Monday, December 27, 2004

Under my Christmas Tree

I was very traumatised this year to learn that Santa Claus doesn't exist - or is somebody lying to me? Fortunately, I can console myself with some good books.

I've just finished Robert Cooper's "The Breaking of Nations" is slim, but thought-provoking. Formerly foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair, he writes on the three worlds of foreign policy - postmodern, where nation states are less important, as within the EU, the modern of traditional realpolitik, and the pre-modern, where weak or collapsed states may require, in extremis, to be substantially taken in hand by outside powers, as Britain did in Sierra Leone. The Demos paper it's based on is here. At a time when the EU and US are pooling their efforts to enmesh Ukraine in the EU's alliance of European democracies, he explains the different roles he sees for diplomacy and gives an interesting perspective on the wrapping up of the Cold War in Europe.

As I already mentioned, I completed Bob Woodward's latest, Plan of Attack, on the lead-up to the Iraq War, last week. It gives a detailed chronological account, day by day of the decisions and the planning for war. It confirmed my own analysis that the Saudis and Iranians were very much part of the coalition of the willing, ensuring stability in the oil market and basing and overflights for the Americans. Rumsfeld is shown in a positive light, as the key driver in the creation of a lean and adaptable war plan, giving much greater political flexibility to the president. The Army asked for 350,000 troops to go into Bosnia, and twenty thousand for securing Sarajevo airport alone, although the French eventually carried out that particular mission with just a thousand. Whatever his faults, Rumsfeld has probably banished the nappies-within-nappies risk aversion of the generals.

The most startling revelation in the book was the revelation that an unnamed neighbouring state wanted the Americans to hold back a number of days while it attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein under the cover of a diplomatic mission. I can't imagine that anyone other than the Iranians would be bitter enough to attempt this and have the personnel suicidal enough to take part.

Emer very kindly gave me her copy of John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, the third book on Dan Drezner's list I've been thrilled with. Mearsheimer, an ex-USAF planner and now a U Chicago polsci professor sets himself up as the Lemony Snicket of international politics, warning of the inescapable threat of of war and weakness of security arrangements based on anything other than the balance of military power.

I've still to finish, but his analysis of the Cold War, from which he concludes that military competition continue even among nuclear states is one of the most important insights I've read. My teachers tend to be either liberal internationalists or critical-theory (i.e. Marxist, post-modernist, feminist or other "human security" advocates), so this is a powerful counterweight.

I have reservations but I'm fairly content that this and other realist works, are the best descriptions of how power politics operates, as, by and large, state security and national identity almost always trump all other considerations, including the economic ones. However, like most realists, he has contempt for morality as an input to foreign policy, like most of those people recently educated in classical music have a taste for the modern compositions of Stockhausen that the public ignores.

For academic purposes, I'm reading Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus by LSE political theorist David Held. It's well constructed, but I strongly disagree with the author. His proposed system of cosmopolitan world governance, where states are constrained and deconstructed by NGOs and international organisations, is a complete fantasy. The most fundamental objection I have towards the concept is that none of these mechanisms can, as yet, provide the monopoly on legitimate violence that is the essence of a state. Their experience in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq shows, NGOs, the UN and the private sector cannot operate where they are not awarded neutral status and where they are without the protection of a nation-state's armed forces.

Neither does Held build a convincing case that any problems actually NEED global governance. On two issues, drugs and refugeees, states have their hands tied by the UN treaties that mandate the criminalisation of soft drugs and the legal rights of asylum-seekers, locking-in insane rules on these conentious issues. On environmental issues too, the key actors are again states, as one would expect, as they have the expertise and legitimacy to solve thorny problems of collective action that can involve contests over huge economic costs and benefits. To put it bluntly, what worked better, America's Clean Air Act or the UN Oil for Food Program?

A third, and I think fatal flaw, is that Held never considers how democracy might work if democratic nation-states are hamstrung. In all seriousness, how much more influence, would I, as the Irish environment minister or the Nigerian oil minister or the Prime Minister of Fiji in deciding on climate policy gain from "democratising" and extending the scope of international bodies? Regardless of new institutions, the imbalances of geography, population, knowledge and wealth will persist and would leave the distribution of power much the same as it exists now.

Neither does there seem to be any prospect of any of us plebs having much of a say in designing this new world, and certainly no freedom to reject it. In summary, Held has come up with yet another program for solving the supposed "problem" of American power, one even more at variance with reality than most.

I have a terror of running out of things to read, so I also took out a golden-oldie from the library. Michael Barone, political columnist and editor of The Almanac of American Politics, wrote a detailed and impressive political history, Our Country: The Shaping America from Roosevelt to Reagan, published in 1990. The fruit of long observation, he explains that Americans have always been divided on their cultural and not economic beliefs, which in turn has driven the country's politics.

Finally, there's no present as well-selected as those that you buy for yourself, so I finally bought the only book by Atlantic Monthly foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan that I've not already read, his synthesis of realist political thought, Warrior Politics.

I also got Blood and Oil, a new book on energy security by Michael Klare, an American academic and columnist for the Nation. While I don't expect to be swayed by his argument - nobody I've found so far covers the technical, economic and political factors to my satisfaction, it's backed with source material on most of the major powers. Reinforcing my belief that our brave new world of international concern for human rights and environmental protection imposed by NGOs, the UN and western states anxious for an "ethical foreign policy" is a mirage, he tells of how Russia, China and India collaborate extensively with some of the world's most repressive governments in Central Asia and Africa, while most multinationals are kept out by sanctions.