunities in various industries. So, it may be worthwhile to look at Krugman's assessment on balance, and see whether it is fair to write off this decade as a time when nothing happened.

In all fairness, Krugman was writing about America. As most American commentators tend to do, he treated the American economic universe as his primary field of observation. And, no doubt, for all the talk of recovery, the mood is particularly gloomy in America. America lost, over all, during the last ten years. It is not just about the economy. Krugman points that there is an erosion of income and house prices, and the stock values literally stalled. Besides these, the loss of American prestige was immense. In terms of what Joseph Nye will call Soft Power, America ceased to be the world's only super 'soft' power - American values, its economic genius, its moral superiority, all were called to question. So, in balance, Krugman's observation does not just paint a correct picture of the economic reality, it also reflects an accurate picture of the sentiments in America.

This assessment may actually hold true - at the collective level - for all economies across the world. For all the enthusiastic talk about the shifting of balance of the world economy, one has to remember that the whole world commercial system revolves around the American economy. The American economy going underwater helps no one, not even the Chinese. I have previously thought that the currently resurgent Keynesian orthodoxy of state intervention may finally push some countries over the top, and if this happens to be America, which is still borrowing freely, this will take down the whole world and return us to stone age economics. On a broader scale, therefore, I think the current capitalist framework has been undermined, and that is necessarily not good because no one seems to have a valid alternative.

The social pessimism is also widely shared. George W's ill-advised wars, in the aftermath of 9/11, started, but in no way been the only contributor to, the general erosion of faith in modern governments. This decade has seen an unprecedented rise of faith across the world. This is not just about Muslim fundamentalism, but also Hindu jingoism in India and Christian supremacist thinking in the Western countries. History seems to be moving in circles: As the rise of nation-states once undermined the religion's hold on the matters of state, religious faith is now making a comeback at the expense of nationalism. Nationalism has been pushed to the limit by hangovers of our rulers who read outdated military strategy books and wrongly assessed people's appetite for long and costly wars in Western democracies. To die for one's country isn't glorious any more - however much British tabloid press may urge the working class teenagers to believe - and in the world of reality show celebrities, it is increasingly difficult to find people who will trade Helmand for the Big Brother House.

So, nationalism, it seems, will soon be without its defenders. It has anyway long been devoid of its causes, particularly after it has been decided that democracies should not fight democracies and white men should not fight white men. One may say that it is possible to spot a new trend of supernationalism, or racism or clash-of-civilization, whichever way one calls it, and therefore wars may remain an essential part of our history. But, it will surely keep getting difficult to find people who will want to go and kill 'some foreign bastards' if things keep getting cosier at home. In that sense, Republicans may be right: America may lose the will to defend itself if healthcare becomes universally accessible and it does not cause so much misery and deprivation among poor families.

So, I guess the profound pessimism, the big zero feeling, is primarily arising because we can't see ahead. All the things which held our lives together for past fifty years look wobbly, and we are facing an acute crisis of identity. Notwithstanding the success of the young Engineer in India, who bought his house at 30 and was the first one to travel abroad in his family, the world at large suddenly seems to be heading nowhere. This is a very unsettling feeling.

However, I shall end with a historical parallel. This is not very unlike how people felt at the end of the first decade of the last century. After the years of stability and certainty, England, then the pre-eminent power, was facing an Edwardian identity crisis, and suddenly, its soft power was eroding. The lives were getting better in Germany, and there was resentment about the 'unfair' system of the world. The colonies were becoming restless and the new faith - nationalism - was spreading beyond Europe. It was a time of great unrest, then; our big zero decade has the potential to wreck similar havoc.






Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Should Shashi Tharoor 'tweet'?

Shashi Tharoor's tweets have been extremely popular, candid and humorous. But somehow the government manages to make itself embarrassed on these, and the recent statement by S M Krishna, Tharoor's boss and the Foreign Minister, that he should discuss his 'perceptions' within the 'Four Walls' of the government and not tweet is a clear reflection how uncomfortable the powers that be are.

I am little surprised that we talk about the 'Four Walls' of the government. Where are those walls, really? This sounds too Kremlin-ish: That's not surprising because some of our Senior Ministers and bureaucrats cut their teeth in the old days of Indo-Soviet friendship and refuse to let go the old ways of life. The other two walls I know of - one is in China and the other was in Berlin - are not the right symbols for our government to choose. So, what is Mr. Krishna talking about?

What did Mr. Tharoor say on Twitter? He said that the dilemma we have is whether to make our country less welcoming to tourists, by bringing in rules like one has to leave the country after three months and can not come back within two months thereafter, just because someone like Headley slipped through the net. And, he said terrorists did not come to India on any visa.

He is right on both issues.

But he possibly touched a raw nerve somewhere. The content of his messages are about principles one follows as a private citizen, so don't know why the government is so uncomfortable. The only explanation, perhaps, is the fear of Twitter, or new media in general, that almost all governments suffer from.

My point is that the media environment around us has changed. The point is well demonstrated by earlier Tehelka scandals and now N D Tiwari, even if he was framed. The government is still uncomfortable about openness. This is the old Kremlin school of thinking, which still sees four walls around. There isn't any walls anymore. One can debate whether it is right or wrong to change the visa regime [and I see Barkha Dutt of NDTV feels that other countries have no rights to criticize India when they are so bad with their visas], but on the issue of Twitter, I think the ministers are plain scared.

One has to accept that Twitter is here to stay and the government must change the way it looks at the world.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Big Zero - Paul Krugman on New York Times


I found this article by Paul Krugman and ended up agreeing to most of what it says. I reproduce the article in full below.
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Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever. (Yes, I know that strictly speaking the millennium didn’t begin until 2001. Do we really care?)


But from an economic point of view, I’d suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.


It was a decade with basically zero job creation. O.K., the headline employment number for December 2009 will be slightly higher than that for December 1999, but only slightly. And private-sector employment has actually declined — the first decade on record in which that happened.


It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. Actually, even at the height of the alleged “Bush boom,” in 2007, median household income adjusted for inflation was lower than it had been in 1999. And you know what happened next.


It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early: right now housing prices, adjusted for inflation, are roughly back to where they were at the beginning of the decade. And for those who bought in the decade’s middle years — when all the serious people ridiculed warnings that housing prices made no sense, that we were in the middle of a gigantic bubble — well, I feel your pain. Almost a quarter of all mortgages in America, and 45 percent of mortgages in Florida, are underwater, with owners owing more than their houses are worth.

Last and least for most Americans — but a big deal for retirement accounts, not to mention the talking heads on financial TV — it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. Remember the excitement when the Dow first topped 10,000, and best-selling books like “Dow 36,000” predicted that the good times would just keep rolling? Well, that was back in 1999. Last week the market closed at 10,520.

So there was a whole lot of nothing going on in measures of economic progress or success. Funny how that happened.

For as the decade began, there was an overwhelming sense of economic triumphalism in America’s business and political establishments, a belief that we — more than anyone else in the world — knew what we were doing.


Let me quote from a speech that Lawrence Summers, then deputy Treasury secretary (and now the Obama administration’s top economist), gave in 1999. “If you ask why the American financial system succeeds,” he said, “at least my reading of the history would be that there is no innovation more important than that of generally accepted accounting principles: it means that every investor gets to see information presented on a comparable basis; that there is discipline on company managements in the way they report and monitor their activities.” And he went on to declare that there is “an ongoing process that really is what makes our capital market work and work as stably as it does.”

So here’s what Mr. Summers — and, to be fair, just about everyone in a policy-making position at the time — believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets investors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.

What percentage of all this turned out to be true? Zero.

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.


Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is — tax cuts and deregulation.


So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My 2010 Agenda

Let's call it a manifesto. I must make 2010 very different from 2009, and nothing short of a mini-revolution help me achieve what I want. Here are my thoughts on what I am going to do.

But before I get to that, a few words on my long term plans.

First, I shall definitely stay in Britain for next three years, but head out, to Asia perhaps, in December 2012. I gather I need three years to complete what I came here for - to learn. After that will be my time to concentrate on family, usual social life etc. But, I must give these 36 months in the pursuit of what I want.

Second, I shall focus on education. Become a teacher myself, perhaps, at least for a while. I am dreaming of setting up a college - an open access liberal education facility - and I have the sense of destiny pulling me into the project. This, deep in my heart, looks like a project I can devote the rest of my life too. That will surely be my New Year wish.

Third, I shall take up writing more seriously. I am aware of the stylistic limitations of what I do in this blog, but the point of doing this here was practise - I would not have learnt of my limitations if I did not try. Besides, I have realized the value of doing more serious research based writing, and I shall try to focus my thoughts more and put in the efforts on research before I write. But amateur as I am, I shall also serve a purpose if I continue to say what I believe - that all men [and women] must get equal opportunity and this will make the world a better place - because the world in general is driven by people with a perverse and selfish agenda.

So, writing, research and education - are the broad directions of my life in 2010. I have a plan, which is more elaborate than just resolutions, for the New Year. My experience showed me that it always helps to share things with friends. So, I am writing it down here, expecting another flurry of emails/ comments. That always helps.

This is how I want to achieve it:

Work: I shall continue to do what I do now till March 2010. This will, hopefully, give me enough time to set up structures and partnerships in India, Philippines and Poland, which will be sustainable and profitable businesses. This will complete my own contract with myself and give me the sense of accomplishment that I need - that I did not leave a project mid-way because of difficulties and saw it through to a logical conclusion.

