Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rise of the Rest: Japan and the World

I just got back from giving a talk on a panel titled "The Rise of the Rest IV: Critical Regions in Crisis" at Carnegie Council as part of the rise of the rest series we launched with Nikolas Gvosdev five years ago. The panel included Nikolas Gvosdev, Dov Waxman, David Speedie, and me. It is amazing how relevant this series remains after five years. My remarks were based on a lecture I give at New York University and from a forthcoming book I contributed to on the recent earthquake in Japan.

Here are my remarks from today's talk:

Today, I will touch on some ideas on "the rise of the rest" since our first panel in 2007 at the Nixon Center, then offer my own theory (of convergence), and speak about how it relates to the crisis in Japan.

First, a tour of the horizon on the idea of "the rise of the rest."

The cliche has it that we went from a bipolar world during the Cold War to a unipolar world in the 1990s to a multipolar world today with the rise of the rest. Joseph Nye has added nuance by imagining the world as a three-leveled chess board with the traditional hard-power game on top where U.S. military power still dominates. The second level is the interdependent, complex world of economic globalization, which might be described as multipolar. The third level is the world of transnational issues where no one is in charge, necessitating cooperation between states, companies, organizations, and individuals. The importance of this bottom level has grown with the advance of economic globalization and the information revolution, and it raises the importance of moral power. The power of information in the world of globalization has appeared recently in places like Libya and Egypt as well as in the connectedness the world felt with Japan and the world's response since the recent disasters there.

Kishore Mahbubani and others have expressed dismay in the unfairness of today's international institutions. Although there is a huge shift of power toward Asia, 3 billion Asians do not qualify to run the World Bank or IMF, he noted. This story has certainly come to the fore with the arrest and jailing this week of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Khan.

The original 2007 National Interest article by Barma, Ratner, and Weber pointed to the growing economies of Russia, India, and China as well as the pace in which these so-called non-Western countries were engaging with one another. And the article argued that rather than a simple hub-and-spoke model of international relations, a new choice emerged: countries could route around the United States, as Nick Gvosdev put it. This argument was similar to Parag Khanna's idea that the rise of other states means that relative U.S. influence might decline. This argument also set up the notion that there might be a competing system out there, outside of the U.S.-dominated system.

Harry Harding went on to describe these two systems as two political parties: One was an elitist reform party (which promotes democracy and individual freedom and self-determination, conditional aid, universal norms over sovereignty, skepticism over universal membership organizations, and selective FTAs) and the other was the populist conservative party (which values stability, harmony, and order for domestic systems; strong sovereignty and order internally; cultural diversity over universal norms; looser FTAs, and universal membership organizations). The U.S. wants order internationally while promoting democracy in nations; China opposes hegemony but likes democracy internationally, between nations.

But what about the global public goods such as freedom of movement and safe trading routes? In The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum demonstrates that the world needs governance and the U.S. is the only country that has been able and willing to assume this role.

For years, U.S. troops have abroad acted as a "public health service" forestalling outbreaks of war and nuclear proliferation, and as a "pest control service" against rogue regimes." Mandelbaum's three famous closing predictions about the world’s attitude toward America’s de facto role as the world’s government: "They will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone."

Is cooperation and conflict more or less likely? Richard Haass calls the current world one of nonpolarity--power is becoming harder to organize.

This view recalls Parag Khanna's mega-diplomacy in his new book How to Run the World and Ian Bremmer's concept of a g-zero world where there is no "go-to forum."

Harry Harding was more sanguine on this point of cooperation, saying that if the transnational problems of today are so grave, then cooperation will become more likely. Climate change and energy security compel countries to cooperate.

Fareed Zakaria and John Ikenberry seem positive on the American-led system despite shortcomings. Zakaria says we need to integrate the rest, which rose on account of American system.

Similarly, Ikenberry said the United States has set up inclusive institutions that will prolong a Western order. Three aspects of the Western order make it difficult to overthrow:

-Through non-discrimination and an open market, the barriers to economic participation are low and the benefits high, allowing for states to expand their economic and political goals within the order.

-Coalition based leadership allows for shifts in the balance of power between states without affecting the overall order.

-And deeply rooted rules and institutions lay the basis for cooperation.

Moreover, Ikenberry says the security trap that the United States faces--the use of its power creates a backlash--makes institutions more important.