I see setting up the structure as my end objective, not running it, because I must get started on the project that I kept in abeyance for so long: that of setting up a World College, a social learning platform designed to make education accessible to everyone. In my spare time during the January to March period, I shall be formalising the business plan, raise money, create a network of international business partners and form a team of people who will think as passionately as we do about the project. This is what I want to do starting April 2010.

Having done hands-off work for last three years, I am actually quite desperate to start doing things hands on. Also, doing something meaningful and important, and not just fringe speculative projects as I do now. I hope that the World College project would let me refocus my life on a single objective. My new year wish is to find that one single thing that I can work on for the rest of my life: I hope this will be it.

Education: I have a bit of an unfinished agenda with my Marketing studies. While my mind is set onto other things now, I must complete what I set out to do. I have restarted the work on the dissertation and forced myself into a review date in early January. I am hoping that this will set things in motion, clarify my doubts, allow me to reorganize myself and eventually, I shall be able to complete this. My timeline for this is 31st March: That will be a nice clean date to deal with all legacy issues and start April with a new slate.

On the other hand, I am quite enjoying my studies on Adult Learning. This is allowing me to reexamine issues which I faced in my day-to-day life as an Education Administrator with the benefit of understanding and perspective. I am very keen to continue these studies into the next level, which will help me earn a Masters degree some day. Since this has been and is going to be my core area of work, I do think this is a worthwhile exercise.

Writing/ Research: I have decided to take up one topic/ area of interest each year for next three years, outside the realm of my academic commitments, and write a coherent piece, of a size of a book, every year. I am not expecting to be published. That's an honest statement: I don't think I am ready yet. However, I see this as a logical next step of this blog-writing endeavour. This will also help me bring together my thoughts and my studies, and focus my efforts around something meaningful.

I am hopeful, however, that if I can refine this process and get ready, my ability to write will improve in time, and I shall be able to communicate with greater effectiveness and become a published writer some day. And, of course, I hope some people will eventually read what I have to say. Wow!

Life : I am going to change the way I live in 2010. I am applying for naturalization in January, and I shall stay put where I am till the process is complete. However, once the process is complete - I hope by July/August 2010 - I shall shift house. I shall move closer to my place of work, which I expect to be somewhere in West London, which will not be too far from the university I am studying in. I see myself taking up a small place, which is easier to manage, and travelling a lot more than I do now. I wish to focus 100% on the work at hand: I know three years of hard work will be needed to get the project off ground. So, less of family and friends, and more commitment to work, is what I see happening in 2010.

At the hindsight, I know that I did the right thing by not shifting to Northern Ireland. It would have been far more difficult to be able to pursue an independent path if I chose to do that. Besides, I would not have been able to do anything worthwhile if I did shift. The only lure was to have a calmer, more comfortable life. But I am not there yet - miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.

So, in summary, 2010 looks like hard work, but exciting. The key is to make every moment count. The key is to be different: in my approach to work and life, in making firm decisions and sticking to it, in knowing my priorities and unwaveringly work towards it. I have learnt my lessons over last five years: I am hoping to put them in practise now.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Round-Up of Christmas Day Messages

The Christmas Day is now over. My tenth Christmas away from home, of which the last six were in London. One always feels a bit sad to be away from everyone else on Christmas Day, particularly because, all shops are closed, there are no trains or buses and everyone else is busy with family. So, I spent time catching up on some reading and watching the tele, something I usually never manage to do. The news was boring too - not too much happens in Christmas anyway - but the most interesting thing was to contrast the four Christmas Day messages from five different sources.

Here is my summary:

The Queen: Her principal message revolved around Afghanistan. She said how deeply she feels about the families which lost their loved ones in the war. She talked about the commonwealth soldiers too, and their sacrifices.

She spoke with dignity and grace, as usual. It is her dignity which is currently sustaining the British monarchy, which is possibly in a terminal decline [despite King Faruque's observation at the time of his own abdication that there will be five kings left in the world, four of the cards and one in Britain].

But her sincerity strikes me as odd. Why mention these people who are fighting in Afghanistan and justify wars? Why do they have to kill other young men who will be missed by their families too? How long can the democratic societies like Britain can sustain the will to keep fighting expansionist wars?

Deep in my mind, I see the deep hypocrisy of using a Christian festival to feel proud for an unnecessary war that one has sent young people to die in. I have started thinking how deeply the message of Christianity was corrupted when it was turned into a state religion. The religion was used to justify what the ruler wanted to do; the Queen just continued the tradition.

The Archbishops of Canterbury & Westminster: The head of Anglican and Catholic churches in Britain chose a different theme, of that of Childhood. Dr Rowan Williams spoke in his usual reflective style and insights: He spoke about the disappearing childhood and quest of the real thing, the independence of adult life. He spoke about how our competitive, overtly consumerist society wants the children to pass their rather unnecessary, unproductive childhood as quickly as possible. The Archbishop of Westminster, giving his first address as the Head of Catholic Church in Britain, also spoke about protecting the childhood.

Very sincere and deep messages! On a different note, I noticed that two Irish Bishops handed in their resignation for the part they played in the horrifying child abuse inside the Catholic Church in Ireland. The crimes were largely unreported and unacknowledged even in the face of severe public criticism. The Catholic Church's refusal to do anything with the guilty showed how out of touch they are, and how the lack of accountability [except to God] undermines religion as an institution.


The Taliban: The Taliban released a video message showing a captured US Private. He has been captured some time back and was made to read a statement - appealing to the citizens of the United States to abandon the futile war. He spoke casually and deliberately, and talked about his decent treatment while the pictures of abuse by American Military in Iraqi prisons and Guantanamo popped up on the other side of the screen. It was a fairly well staged, but inhuman, propaganda attempt.

The Taliban, of course, got the Christmas understanding wrong. They could have shown their decency by releasing this soldier on Christmas day. However sympathetic message he may read, the whole gesture is surely barbaric. I noted that this man on the video was born in 1986: That makes him only 23.

The Woman in Vatican and The Passenger on Delta Flight: The woman in red jacket did it again. She jumped on the Pope in 2008, but was caught by the security. This time, she managed to time it better and knocked the Pope down. She said she was trying to hug him; the police said she was mentally unstable. On another side of Atlantic, a passenger reportedly set off fireworks inside a Delta flight. The flight was coming from Amsterdam. What a gesture?

So, here is my summary of the Christmas day 2009: The world is increasingly losing its bearing. The upper classes are managing to use religion to justify what they would want other people to do, but increasingly losing touch with reality. Those who oppose the global upper class has also suspended their humanity and increasingly looking like them. The religion looks lost, even on this one day when we are all supposed to return to the message, as the State has stolen its cause. And, the rest is becoming mad, by choosing the wrong man to hug and wrong place to do the celebrations.

However, we must end this day with hope, not despair. The only hope is that we may still manage to laugh at all this, particularly this collage of messages. BBC News at 6pm, as it were. And the last message is that last laugh - as long as we are able to laugh, the world has not gone to the dogs.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Education 2.0: The Unbundling of the University

I have previous mentioned about a Facilitated Network Model of education, where modern learning technology - of cheap communication and rich media - transform the education to a more asynchronous, personalized yet collaborative process. I argued that the model of education as we have it today, is increasingly out of sync with our life.

This is not just because of technology. I say this because of wider social changes, primarily (a) withering of all certainties in life and (b) breakdown of the stages of life. One can possibly argue that the quest of knowledge does not get affected, at least too deeply, by the changing social rules But, the idea of the university is not about just quest of knowledge. It is primarily about connecting human knowledge to life. And, in the context of a rapidly transforming landscape of life, today's universities are inadequate facilitators of the stated purpose.

One can possibly argue that the nature of knowledge itself is changing. Being a blogger myself, I have keenly followed the 'cult of the amateur' debate, the reasoning that the Internet is disruptive to human progress because it creates a chaotic, often unreliable, mass of information. Not just that, the reasoning goes that by making available such unreliable information at a fraction of a cost, the Internet is decimating the knowledge industry - professional journalism, book writing, and yes, teaching - and creating a huge wave of misinformation instead. However, I do think this debate is based on a dated assumption of what knowledge is. In the context of this debate, knowledge is perceived to be that distilled mass of information, carefully put in the context through well thought out processes of peer review [or editorial review], which then needs to be passed on, in a controlled form, to the seekers of knowledge, willing students or the wider public.

However, one can say the social context of knowledge has itself changed. One can see technology, of communication, transportation and presentation, as a development outside the social processes [driven by individual pursuit and invention], and essentially an external force which helps shape our social context. And, one can add to that the accumulation of human experience, which can be roughly termed as Historical Consciousness, which acts on the social context from inside and help shape our social context. Assuming a static nature of knowledge and its dispensation is to deny these two active influences on our lives. It is possible to see that the availability of technological tools, and accumulated experience leading to the requirement of use of such technology to disseminate knowledge, has fundamentally changed how human knowledge is created, stored, accumulated and put to use.

So, I shall argue that today knowledge resides in a Network rather than the distilling processes of peer review. Now, this is not a monkeys-on-the-typewriter view of knowledge, a belief in random chance in the process of creation of knowledge. The process of creation of knowledge was, and will remain, in the domain of individual thought and inventiveness. However, the process of distillation and contextualization has become more inclusive and universal. And, in this journey, the knowledge itself does not reside in the process, but in the network of expertise, interests and perspectives.

Wikipedia is a rather obvious example of how this works. There was the whole process of rigorous review by expert editors leading to the creation of an encyclopedia. Wikipedia flipped the model by creating a network of expertise, interest and perspective around each subject area. Consequently, there is a significant difference in the content of Wikipedia, as against the traditional encyclopedia. The traditional encyclopedia content attempts to achieve some kind of finality, while Wikipedia is always work in progress. One may scoff at such incompleteness, but all knowledge, by definition, is incomplete, because they are always based on certain assumptions. In that regard, Wikipedia's work-in-progress and the environment of dynamic accumulation merits as as accurate as journey towards the truth as that of any encyclopedia. Besides, one area where Wikipedia will beat the other encyclopedia hands down is in currency and context, and in a rapidly changing world of knowledge where everything is uncertain, the currency and context are the two key attributes we want our knowledge with.


On the subject of Wikipedia, however, one last vestige of the old-school process still remains, in defining the subject areas itself [one can see that Wikipedia recently listed out certain subject areas for deletion]. This will possibly remain for some time to come, and I shall say that this is why we may still need universities to define 'what we need to know' rather than how, where, when we need to know.

This shift of knowledge creation as a process to knowledge creation in a network will fundamentally redefine the knowledge industries, despite Andrew Keen's protestations on the contrary. This is already changing newspapers and magazines, which has now come to terms with this inevitability, and incorporated user-generated content in their offering. The experiment, one can now safely say, enriched the newspaper content and not taken away anything from them. Blogs today are an essential part of our knowledge universe and in many areas, especially where context is at least as important as the content [and one can cite many areas of knowledge where it is such], one would feel more comfortable referring to a blog than a 'balanced' academic article. And, in relation to such shift in the nature of knowledge, we shall argue that the universities need to transform, unbundled, themselves.

It is possible to visualize an 'unbundled' university as a library, but libraries lack the necessary definition of 'what' in their pure form. This is where universities, as a guide for the seekers, will continue to exist. However, the other elements of curriculum planning, where, when, who and how will become less important, or at least be fundamentally different questions than what it is today. The universities will become a global congregation, of expertise, interest and perspectives, which the students will not only learn from but also contribute to.

From a societal point-of-view, this university as a network will better serve the needs than the existing university as a place and a process model. As all stated certainties of life, including house ownerships, standard heterosexual families with kids, the standard shape and scope of employment, and the usual cycle of income and saving, disappear, the learners will need a lifelong engagement and the learning as a process will be replaced by learning as being a member of a network.

I shall argue that this is not an techno-utopia, but the shape of things to come. My post coincides with, but not triggered by, Peter Mandelson's announcement of huge spending cuts in Higher Education, which will restrict university places in Britain, and create larger class sizes and more difficult to cope up with schedules. This is just one isolated event, but part of a larger trend. The governments worldwide is at a loss about how they can possibly function with the short-term considerations of the bond traders but yet continue to serve the social needs of university education and long-term imperatives of innovation and research. Their solution so far was to look inside the box, preserve the industrial era universities but just change the funding models through private business participation. That is, however, unlikely to solve the problem. Worse, that solution is likely to create a knowledge poor class, which is an observable trend in America, where the rising costs of education is coming in the way of American dream and increasingly creating a deeply class-based society. This will more deeply hurt the developing countries, as they struggle at the bottom of the ladder to achieve the twin objectives of progress and citizen participation. The skewed education process will pervert the course of democracy and justice, and will eventually make societies dysfunctional.

We shall need to reverse the process. Now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

On Telengana

With my business connections in Hyderabad, I am increasingly worried about the state of affairs in Andhra Pradesh and the political tension surrounding the formation of the Telengana state. I can see the Congress Party is split in two, with the coastal MPs fasting unto death and agitating with all their life's worth against the decision, and the ones from Northern regions quietly basking in the glory of finally bringing justice to a long forgotten region.

It will take some time for the dust to settle. There are two hugely contentious issues: One is the formation of the new state, and the second is the status of Hyderabad, which falls into Telengana geographically, and is closely linked by history with the region. If Hyderabad is supposed to become part of Telegana, expectedly its capital, it will suddenly change the city and the equations in the state. There are talks of making Hyderabad an Union Territory, which is really about postponing the decision for now, and taking one battle at a time. But, whatever it is, there are some battles at hand which the government at the centre must fight.

It is commendable that the government has taken the decision to form Telengana. This marks the end of a long struggle for devolution in the region, which has claimed many lives and was the springboard of Maoist insurgency in India. It is one of the poorest regions in the country. Separate statehood means that the people of the region will have a greater say on the local resources, and some development money will flow in. It will be easier to focus on the desperate poverty that plagues the region, and there will be more clarity on development targets and achievements unmuddled by the progress of Andhra Pradesh's coastal districts. Its political dividend is huge, particularly in combating the Naxalite extremism which has taken hold in Central India, and proving very difficult to combat.

It is difficult to understand what the fuss is about. Andhra Pradesh is really a modern creation, and this itself was created after a long agitation and struggle for linguistic identity. Yes, we do get used to maps and forget how recent the formations have been, but Telengana was always culturally distinct and historically separate from coastal regions. Except for colonizing intent and emotions, it is hard to understand why so many people are so upset.

Except, if you count vested interests in. The separation of Telengana will suddenly change the political equations, and some of the big landlords are quite uneasy. This is a sort of a fear of democracy, where you suddenly see the poorer people gaining a bit of an upper hand, and start worrying about all the land that you have invested into, legally or illegally. So, these people are up in arms, though they clearly know the inevitability of formation of such a state, because they would want to extract a price for losing Telengana. Of course, these are very few, very privileged people; they are using the rest of population with an imagery of Andhra Pradesh that never was.

One has to say that the central government haven't managed the communication very well. There are no policy direction publicly stated, nor there was any public consultation on how things should move. The entire debate is based on observations and off-the-cuff remarks by certain senior functionaries, including the Home Minister. And, even if some comments were made, they were not substantiated or justified to reflect any amount of serious thinking on part of the government. While there are string reasons behind such a move, and the government has done very well in taking the bull by its horns and in addressing the issue, it is somewhat squandering the political capital it could have gained.

Such clarity needs to be restored immediately. This will help everyone involved in Hyderabad to be able to have a long term view. Besides, one needs to have a clear plan to separate these two states, not just geographically but also administratively, to avoid chaos and implosion of administrative systems, which seems to be happening. The investors need confidence that the ongoing project commitments will be honoured, and an effective transitional arrangement will be made.
However, one thing is abundantly clear. Telengana will happen. And, so will other smaller states in India, like the one on hills in West Bengal, though I am not sure it should be called Gorkhaland. Indian federalism, over the next decade, will have to progress to the next stage - that of power moving closer to the people. The current crisis should not be seen as a crisis of identity or one that will tear India apart. In fact, these are signs of maturity in democracy and of aspiration of people, and the power will continue to devolve, if chaotically, till we have achieved complete accountability of state functionaries.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Note for Christmas

The last Sunday before Christmas - the year feels like over. It is brilliantly sunny and bitterly cold outside. So cold that the snow won't melt even in the full glare of the Sun. The road in front of us is unusually quiet, but I know that the traffic would build up soon, after Lunch, when everyone would head for shops one last time. The newspapers report that Britain had one of the biggest shopping days in history yesterday, when people finally got over the recession hangover and returned to the shops, even if for one last hurray. One can almost hear the collective sigh - thank God that the year is over - and the bristling to start a new year.



2009 has been a tough year, for most people. It is partly about the recession, but not just that. It is as if everyone's ambitions suddenly froze because of the economic climate, everyone suddenly started postponing their life's decisions and wanted to wait till we reach the end of the tunnel. This is a strange, awkward collective freeze, because everyone seemed to know that we are indeed heading towards the end of the tunnel and not to the abyss. [Because, if you are heading to abyss, you should not care to cautious. That's my thinking anyway.]



This big freeze, world over and in my own life, is worse than the tumble and flat-on-the-floor feeling, at least while it lasts. It is a daily handshake with despair, not being able to enjoy the sun, always weighing in the options and always talking about the future with fear, which turns life into an unbearable bore, and by its absence, the greatest missed opportunity. The funny thing is - it disconnects. I actually love this one thing about distress: It connects. I notice with glee how everyone talks to everyone when the transport system in England breaks down for bad weather. I know societies come together when an external enemy, or a natural disaster, is in sight. People go out of their normal ways and seek out other people who, they think, will understand their plight.



Unfortunately, none of that happens when one is waiting for the end of the tunnel. It is a very private wait. No one wants to tell anyone that they are waiting, because, if possible, they want to get there first. We know it is not a zero-sum game, we know we shall reach there together, but while one waits, it is hard to avoid our Lobster syndrome - that one always pulls down the other - from reigning over our senses. We end up looking at the world by the corner of our eyes, all the time.



But times like these free us from ourselves. One knows nothing practically changes by the stroke of the midnight hour on the 31st of December, but we all expect it will. And, possibly it will - because the world we know is far more a construct of our imagination than we care to admit. I can do very little to change the practical fact that it is very cold outside, but I can choose to feel the cold differently: inactive and frozen inside the relative warmth inside my house, or out in the market square, warm in the mingling with the crowd and alive despite the piercing wind and biting cold. In fact, this is a human world and the economy is human economy. We have seen two colossal failures of modelling ourselves down to data: First, in the soviet economy, where detailed statistical models failed to anticipate the human motivation; and next, when Wall Street's detailed derivatives made the same mistake and failed miserably to measure the human emotions and subjectivity. This Christmas, in a way, may turn out to be the mankind's collective return to faith: Not the church kind, but faith unto itself, the deep belief that we can solve our problems if we put our hearts and minds together on this.