John Mearsheimer, Robert Gilpin, and other realists see times of transition as dangerous because new powers will want to reorganize the rules for their own interests. In Mearscheimer's words, "Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now." Mearscheimer believes trading with China is helping China gain power, which it will use to challenge the U.S.

Finally, some, including George Friedman and Minxin Pei, simply believe China’s power is hyped and focus on the internal problems that "the rest" faces.

Second, my view of convergence in international affairs.

Like the economic theory of factor price equalization, which observes that prices of factors converge as countries trade with one another, I would suggest that as China’s economy becomes richer and its international stake in the global system increases, China's overarching interests will resemble more closely those of the United States and offer less of a “competing model.” That means both more competition--for markets, allies, and resources--but the interaction between China and the U.S. will go both ways.

China's interests and principles in international affairs will change U.S. perceived interests and vice versa, pushing America to keep up in areas in which China excels, such as its advance in Africa and ASEAN, as well as education, innovation, and infrastructure domestically--the key words of President Obama's recent state of union in January 2011. Meanwhile China is racing to challenge American naval power and technology. In the long run, China will be compelled to adopt more freedoms and openness if it wants to continue to advance, I think.

The "West" must keep up with China's tools of statecraft; Japan has been considering launching a sovereign wealth fund and the U.S. has been pushing for more FTAs in Asia. While the U.S. didn't socialize its financial system after the 2008 financial crisis, the importance of regulation and the state was apparent as it is in Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis today.

It won't be a competition of competing ethics because in a practical sense the right moral principles generally prevail in history, and America's moral principles of universal liberalism have proven right over and over.

Some convergence is being witnessed already. China hand Evan Feigenbaum writes:

"Chinese employment practices [in Africa for example] have produced a backlash in many countries. And that makes me wonder whether Chinese commercial engagement might not produce greater convergence with the US and others in rough, tough investment environments."

But China faces a big dilemma. For China to leap from a manufacturing economy to an innovation economy--which will be necessary for the Chinese Communist Party to generate jobs to stay in power--it will require China to adopt openness and freedoms that threaten its very stability.

Maybe what we will end up seeing is what Henry Kissinger calls a Pacific Community, in which China and the U.S. "co-evolve."

Finally, on this point, where was Japan when we thought it was a threat to the U.S. economy? It had identifiable brands, a strong navy, an unbeatable corporate model, a stellar education system, and a society that prided itself on low crime, high literacy, and social coherence--as, for example, lauded by journalist T.R. Reid. We should put Chinese power in perspective.

Third, what about Japan's recent crisis?

As for Japan after the March 11 earthquake and its relations with the world, we don't know its future but there has been disruption and internationalization stemming from the country's needs since the quake.

Themes showcased during the earthquake and tsunami crisis include: Japan's interdependence with the world, need for leadership, a desire for further transparency in the economy and politics, stoicism and perseverance, and solidarity between the world and Japan.

It also may have dispelled some stereotypes.

Stereotypes about Japan have gone through many phases in the American imagination. During World War II, Japan was a foreign enemy and afterward it was the occupied. In the 1950s and 1960s, Japan was seen as a mystical place offering "exotic" traditions such as tea ceremony, karate, geisha, and Zen Buddhism. Whereas in the past to study Japan was something specialized, learning about Japan is now considered part of becoming a globally minded person. In that sense, the recent disaster may have helped extend the trend of Japan becoming a place people relate to.

A new door to the world also has opened for Japan. One potential impact on how Japan views itself in the world may come from the effect of Japan's experience with and participation in Operation Tomodachi, the deployment of 18,000 U.S. personnel who helped with disaster relief and the delivery of emergency supplies.

Other international connections are being made through the introduction of foreign companies helping with the reconstruction and the surge of good will from nonprofits, charities, and foundations helping from abroad and in Japan. In the months following the disasters, many Japanese companies will consider pushing more of their operations abroad--to the United States, China, or Southeast Asia--to hedge against risk, further internationalizing corporate Japan.

On the other side of the coin, interest in Japan has reached new heights with searches for and mentions of Japan on Google and Twitter reaching records since those data have been collected. A Pew poll said during the March 14-18 period, 64% of blog links, 32% of Twitter news links, and the top 20 YouTube videos were about the disasters in Japan.

But these social networks are only a tool or a process. They don't constitute a galvanizing issue to change Japan.