Having said that, I have indeed noticed that the churchyard next door is full of cars. This is pretty usual for today, but I almost feel that there are more cars this year than any of the five earlier years when I have seen this crowd. It may not be, I have never bothered to keep a count, but my thinking is faith itself, that the humankind is trying to redeem itself and make a fresh start.



In my own life, a fresh start must be made. I have commented earlier that 2009 was my most wasted year, which I spent pushing a wall, in the splendid loneliness of my own vanity. I chose not to accept failure, I chose to be responsible - all heroic emotions - but I failed the tests of practicality and enterprise. There is no point wasting a single day in the vain pursuit of something which is set up to go nowhere, I should have said myself. I should have realized that the Quixotic sense of responsibility is meaningless, a blast from past, a value not appreciated in a very unchivalrous world. In fact, one tends to get exploited when one tries to be heroic. Worse, one tends to lose faith, in his own values and own sense of mission, and consequently cynical, as I sound now. I need a fresh start and make an admission that it is my failure, more than anyone else's, to adjust to the practicalities of modern business, and to make a vow not to make the same mistakes ever again. There was never a better time than this Christmas to make such a pledge and start on rounding up the unfinished business.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Education 2.0: The Roll-back of Public Education

Across the world, public education is on its way out. It is definitely out of fashion in all of the Anglo-Saxon world, and increasingly the developing countries, which are burdened by out of date education systems, mostly out of touch academics and out of proportion education bureaucracies, are following that lead. It indeed looks like an easy solution: let the private entrepreneurs make money and educate a few people in the process.

I do not agree. I think this is another example of governments abdicating its role of governance. We set up governments not to make profit, but to take care of things which can not be managed by private individual pursuit of profit. It is indeed not the other way round. Education is one of those areas, and governments abdicating its role of educating people may actually alter the social balance, come in the way of social progress and end up making social relationships unsustainable.

Let me explain. In my mind, education is a social utility. The education system exists to make the students socially useful, through work, through behaviour and interactions with other people. Yes, undeniably, education also builds the foundation of individual success, but that success, indeed, needs to be attained in the context of the society. And, because, education builds the functional society and prepares individual members regarding their social functions, it should ideally be paid for, at least, majorly, by social funds.

Also consider what happens in private education. First, we introduce a consumerist perspective, where the individual student pays for the education s/he receives. It is all but natural to expect, therefore, that this would contribute to his own individual success. In terms of the money s/he earns post-education becomes the sole measure of effectiveness of education. The societal perspective is completely forgotten. This system is likely to subvert the moral commitment to our societies that we must grow up with.

Second, privately funded education is likely to create a modern caste system, and in places where it already exists, will strengthen the same. Since education has become a function of the ability to pay, it has now created tiered social groups which will move away from one another rather than coming any closer. One may argue that student funding system is supposed to encounter this, but that sort of social funds do not exist in many countries and where they do, they are increasingly under-resourced. The private education has skewed the costs of education as well, by attracting top academics with higher pay and research opportunities, and hence the public education system now lives on borrowed time.

The point of education is to create a questioning attitude, and an engagement with society with a free and enquiring mind. Private education subverts this motive, create disengagement rather than engagement, and promotes conformity rather than questioning. This is not a recipe for progress: This is a roll-back of the role of education in the society.

I am fearful because this imbalances are now acute in the fast-developing countries like India. This will not only prove to be the limits of its growth, but this will be its undoing: Its society will not survive if a private education system props up the age-old caste system and create a new tier of privilege, and leave most of people out. The private education has become an excuse for governments to abdicate its responsibilities altogether, and that does not bode well for the long term health of these economies and societies in general.

Education 2.0: Ideas for An Open College

Idealism does not get you far in life, my teachers advised me. This is an advice I have not heeded, to my peril. I get excited by ideas, and not often care to assess the benefits, of personal and material kind, before pursuing one. And, so I have done many times before.

However, for all my day-dreaming habits and undying optimism, I have possibly not worked for anything even closely exciting as the one idea I am pursuing now: A global open college. A college, in short, that anyone can attend, anywhere in the world, and study a professional course in a wide range of subject areas.

That's the idealism bit. The idea is that you can decide to educate yourself one morning, and without caring for what your background is, or having to wait for admission cycles and filling out lengthy forms, you can immediately get started. The education, in this format, should come to you instead of you going to it. The experience should be global, and you should be able to connect up to thousands of others like you who are pursuing similar paths of education. It should be easy, accessible and the most worthwhile education experience that you had in your life.

That anyone, anywhere bit is the maxim of my idealism. Education without boundaries, it should be. Besides, this should be all about breaking the boundaries of privileges, the class thing that increasingly builds a barrier around higher education and yes, all about changing the world.

Practically though, it will start in English. Not because I believe in the story of Tower of Babel and believe that all men spoke in English before God devised his plans, but because the business models should dictate so to start with. There are limits to dreams, at least for now. The college will start with a limited number of courses, which will be determined by marketability of these courses in target markets. But it will balance the demands with social necessity. So, yes, there will be finance, but also courses on journalism, human rights law and care-giving. You can't dream to change the world with a bunch of Investment Bankers and Corporate Lawyers.

The courses will be initially accredited in Britain, but the idea is to turn this into a World Open College, where any courses can be taught. The idea is to build a platform and the content and establish a template on how this could be done. Eventually, of course, the platform and the linkages will overtake the content, and become a way of learning, rather than a place, real or virtual.

I was asked whether it will be FREE? My answer was, after Jimmy Wells of Wikipedia, that this will be free - free as in free speech, not free as in beer. It will be free to access, but not free of cost, because obviously there is a cost attached to everything that we do. I am not sure whether I can build this Open College initiative as a social enterprise, but surely it is worth a try. My deep-seating faith is that education is a social utility and should be free to individual consumers, because it has more benefits than the enhancement in salary and personal success that it entails. So, it should be funded by taxes rather than fees, because with fees, one subverts the purpose of education and puts a firmly consumerist spin in the classroom. But even if I make it a social enterprise, the courses are not going to be free - but this could actually be constructed on a cross-subsidy, ability-to-pay model.

Is there anything new in this idea? Not really, there are open universities and there are universities that are open. It is just this idealism about an open world and the commitment to lifelong learning that need to come in. It does not matter where it comes in from, or who: This is not about making things proprietary, but instead about making things open. This is where idealism comes handy, whatever the teachers tell you.

Friday, December 18, 2009

An Old Joke

This is an old joke, about the Four Dimensions of Happiness.

So, a happy man has

An American Salary

A British House

A Chinese Cook

And

A Japanese Wife.

The other end of the maxim, the four dimensions of unhappiness, is also spelt out as well:

A Chinese Salary

A British Cook

A Japanese House

And

An American Wife.

Apologies, because, this is very male and lots of stereotypes here [some are also dated, because Chinese salary is no longer that bad]. But, worth a laugh!

Gordon Brown on Global Ethic

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The New Zealand's Equivalent of Danish Cartoons


This advert, put out on billboards by St Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, is causing a bit of a debate. Many residents are angry, they think the advert shows disrespect. The church wanted to do this to, yes to draw attention, and to spark a debate on Jesus' birth. But, what a timing?

But, then, I guess fundamentalists are everywhere and they always miss the point. And, the irony, indeed.

Saving British Airways

It is a great day for British Airways. It won an injunction on strikes called by Cabin Crew. This will keep the airline flying during the holidays, much to the relief of many passengers. It will possibly save the airline, for now. It will also possibly be the last nail in the coffin of the Trade Union movement in Britain, because the judgement was based on a technicality, which could have been avoided. Great day for British Newspapers, because they seemed to have swayed the opinion.

But, while everyone is happy, it is time to ask whether British Airways can be saved. The answer is possibly a resounding NO, given that this is completely out of touch and arrogant airline, living on borrowed time. The same arrogance is all but obvious in challenging the strike call in the courts, rather than trying to resolve the dispute. They are in denial that airlines is a service business and its crew is what it really has, and trying to take away their rights to strike is not the best way to make them smile.

I stopped flying BA after noticing a few of Cabin Crew giggling up, in the full view of all passengers, while a fat man struggled to put the seat belt around his waist, instead of offering help. I thought that was the most inappropriate behaviour I have seen in a service environment [till last week, when I saw the hotel staff in Poland giggling and enjoying while a Russian lady got stuck in the lift and was shouting for help]. Besides, BA loses too many bags, messed up the whole Terminal 5 business when they moved last year and the food is atrocious. I do not think they stand any chance in the face of various Asian airlines, who have new fleets, better staff and much superior services. [Yes, as I said before, my favourite is Emirates]

However, I think this whole strike affair tops it. Yes, I know about the passenger discomfort and obviously do not condone any dislocation. But, the BA management is surely callous - they knew a strike was in the offing and thought that they can blackmail the workers citing Christmas and all that. While I think the pressure tactics around Christmas time is bad, I think companies like BA needs to look at their business practises because they seem to invite a strike every holiday season. I don't want to sound insensitive, but I guess the customers who are buying tickets on BA during holiday season are knowingly taking some risks every time. I shall not be surprised if the insurance companies soon have a different premium rate if one is planning to travel by BA.

The injunction may have been won, but it does seem that there was an overwhelming consensus on the strike action, which would have held even if the offending ballots were not counted. So, the whole judgement is based on a technicality, which is possibly okay in legal terms, but it further shows the rifts inside the company and the attitude of the management towards their own employees. They will possibly be on air this Christmas, but they will surely fail quite soon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Concept of East Asian Union & America

In the context of the discussion about the East Asian Union, there is a lot of unease in America and Europe. It almost appears that there is some kind of conspiracy against them, by some socialist powers, though the idea is generating in Japan and the adherents, countries like South Korea and Taiwan, are strong American allies. I have been told that the scheme is to undermine American hegemony, which is partially correct, but seen from a different perspective, this is not such a bad thing for America itself.

Let me explain. I do not think East Asian Union, if it ever happens, will be about undermining anyone. We should not think about this in nationalist terms; as this is not going to be a nation and will not act like a nation. This is possibly the strongest rationale for promoting such an union. Asia, as of today, is much like the Europe of the Twentieth century. Home of strong and emerging powers, biggest armies and arsenal. Many of the world's most dangerous points of tension are in Asia. A nationalist rivalry in Asia can bring about another world war and destroy the world. It is, indeed, in no one's interest to have a new nationalist rivalry in Asia.

Traditional diplomacy is less effective in containing such conflicts than one would think. The reason is traditional diplomacy is conducted between governments, and in order to maintain a status quo, world's powers concentrated on keeping compliant governments in power so as to keep nations working together. As demonstrated in Pakistan, such mechanization can seriously destabilize a country from inside and allow non-state powers to assume control - political and moral - over the lives of its citizens. We have seen this happening in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and in some of the regions of India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. If we follow the traditional process, based on the European style state-based diplomacy, eventually the national governments will be so much devalued that they will not be able to control the agenda any more. The whole region will spin out of control and cause dislocation of the peaceful world order.

A Supra-national union, in a sense, is more than a nation. Jean Monet saw this when he said he was not just cobbling together nations, he was uniting men. Policy-making in Asia now must go beyond the governments and traditional power elites in various national capitals, and reengage the people on the street, and more importantly, in the villages, by expanding the economic opportunity and taking away the 'nationalist excuse' for fermenting conflict. Such a formation will only be in America's, and Europe's, interest.

The configuration of the world as we know it are changing and all nations must adjust to this quickly, or otherwise face serious problems. For America, it will be about adjusting to a world where hegemony is meaningless. As America will learn from its adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the huge superiority in military power is, in a sense, useless for a democratic country. While the countries may be required to maintain a credible deterrent for some time to come, being able to destroy the world many times over does not necessarily help win wars on the ground. So, in the post-national world, leadership and moral power will be more important than hegemony based on military power. In the context, America would much rather have an United Asia as a partner than a clutch of nations competing with it for global or regional dominance.

For Asia, it also must avoid the trappings of neo-nationalism, because it will only engage the nations with wrong priorities. While the traditional authority of the state is being undermined, a resurgence of nationalism is evident among the power elite in India, China, Iran, Pakistan and other major Asian powers. This is quite dangerous in the context that, in the face of climate change, quite a few nations will be unviable, and will then have to engage in existential struggle. It makes much more sense for Asian powers to move towards coexistence and cooperation than one of conflict.

There is an ongoing discussion whether America will be part of an Asian Union, and whether such an union should happen within the framework of ASEAN or ASEAN+3. I do not think America should be a part of the Asian Union, because it is not in Asia. It is in America's interest, not in the old, zero-sum way, but in the context of the new post-conflict world order, to allow a deep union among the Asian nations. This is not going to happen if America is a party. Besides, ASEAN and all other institutions are quite redundant in the context of the new Asian Union, and one must look fresh and start from scratch. I do not think such an union will happen over a day, despite all the experiences of Europe, and throwing the concept straight into the pot of a cold-war formation like ASEAN will kill the baby straightaway [this anyway seems to be the objective many policy wonks, who continue to live in a cold-war mindset]. I think the union may start outside ASEAN, through closer ties between countries, including economic unions, visa free travel and military cooperation. The dialogue should possibly start between China, Japan and India first, though the differences in political and economic systems will have to be negotiated before it can go anywhere.

Agenda For India 2020

In the light of the Hatoyama doctrine and the shifting world economics and politics, it is time for us to rethink our plans in India and how this country should develop in the next decade. I am a great believer that India has the potential to develop into a powerful economy, but I do not think this is a given, and a lot will depend on the choices we make with regard to our development model. I am not sure it was about liberalization and that's it, however much the English language press wants us to believe that. It seems that we have caught up this free market credo just after its time has passed - we have a penchant for picking up the doctrines after its sell-by date - and it is important for us to think hard, yet again, on what is right for us.

I am not talking about a militant nationalism or old school protectionism, though both of those doctrines may make a comeback in the Western economies real soon. India should not, and I am confident, would not, follow the European and American models blindly, though it will hit India hard when the protectionism gathers steam in the course of next couple of years. It has to be recognized, by India and all the other developing countries, that the days of the closed economies are truly over, and any oncoming tendencies to create protected domestic markets must be met with formation of alternative trade alliances, which will undermine the competitiveness of the protected economies in the first place.

So, we are still talking about relatively free economy and democracy as a model of governance, but certain things do need to change. Here is my list of five things that are seriously out of sync, and we must make hard choices in India if we have to protect our future.


(1) Focus on Agriculture and Our Villages: It may be counter-intuitive, but we must focus back on our agriculture and our villages. The industrial revolution dream we are pursuing - mainly in terms of the service industry - will collapse if we don't put the villages and agriculture first. The reason is, of course, that we have too large a population to be accommodated and fed by the service industry alone. Besides, our cities will crumble if we can not contain the population migration from the villages, which we can not do, except by creating sustainable village economies. Our costs will soar if we can not fix agriculture, and that will soon price ourselves out of the service industry. And, above all, we are possibly looking at a world with food shortage by 2020, and we must make our agriculture much more productive, water efficient and fair in terms of wealth distribution to remain competitive.

(2) Federalism: We have spent the first 60 years of Independence moving towards a string federal administration, and it seems that we may need the next 40 moving towards devolution and greater autonomy of the states. The process seems to have started now, but it will take another few years and few successful Chief Ministers to get this process some momentum. This is not a death wish for an Indian union; this is actually an admission of maturity and the strength of the Indian state. There is not much in the states today, and also, there is a brain-drain on relative terms from state to central politics. We may need to revisit this and create strong state administrations, and ask some of our brightest politicians to return to their state politics rather than vying for ministerial positions at the centre. The Indian state should surely provide certain common services, like Defence, Financial Administration and Foreign Affairs, but the states should be asked to shoulder greater responsibilities in education, tax collection, health care, science and technology, environment, power and infrastructure. This will, in turn, require a greater devolution of power at the local level, which will make the whole political system more accountable to people.

(3) Focus on Asia: India's defence needs, and economic priorities, are closely allied with Asia. It is primarily China, Japan and the neighbouring countries, but India has so far done surprisingly little to acknowledge this. There are few trade arrangements, few incentives to do business and very few educational opportunities focused on the region. This should all change. There should be a quick realization of the growing importance of Asia on the World stage, and the fact that if we are not gearing up to trade in the world's most exciting market, we shall eventually lose out. There should be greater cooperation with neighbouring countries, which should also take into account strong cultural links some of the Indian states have with their neighbours. Besides, the government should actively encourage studies in Chinese and Japanese language and culture [and also the other Asian languages] at various levels of education, so that India has a ready workforce by 2020 to engage with these economic giants. We must prepare ourselves for an eventual Asian union, and the deliberate preparation for this should start now.

(4) Focus on Environment: India is surprisingly reticent about the environment issues, though there are some Indian companies, like Suzlon, which are doing very well. But a comprehensive focus on environment is sorely missing. This is no longer an ethical or a moral issue; this is about our future competitiveness and sustainability of our development process. We are under a mistaken notion that we can repeat the process of industrial revolution as it happened in Britain 200 years ago. We can not. It has to be a new path, created for India by India. And, we can not possibly lift our 600 million people out of poverty without causing a huge shift in world's climate. This is possible only if we do so with great new innovations in clean and sustainable technology. We haven't yet started on that front.

(5) Realign Education to our future needs: The government needs to actively focus on education and shift its focus from giving people jobs to promoting excellence in original research and innovation. Our education is aligned to a mechanistic vision of the future, and our universities are on a factory mode, interested in churning out call centre workers, software programmers at best. While this is understandable, we can not just stop there. We need to develop indigenous technology and intellectual property to solve the pressing problems that we have, or going to face. Unless our education system is realigned to our priorities, we are going to fall short. Currently, our education system is designed to serve European and American requirements; this should change in near future.



I haven't mentioned corruption, infrastructure etc because these are already on the agenda. My purpose was to highlight the areas which aren't, and we are going to hit a limit of growth unless we start addressing these areas quite quickly. I am optimistic that the Government of India has enough forward-thinking people who are already working on these directions. But, a great change is coming and we must get prepared to meet it halfway down the road.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Yukio Hatoyama on 'New Path for Japan'

In the context of my recent comment regarding the East Asian Community, I decided to post Yukio Hatoyama's article from International Herald Tribune, where it appeared in English. This article, understandably, created so much anxiety in the Washington Policy circles. However, it is said that there is less to worry about Hatoyama's intent than is currently thought. His comments about the failure of American style capitalism is all but common these days, and his idea of an East Asian community is not a new one. Besides, it was pointed out that the English article omits important sections that appeared in the original, longer, Japanese one, sections which would have made this sound much less belligerent.

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Yukio Hatoyama heads the Democratic Party of Japan, and has since become the prime minister of Japan. A longer version of this article appears in the September issue of the monthly Japanese journal Voice.

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TOKYO — In the post-Cold War period, Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization. In the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism people are treated not as an end but as a means. Consequently, human dignity is lost.