One possible galvanizing issue could be the need for more green technologies and alternative energy in Japan. The nation went through a dramatic shift in energy policy after the oil shocks in the 1970s, and perhaps the nuclear crisis could push the country into another revolutionary shift. At a press conference last week, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said his government will conduct a fundamental review of the nation's basic energy policy.

A second issue that the nuclear crisis has highlighted is the need for transparency broadly speaking. Japanese have looked abroad for foreign sources of information in frustration with their country’s press and the current dissatisfaction in the government's handling of the crisis has a lot to do with a sense that officials, politicians, and companies were holding back information.

Transparency could become a rallying cry that weaves all of the issues in Japan. Whether Japan takes this chance for change is uncertain. But most people agree that this is probably Japan's last chance in our lifetime to shift its course away from comfortable decline.

Photo: Japanese Woman with Mirrors from George Eastman House

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Deceptively Simple: The Political Art of Francis Alÿs

"Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception" opened recently at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York and visitors will find that the show delivers poetics and politics in equal doses. Alÿs is a globalized artist with sensibilities to match. Hailing from Belgium he set up shop in Mexico City in 1986 and his work reflects the development divide between those two nations.

The piece that strikes you upon entering the exhibition is Cuentos Patrióticos (Patriotic Tales). It is a black and white video of a man (Alÿs) walking in a circle around a flagpole or monument in a public square. He is accompanied in his circulation by sheep that trace his same path. The video is hypnotic and repetitive. As the sheep enter and leave one by one the viewer finds that sometimes the sheep are following the man, sometimes the opposite. The plaza depicted is the Zócalo in Mexico City, and while this knowledge adds a layer of meaning, the video is rich as a timeless meditation on the cycles and rituals of leadership.

Another captivating video is Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), where Alÿs starts pushing a large block of ice around town in the morning, only to have it dissipate into nothing by early evening. While the piece echoes the myth of Sisyphus, as many have noted, I see in it one fundamental difference: the element of choice. The labor of Sisyphus was a punishment whereas Alÿs has chosen to demonstrate a work ethic of focus and endurance, and this theme unites him with On Kawara's Today series and the performances of Marina Abramović. Another crucial difference is that the Sisyphus story gains its potency and absurdity from the infinite, whereas Alÿs connects us to the post-mythical hubris and heuristic of praxis: Yes, you will dissipate like an ice cube one day, so throw your back into what you're doing now.

By far the most complex and provocative work in the show is Politics of Rehearsal. In it an exotic dancer rehearses on a stage with an incongruously operatic musical accompaniment. Mixed with this is footage from Harry S. Truman's 1949 inaugural speech where he sets forth the capitalist case for development aid and democratization. Alÿs describes the piece as "a metaphor of Latin America's ambiguous affair with Modernity, forever arousing, and yet, always delaying the moment it will happen." A narrative voice-over is added in Spanish to flesh out some of the political ideas behind Latin America's constant flirtation with development policies. Central to this text is the sense that a history without victories is dispiriting, and that in such a situation productive work is reduced to mere labor.

We thus start to see a chain of concepts running throughout Alÿs: Rehearsal, Effort (maximal), Result (minimal), Repetition, Reenactment. They lead us not to absurd despair, but rather to a way of life and a means to reflect on it: art as a political science.

The most charming aspect is that while remaining high concept Alÿs exhibits a democratic minimalism. The materials he employs are available to most: shoes, walking, coins, the city, shovels, the natural elements. Friday nights are free admission at MoMA—perhaps the perfect time to see his show. Make sure to catch Tornado.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who Lost the WikiLeaks Information War?

Reporters need a new ethical framework in order to deploy technologies that can expose business and government misconduct, without creating unintended victims. This was the lesson from a Columbia Journalism School debate last week on "Life after WikiLeaks: Who won the information war?"

The event, a collaboration with the British organization Index on Censorship, brought together a wide spectrum of commentators to hash out the benefits and drawbacks of Julian Assange's decision to share more than 200,000 classified State Department cables with the media.

Sparks flew in a respectful blame game between Mark Stephens, the free expression attorney who represents Julian Assange, and P. J. Crowley, the U.S. Department of State spokesperson who was recently dismissed for criticizing the treatment of accused leaker Bradley Manning.

Crowley asserted that the true casualties of the WikiLeaks release were the informants who were named in the State Department documents—many of them journalists and activists of the stripe Assange seeks to empower. Most headlines about the issue have focused on Afghan informants, but both Crowley and Stephens acknowledged that the names of informants living under a variety of authoritarian regimes appeared in the documents released to news outlets.