How can we put an end to unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, that are void of morals or moderation, in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens? That is the issue we are now facing.

In these times, we must return to the idea of fraternity — as in the French slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” — as a force for moderating the danger inherent within freedom.

Fraternity as I mean it can be described as a principle that aims to adjust to the excesses of the current globalized brand of capitalism and accommodate the local economic practices that have been fostered through our traditions.

The recent economic crisis resulted from a way of thinking based on the idea that American-style free-market economics represents a universal and ideal economic order, and that all countries should modify the traditions and regulations governing their economies in line with global (or rather American) standards.

In Japan, opinion was divided on how far the trend toward globalization should go. Some advocated the active embrace of globalism and leaving everything up to the dictates of the market. Others favored a more reticent approach, believing that efforts should be made to expand the social safety net and protect our traditional economic activities. Since the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), the Liberal Democratic Party has stressed the former, while we in the Democratic Party of Japan have tended toward the latter position.

The economic order in any country is built up over long years and reflects the influence of traditions, habits and national lifestyles. But globalism has progressed without any regard for non-economic values, or for environmental issues or problems of resource restriction.

If we look back on the changes in Japanese society since the end of the Cold War, I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the global economy has damaged traditional economic activities and destroyed local communities.

In terms of market theory, people are simply personnel expenses. But in the real world people support the fabric of the local community and are the physical embodiment of its lifestyle, traditions and culture. An individual gains respect as a person by acquiring a job and a role within the local community and being able to maintain his family’s livelihood.

Under the principle of fraternity, we would not implement policies that leave areas relating to human lives and safety — such as agriculture, the environment and medicine — to the mercy of globalism.

Our responsibility as politicians is to refocus our attention on those non-economic values that have been thrown aside by the march of globalism. We must work on policies that regenerate the ties that bring people together, that take greater account of nature and the environment, that rebuild welfare and medical systems, that provide better education and child-rearing support, and that address wealth disparities.

Another national goal that emerges from the concept of fraternity is the creation of an East Asian community. Of course, the Japan-U.S. security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy.

But at the same time, we must not forget our identity as a nation located in Asia. I believe that the East Asian region, which is showing increasing vitality, must be recognized as Japan’s basic sphere of being. So we must continue to build frameworks for stable economic cooperation and security across the region.

The financial crisis has suggested to many that the era of U.S. unilateralism may come to an end. It has also raised doubts about the permanence of the dollar as the key global currency.

I also feel that as a result of the failure of the Iraq war and the financial crisis, the era of U.S.-led globalism is coming to an end and that we are moving toward an era of multipolarity. But at present no one country is ready to replace the United States as the dominant country. Nor is there a currency ready to replace the dollar as the world’s key currency. Although the influence of the U.S. is declining, it will remain the world’s leading military and economic power for the next two to three decades.

Current developments show clearly that China will become one of the world’s leading economic nations while also continuing to expand its military power. The size of China’s economy will surpass that of Japan in the not-too-distant future.

How should Japan maintain its political and economic independence and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world’s dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant?

This is a question of concern not only to Japan but also to the small and medium-sized nations in Asia. They want the military power of the U.S. to function effectively for the stability of the region but want to restrain U.S. political and economic excesses. They also want to reduce the military threat posed by our neighbor China while ensuring that China’s expanding economy develops in an orderly fashion. These are major factors accelerating regional integration.

Today, as the supranational political and economic philosophies of Marxism and globalism have, for better or for worse, stagnated, nationalism is once again starting to have a major influence in various countries.

As we seek to build new structures for international cooperation, we must overcome excessive nationalism and go down a path toward rule-based economic cooperation and security.

Unlike Europe, the countries of this region differ in size, development stage and political system, so economic integration cannot be achieved over the short term. However, we should nonetheless aspire to move toward regional currency integration as a natural extension of the rapid economic growth begun by Japan, followed by South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and then achieved by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China. We must spare no effort to build the permanent security frameworks essential to underpinning currency integration.

Establishing a common Asian currency will likely take more than 10 years. For such a single currency to bring about political integration will surely take longer still.

ASEAN, Japan, China (including Hong Kong), South Korea and Taiwan now account for one quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. The economic power of the East Asian region and the interdependent relationships within the region have grown wider and deeper. So the structures required for the formation of a regional economic bloc are already in place.

On the other hand, due to historical and cultural conflicts as well as conflicting national security interests, we must recognize that there are numerous difficult political issues. The problems of increased militarization and territorial disputes cannot be resolved by bilateral negotiations between, for example, Japan and South Korea, or Japan and China. The more these problems are discussed bilaterally, the greater the risk that emotions become inflamed and nationalism intensified.

Therefore, I would suggest, somewhat paradoxically, that the issues that stand in the way of regional integration can only be truly resolved by moving toward greater integration. The experience of the E.U. shows us how regional integration can defuse territorial disputes.

I believe that regional integration and collective security is the path we should follow toward realizing the principles of pacifism and multilateral cooperation advocated by the Japanese Constitution. It is also the appropriate path for protecting Japan’s political and economic independence and pursuing our interests in our position between the United States and China.

Let me conclude by quoting the words of Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, founder of the first popular movement for a united Europe, written 85 years ago in “Pan-Europa” (my grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, translated his book, “The Totalitarian State Against Man,” into Japanese): “All great historical ideas started as a utopian dream and ended with reality. Whether a particular idea remains as a utopian dream or becomes a reality depends on the number of people who believe in the ideal and their ability to act upon it.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

From Hope to Audacity | Foreign Affairs

This article in Foreign Affairs was worth reproducing here, in the context of what I wrote about Obama's Nobel Speech and the requirements of pragmatism as John Gibb pointed out to me. This is written by ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, who was the U.S. National Security Adviser from 1977 to 1981. His most recent book is Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower.

From Hope to Audacity | Foreign Affairs

One can read the article by clicking on the link, but a registration will be required, which is free of cost. I shall encourage you to register. However, I have also reproduced the text here for convenience, and to be used in the context of the ongoing conversation.

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The foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama can be assessed most usefully in two parts: first, his goals and decision-making system and, second, his policies and their implementation. Although one can speak with some confidence about the former, the latter is still an unfolding process.

To his credit, Obama has undertaken a truly ambitious effort to redefine the United States' view of the world and to reconnect the United States with the emerging historical context of the twenty-first century. He has done this remarkably well. In less than a year, he has comprehensively reconceptualized U.S. foreign policy with respect to several centrally important geopolitical issues:
• Islam is not an enemy, and the "global war on terror" does not define the United States' current role in the world;
• the United States will be a fair-minded and assertive mediator when it comes to attaining lasting peace between Israel and Palestine;
• the United States ought to pursue serious negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, as well as other issues;
• the counterinsurgency campaign in the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan should be part of a larger political undertaking, rather than a predominantly military one;
• the United States should respect Latin America's cultural and historical sensitivities and expand its contacts with Cuba;
• the United States ought to energize its commitment to significantly reducing its nuclear arsenal and embrace the eventual goal of a world free of nuclear weapons;
• in coping with global problems, China should be treated not only as an economic partner but also as a geopolitical one;
• improving U.S.-Russian relations is in the obvious interest of both sides, although this must be done in a manner that accepts, rather than seeks to undo, post-Cold War geopolitical realities; and
• a truly collegial transatlantic partnership should be given deeper meaning, particularly in order to heal the rifts caused by the destructive controversies of the past few years.

For all that, he did deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Overall, Obama has demonstrated a genuine sense of strategic direction, a solid grasp of what today's world is all about, and an understanding of what the United States ought to be doing in it. Whether these convictions are a byproduct of his personal history, his studies, or his intuitive sense of history, they represent a strategically and historically coherent worldview. The new president, it should be added, has also been addressing the glaring social and environmental dilemmas that confront humanity and about which the United States has been indifferent for too long. But this appraisal focuses on his responses to the most urgent geopolitical challenges.

CHALLENGES TO WHITE HOUSE LEADERSHIP

Obama has shown a genuine sense of strategic direction and a solid grasp of what today’s world is all about.

Obama's overall perspective sets the tone for his foreign-policy-making team, which is firmly centered in the White House. The president relies on Vice President Joe Biden's broad experience in foreign affairs to explore ideas and engage in informal strategizing. National Security Adviser James Jones coordinates the translation of the president's strategic outlook into policy, while also having to manage the largest National Security Council in history -- its over-200-person staff is almost four times as large as the NSC staffs of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush and almost ten times as large as John F. Kennedy's. The influence of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on national security strategy has been growing steadily. Gates' immediate task is to successfully conclude two wars, but his influence is also felt on matters pertaining to Iran and Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has the president's ear as well as his confidence, is likewise a key participant in foreign policy decisions and is the country's top diplomat. Her own engagement is focused more on the increasingly urgent global issues of the new century, rather than on the geopolitical ones of the recent past.

Finally, Obama's two trusted political advisers, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, who closely monitor the sensitive relationship between foreign and domestic politics, also participate in decision-making. (For example, both sat in on the president's critical September meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.) When appropriate, policy discussions also include two experienced negotiators, George Mitchell, who conducts the Middle East peace negotiations, and Richard Holbrooke, who coordinates the regional response to the challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In effect, they are an extension of the president's NSC-centered process.

On this team, Obama himself is the main source of the strategic direction, but, unavoidably, he is able to play this role on only a part-time basis. This is a weakness, because the conceptual initiator of a great power's foreign policy needs to be actively involved in supervising the design of the consequent strategic decisions, in overlooking their implementation, and in making timely adjustments. Yet Obama has had no choice but to spend much of his first year in office on domestic political affairs.

As a result, his grand redefinition of U.S. foreign policy is vulnerable to dilution or delay by upper-level officials who have the bureaucratic predisposition to favor caution over action and the familiar over the innovative. Some of them may even be unsympathetic to the president's priorities regarding the Middle East and Iran. It hardly needs to be added that officials who are not in sympathy with advocated policies rarely make good executors. Additionally, the president's domestic political advisers inevitably tend to be more sensitive to pressures from domestic interest groups. This usually fosters a reluctance to plan for a firm follow-through on bold presidential initiatives should they suddenly encounter a foreign rebuff reinforced by powerful domestic lobbies. Netanyahu's rejection of Obama's public demand that Israel halt the construction of settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem is a case in point.

It is still too early to make a firm assessment of the president's determination to pursue his priorities, as most of the large issues that Obama has personally addressed involve long-range problems that call for long-term management. But three urgent issues do pose, even in the short run, an immediate and difficult test of his ability and his resolve to significantly change U.S. policy: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and the Afghan-Pakistani challenge. Each of these also happens to be a sensitive issue at home.

THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONUNDRUM

The first urgent challenge is, of course, the Middle East peace process. Obama stated early on that he would take the initiative on this issue and aim for a settlement in the relative near term. That position is justified historically and is in keeping with the United States' national interest. Paralysis over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lasted far too long, and leaving it unresolved has pernicious consequences for the Palestinians, for the region, and for the United States, and it will eventually harm Israel. It is not fashionable to say this, but it is demonstrably true that -- deservedly or not -- much of the current hostility toward the United States in the Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole has been generated by the bloodshed and suffering produced by this prolonged conflict. Osama bin Laden's self-serving justifications for 9/11 are a reminder that the United States itself is also a victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.

By now, after more than 40 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and 30 years of peace negotiations, it is quite evident that left to themselves, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will resolve the conflict on their own. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is that the Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same. As a result, a firm external initiative defining the basic parameters of a final settlement is needed to jump-start serious negotiations between the two parties. And that can only come from the United States.

But the necessary outside stimulus has not yet been forthcoming in a fashion consistent with U.S. interests and potential. In raising the issue of the settlements in the spring of 2009 but then later backing off when rebuffed by the Israeli government, the administration strengthened the hard-line elements in Israel and undercut the more moderate elements on the Palestinian side. Then, an opportunity provided by the annual UN General Assembly meeting in September to identify the United States with the overwhelming global consensus about the basic parameters of a peace settlement was squandered. Instead of seizing it, Obama merely urged the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith.

Yet the existing global consensus could serve as a launching pad for serious negotiations on four basic points. First, Palestinian refugees should not be granted the right of return to what is now Israel, because Israel cannot be expected to commit suicide for the sake of peace. The refugees will have to be resettled within the Palestinian state, with compensation and maybe some expression of regret for their suffering. This will be very difficult for the Palestinian national movement to swallow, but there is no alternative.

The United States is already losing the renewed confidence of the Arab world that Obama won with his speech in Cairo.

Second, Jerusalem has to be shared, and shared genuinely. The Israeli capital, of course, would be in West Jerusalem, but East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, with the Old City shared under some international arrangement. If a genuine compromise on Jerusalem is not part of a settlement, resentment will persist throughout the West Bank and the Palestinians will reject the peace process. Although such a compromise will understandably be difficult for the Israelis to accept, without it there cannot be a peace of reconciliation.

Third, a settlement must be based on the 1967 lines, but with territorial swaps that would allow the large settlements to be incorporated into Israel without any further reduction of the territory of the Palestinian state. That means some territorial compensation for Palestine from parts of northern and southern Israel that border the West Bank. It is important to remember that although the Israeli and Palestinian populations are almost equal in number, under the 1967 lines the Palestinian territories account for only 22 percent of the old British mandate, whereas the Israeli territories account for 78 percent.

Fourth, the United States or NATO must make a commitment to station troops along the Jordan River. Such a move would reinforce Israel's security with strategic depth. It would reduce Israel's fears that an independent Palestine could some day serve as a springboard for a major Arab attack on Israel.

Had Obama embraced this internationally favored blueprint for peace when he addressed the UN in September, he would have exerted enormous influence on both the Israelis and the Palestinians and instantaneously gained global support. Failing to endorse this plan was a missed opportunity, especially since the two-state solution is beginning to lose some of its credibility as a viable formula for reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians and within the region. Moreover, there are indications that the United States is already losing the goodwill and renewed confidence of the Arab world that Obama won with his speech in Cairo in June.

The next few months will be critical, and the time for decisive action is running out. Perhaps as a consolation to the Palestinians (and in spite of some opposition within the White House) or perhaps as a reaffirmation of his determination to continue pressing the parties to focus on the key issues, in his UN speech Obama called for final-status negotiations to begin soon and included on the agenda four items similar to these. He also made it explicitly clear that the talks' ultimate goal ought to be "a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967." It can be hoped that the president seized the moment offered by the Oslo ceremony at which the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded (which at the time of this writing had not yet occurred) to give more substance to his Middle East peace initiative. But so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

THE IRANIAN CHALLENGE

Another urgent and potentially very dangerous challenge, with similarly huge stakes, is confronting Obama in Iran. It involves the true character of the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's role in the region. Obama has been determined to explore the path of serious negotiations with Iran despite domestic (and some foreign) agitation and even some opposition within the second echelon of his team. Without quite saying so, he has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that "all options remain on the table." But the prospects for a successful negotiation are still quite uncertain.

Two fundamental questions complicate the situation. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate -- or even capable of doing so -- seriously? The United States has to be realistic when discussing this aspect, since the clock cannot be turned back: the Iranians have the capability to enrich uranium, and they are not going to give it up. But it is still possible, perhaps through a more intrusive inspection regime, to fashion a reasonably credible arrangement that prevents weaponization. Nonetheless, even if the United States and its partners approach the negotiations with a constructive mindset, the Iranians themselves may scuttle any serious prospects for a positive outcome. Already, at the outset of the negotiating process, Iran's credibility was undermined by the convoluted manner in which Tehran complicated a promising compromise for a cooperative Iranian-Russian-French arrangement for processing its enriched uranium.

Second, is Washington willing to engage in negotiations with some degree of patience and with sensitivity to the mentality of the other side? It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.

These points must be borne in mind if and when additional sanctions become necessary. Care should be taken to make certain that the sanctions are politically intelligent and that they isolate the regime rather than unify all Iranians. Sanctions must punish those in power -- not the Iranian middle class, as an embargo on gasoline would do. The unintended result of imposing indiscriminately crippling sanctions would likely be to give the Iranians the impression that the United States' real objective is to prevent their country from acquiring even a peaceful nuclear program -- and that, in turn, would fuel nationalism and outrage.

Sanctions against Iran must punish those in power -- not the middle class, as an embargo on gasoline would do.

Moreover, even the adoption of politically discriminating sanctions is likely to be complicated by international constraints. China, given its dependence on Middle Eastern (and particularly Iranian) oil, fears the consequences of a sharpened crisis. The position of Russia is ambiguous since as a major energy supplier to Europe, it stands to benefit financially from a prolonged crisis in the Persian Gulf that would prevent the entrance of Iranian oil into the European market. Indeed, from the Russian geopolitical perspective, a steep rise in the price of oil as a result of a conflict in the Persian Gulf would be most economically damaging to the United States and China -- countries whose global preeminence Russia tends to resent and even fear -- and would make Europe even more dependent on Russian energy.

Throughout this complicated process, firm presidential leadership will be required. That is particularly so because of the presence of influential voices in the United States, both inside and outside the administration, in favor of a negotiating process that minimizes the possibility of a reasonable compromise. Prior to joining the administration, some senior second-level officials seemed to favor policies designed to force an early confrontation with Iran and even advocated joint military consultations with Israel regarding the use of force. The somewhat sensationalized manner in which the administration revealed in late September that it had been aware for months of the secret Iranian nuclear facility near Qom suggests internal disagreements over tactics.

Ultimately, a larger strategic question is at stake: Should the United States' long-term goal be the evolution of Iran into a stabilizing power in the Middle East? To state the issue even more sharply and simply: Should its policy be designed to encourage Iran to eventually become a partner of the United States again -- and even, as it was for three decades, of Israel? The wider the agenda -- one that addressed regional security issues, potential economic cooperation, and so on -- the greater the possibility of finding acceptable quid pro quos. Or should Iran be treated as if it is fated to remain a hostile and destabilizing power in an already vulnerable region?

As of this writing, an acceptable outcome to the negotiations is obviously still very much in doubt. Assuming they are not aborted, by early 2010 it may be possible to make a calmly calculated judgment as to whether the talks are worth continuing or whether there in fact is no room for reciprocal compromises. At that point, politically intelligent sanctions may become timely. So far, Obama has shown that he is aware of the need to combine strategic firmness with tactical flexibility; he is patiently exploring whether diplomacy can lead to an accommodation. He has avoided any explicit commitment to a precise deadline (unlike France's grandstanding in favor of a December date), and he has not engaged in explicit threats of military action.

Those advocating a tougher stance should remember that the United States would bear the brunt of the painful consequences in the event of an attack on Iran, whether the United States or Israel launched it. Iran would likely target U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, possibly destabilizing both countries; the Strait of Hormuz could become a blazing war zone; and Americans would again pay steep prices at the gas pump. Iran is an issue regarding which, above all, Obama must trust himself to lead and not to be led. So far, he has done so.