Another panelist, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatav, confirmed that some of the writers identified in the documents have lost access to key sources because those sources now fear exposure in State Department communications. He shared the suspicion that other writers have been imprisoned as a result of their cooperation with the State Department.

The State Department is far from blameless here. Officials had the opportunity to redact the documents before they were published. Moreover, the documents were accessible to the 3 million federal employees with a security clearance—a fairly loose standard for protecting the names of confidential informants in authoritarian countries.

Great responsibility now falls to Assange and the news media to delineate ethical obligations going forward. WikiLeaks walks a blurry line as an intermediary between whistleblowers and reporters. In this case, such diffusion may have hampered the rigorous exercise of news judgment. WikiLeaks also has an organizational problem: Assange and his skeleton crew are not equipped to handle the intricacies of 200,000 diplomatic documents or the ripple effects of their release.

Finally, the media bears responsibility to evolve. Until the New York Times and other outlets construct high-security servers, the sensitive documents of investigative journalism are vulnerable to intrusion by outside sources.

In journalism school, budding reporters are indoctrinated with standards for the ethical treatment of whistleblowers who directly provide documents and interviews. With the mythical days of Deep Throat fading in the rear-view mirror, the industry must catch up with the reality of contemporary information transfer without losing respect for confidentiality.

PHOTO CREDIT: a.powers-fudyma (CC).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Climate Challenge, or How I Learned to Start Pandering and Love the Pork

I played the Climate Challenge game recently after discovering it on the Games for Change website and found it to be a provocative look at the politics and policy solutions related to global warming. While the gameplay has a few blind spots (mainly the lack of good feedback on economic performance) and gets a bit repetitive, Climate Challenge communicates and encourages reflection on some important and perennial political lessons.

The gist is that you "play as the President of Europe from 2000 to 2100 [!?], and attempt to reduce your carbon emissions while maintaining vital national services and remaining popular with the electorate." This is tougher than it seems. There are five variables you must monitor—finances, energy, food, water, and emissions—and five policy areas with which to affect these variables—national, trade, agriculture & industry, local, and household. You are evaluated at the end of your public service on indicators of environment, wealth, and popularity.

For my first attempt I figured why not go for broke with an aggressive Green platform: I ended up getting booted out of office after four rounds. My approval rating fell through the floor when I neglected the food supply and the water infrastructure in favor of fuel taxes and rapid expansion of renewable energy, and my administration was punished by climate-induced floods and heat waves that further compounded my popularity problems. Game Over. Chalk it up to the game's learning curve.

Periodically during Climate Challenge, Europe must engage in environmental diplomacy with the other blocs: North America, South America, Africa, South Asia, Pacifica, and North Asia. The negotiation stage is minimal and it's not clear what's at stake, but you have the option to subsidize green development in each region. Presumably these gestures rally the negotiators to your side. But what is your side? While emissions targets give you something to aim for, they also make your job harder.

On my second pass I tried to be a more sensitive leader while still negotiating in good faith for emissions reductions on the international stage. Fortunately the game is loaded with great policy choices with which to meet these goals—energy innovation and efficiency, transportation and green building regulations, and investments in basic research.

I found that one way to keep my rating high was to focus on subsidizing things people wanted, like home solar, and to steer clear of things they didn't, such as carbon taxes—promote, don't restrict—which seems to adhere to what Roger Pielke calls his "iron law" of climate politics.

Climate Challenge also offers some tempting public programs of uncertain value (within the game environment): launch a space program, host the Olympics, send foreign aid. These tend to hemorrhage money, energy, and emissions, but the voters like them.

I played a final round with an exaggerated pro-business approach, funding things like nuclear projects and carbon capture, yet even then I somehow managed to throw the economy into hyperinflation by 2100 and allow criminals to stalk the streets. Clearly the game needs better feedback on the socioeconomic front, as my approval rating ran high throughout.

While the gameplay is just a bunch of clicking, the real action happens on the conceptual level, and there are some nice contextual touches that teach the reality of nimbyism, resource limitations, and political trade-offs. For example, after each election you get a newspaper report on how your policies have been received. My favorite one said: "The most popular policy was 'Spin your policies.'" A few dollars spent on savvy PR can go a long way.