THE AFPAK QUAGMIRE

The third urgent and politically sensitive foreign policy issue is posed by the Afghan-Pakistani predicament. Obama has moved toward abandoning some of the more ambitious, even ideological, objectives that defined the United States' initial engagement in Afghanistan -- the creation of a modern democracy, for example. But the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.

Some top U.S. generals have recently stated that the United States is not winning militarily, an appraisal that ominously suggests the conflict with the Taliban could become similar to the Soviet Union's earlier confrontation with Afghan resistance. A comprehensive strategic reassessment has thus become urgently needed. The proposal made in September by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom for an international conference on the subject was helpful and timely; the United States was wise to welcome it. But to be effective, any new strategy has to emphasize two key elements. First, the Afghan government and NATO should seek to engage locally in a limited process of accommodation with receptive elements of the Taliban. The Taliban are not a global revolutionary or terrorist movement, and although they are a broad alliance with a rather medieval vision of what Afghanistan ought to be, they do not directly threaten the West. Moreover, they are still very much a minority phenomenon that ultimately can be defeated only by other Afghans (helped economically and militarily by the United States and its NATO allies), a fact that demands a strategy that is more political than military.

Additionally, the United States needs to develop a policy for gaining the support of Pakistan, not just in denying the Taliban a sanctuary in Pakistan but also in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to accommodate. Given that many Pakistanis may prefer a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to a secular Afghanistan that leans toward Pakistan's archrival, India, the United States needs to assuage Pakistan's security concerns in order to gain its full cooperation in the campaign against the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban. In this regard, the support of China could be helpful, particularly considering its geopolitical stake in regional stability and its traditionally close ties with Islamabad.

It is likely that before this appraisal hits the newsstands, Obama will have announced a more comprehensive strategy for attaining a politically acceptable outcome to the ongoing conflict -- and one that U.S. allies are also prepared to support. His approach so far has been deliberate. He has been careful to assess both the military and the political dimensions of the challenge and also to take into account the views of U.S. allies. Nothing would be worse for NATO than if one part of the alliance (western Europe) left the other part of the alliance (the United States) alone in Afghanistan. Such a fissure over NATO's first campaign initially based on Article 5, the collective defense provision, would probably spell the end of the alliance.

How Obama handles these three urgent and interrelated issues -- the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian dilemma, and the Afghan-Pakistani conflict -- will determine the United States' global role for the foreseeable future. The consequences of a failed peace process in the Middle East, a military collision with Iran, and an intensifying military engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan all happening simultaneously could commit the United States for many years to a lonely and self-destructive conflict in a huge and volatile area. Eventually, that could spell the end of the United States' current global preeminence.

KEY STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIPS

The president, in addition to coping with these immediate challenges, has indicated his intent to improve three key geopolitical relationships of the United States: with Russia, with China, and with Europe. Each involves longer-term dilemmas but does not require crisis management now. Each has its own peculiarities: Russia is a former imperial power with revisionist ambitions but declining social capital; China is a rising world power that is modernizing itself at an astonishing pace but deliberately downplaying its ambitions; Europe is a global economic power devoid of either military clout or political will. Obama has rightly indicated that the United States needs to collaborate more closely with each of them.

Hence, the administration decided to "reset" the United States' relationship with Russia. But that slogan is confusing, and it is not yet clear that Washington's wishful thinking about Moscow's shared interests on such matters as Iran is fully justified. Nonetheless, the United States must think strategically about its long-term relationship with Russia and pursue a two-track policy: it has to cooperate with Russia whenever doing so is mutually beneficial, but in a way that is also responsive to historical reality. The age of closed empires is over, and Russia, for the sake of its own future, will eventually have to accept this.

Seeking to expand cooperation with Russia does not mean condoning Russia's subordination of Georgia (through which the vital Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline passes, providing Europe with access to Central Asian energy) or its intimidation of Ukraine (an industrial and agricultural heartland of the former Soviet Union). Either move would be a giant step backward. Each would intensify Russia's imperial nostalgia and central Europe's security fears, not to mention increase the possibility of armed conflicts. Yet so far, the Obama administration has been quite reluctant to provide even purely defensive arms to Georgia (in contrast to Russia's provision of offensive weaponry to Venezuela), nor has it been sufficiently active in encouraging the EU to be more responsive to Ukraine's European aspirations. Fortunately, Vice President Biden's fall 2009 visit to Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic did reaffirm the United States' long-term interest in political pluralism within the former Soviet space and in a cooperative relationship with a truly postimperial Russia. And it should always be borne in mind that the survival of the former makes the latter more likely.

A longer-term effort to engage China in a more forthcoming approach to global problems is also needed. China is, as it has proclaimed, "rising peacefully," and unlike Russia, it is patiently self-confident. But one can also argue that China is rising somewhat selfishly and needs to be drawn more broadly into constructive cooperation on global economic, financial, and environmental decisions. It also has growing political influence over geopolitical issues that affect core U.S. interests: North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, Obama's decision to develop a top-level bilateral U.S.-Chinese relationship has been timely. Cultivating at the presidential-summit level a de facto geopolitical G-2 (not to be confused with proposals for an economic G-2), highlighted by Obama's November visit to China, is helping develop an increasingly significant strategic dialogue. The leaders of the United States and China recognize that both countries have a major stake in an effectively functioning world system. And they appear to appreciate the historic potential and the respective national interests inherent in such a bilateral relationship.

Paradoxically, despite Obama's expressed desire, there seem to be fewer prospects in the near future for a strategically significant enhancement of the United States' relationship with its closest political, economic, and military partner: Europe. Obama's predecessor left a bitter legacy there, which Obama has greatly redressed in terms of public opinion. But genuine strategic cooperation on a global scale is not possible with a partner that not only has no defined and authoritative political leadership but also lacks an internal consensus regarding its world role.

Hence, Obama's intent to reignite the Atlantic partnership is necessarily limited to dialogues with the three key European states with genuine international clout: the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. But the utility of such dialogues is reduced by the personal and political differences among these countries' leaders -- not to mention the British prime minister's grim political prospects, the French president's preoccupation with personal celebrity, and the German chancellor's eastward gaze. The emergence of a unified and therefore influential European worldview, with which Obama could effectively engage, seems unlikely anytime soon.

DOMESTIC IMPEDIMENTS

What then, on balance, can be said of Obama's foreign policy? So far, it has generated more expectations than strategic breakthroughs. Nonetheless, Obama has significantly altered U.S. policies regarding the three most urgent challenges facing the country. But as a democracy, the United States has to base its foreign policy decisions on domestic political consent. And unfortunately for Obama, gaining that support is becoming more difficult because of three systemic weaknesses that impede the pursuit of an intelligent and decisive foreign policy in an increasingly complex global setting.

The first is that foreign policy lobbies have become more influential in U.S. politics. Thanks to their access to Congress, a variety of lobbies -- some financially well endowed, some backed by foreign interests -- have been promoting, to an unprecedented degree, legislative intervention in foreign-policy making. Now more than ever, Congress not only actively opposes foreign policy decisions but even imposes some on the president. (The pending legislation on sanctions against Iran is but one example.) Such congressional intervention, promoted by lobbies, is a serious handicap in shaping a foreign policy meant to be responsive to the ever-changing realities of global politics and makes it more difficult to ensure that U.S. -- not foreign -- interests are the point of departure.

The second, documented by a 2009 RAND study, pertains to the deepening ideological cleavage that is reducing the prospects for effective bipartisanship in foreign policy. The resulting polarization not only makes a bipartisan foreign policy less likely, but it also encourages the infusion of demagogy into policy conflicts. And it poisons the public discourse. Still worse, personal vilification and hateful, as well as potentially violent, rhetoric are becoming widespread in that realm of political debate that is subject to neither fact checking nor libel laws: the blogosphere.

Last but not least, of the large democratic countries, the United States has one of the least informed publics when it comes to global affairs. Many Americans, as various National Geographic surveys have shown, are not even familiar with basic global geography. Their knowledge of other countries' histories and cultures is not much better. How can a public unfamiliar with geography or foreign history have even an elementary grasp of, say, the geopolitical dilemmas that the United States faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan? With the accelerating decline in the circulation of newspapers and the trivialization of once genuinely informative television reporting, reliable and timely news about critical global issues is becoming less available to the general public. In that context, demagogically formulated solutions tend to become more appealing, especially in critical moments.

Together, these three systemic weaknesses are complicating efforts to gain public support for a rational foreign policy attuned to the complexity of the global dilemmas facing the United States. Obama's instinct is to lead by conciliation. That has been his political experience, and it has obviously been the key to his electoral success. Conciliation, backed by personal inspiration and the mass mobilization of populist hopes, is indeed the most important impetus for moving a policy agenda forward in a large democracy. In campaigning for the presidency, Obama proved that he was a master both of social conciliation and of political mobilization. But he has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

In the tough realities of world affairs, leadership also requires an unrelenting firmness in overcoming foreign opposition, in winning the support of friends, in negotiating seriously when necessary with hostile states, and in gaining grudging respect even from those governments that the United States sometimes has an interest in intimidating. To these ends, the optimal moment for blending national aspirations with decisive leadership is when the personal authority of the president is at its highest -- usually during the first year in office. For President Obama, alas, that first year has been dominated by the economic crisis and the struggle over health-care reform. The next three years may thus be more difficult. For the United States' national interest, but also for humanity's sake, that makes it truly vital for Obama to pursue with tenacious audacity the soaring hopes he unleashed.

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