The following article appears in the 25th anniversary issue of World Policy Journal.
The election of Barack Obama is perhaps America’s greatest achievement since the Declaration of Independence, and President George W. Bush, for all his missteps and misplaced conservatism, deserves a share of the credit. His decision to put two African Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, in charge of America’s national security was a tremendous step forward that helped pave the way for the arrival of our new president.
The effect on the rest of the world of an African-American president will be stunning. No European nation (including Russia, with it’s revered part-black national poet, Pushkin) is within sight of electing a man of color as head of government, yet Europeans will be profoundly thankful that the America they began to hate these past eight years can now again be admired, even loved. Africa, needless to say, will be electrified. Asia will nod sagely, recalling that India, in modern times, has had a woman prime minister, a Muslim president, and now a Sikh prime minister.
The Middle East will rejoice too. Muslims have always had less hang ups about racial equality than Western Christians. Now they will expect to see a man who understands poverty and prejudice, and who will profoundly and instinctively understand the plight of the Palestinians. Perhaps he will really put America’s strength in motion to enable a two-state solution.
All the continents—including South America, where blacks and indigenous peoples remain largely powerless—will sense the importance of this victory.
The past two months have seen some interesting developments in Sino-Indian relations. Immediately after India’s official entrance into the group of nuclear states sent shudders through the nonproliferation community worldwide, the latest round of discussions between the Asian giants came and went with little fanfare. Taken together, these developments further confound rather than illuminate understanding of the lurching relationship between the world’s two most populous states.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress approved a deal that allows American companies (like General Electric and Westinghouse) to sell India atomic fuel and nuclear technology. A month before Congress made the deal official, member states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) had waived the usual restrictions to entry into the elite club, warmly welcoming India as the newest nation to openly possess nuclear weapons; this despite the fact that India is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The move landed with a whimper in the U.S. media, but has made a huge splash in Indian news, where the event was largely celebrated as something of a coming out party—India, no longer the shy debutante. Others took notice too: companies in Canada, France, and Russia are salivating at the opportunity to sell nuclear-related material to India, a country once denied such privileges.
Many in the NPT crowd are worried about the implications of this NSG deal. Adam B. Kushner of Newsweek warns that the NSG agreement may spark a nuclear arms race with the likes of Pakistan and Iran. Likewise, Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association says the move blows “a huge loophole in the global non-proliferation system that’s going to make it harder to persuade the Irans and the North Koreas—an already difficult task—to abide by their obligations; and it’s going to make it more difficult to strengthen this global non-proliferation effort which is already fraying at the seams.” But both analysts largely overlook the serious implications with regard to China.
One small step forward by North Korea and the United States; one large step for mankind. The political fight to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear bomb making activities seems at last, in the dying days of the Bush presidency, to be entering a serious phase.
Washington has finally bowed to the North Korean request to remove it from the U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism—which will enable the renegade state to become eligible for international loans and sundry other economic benefits—in return for Pyongyang agreeing to re-allow inspections to verify a North Korean promise to freeze its nuclear activities, as it undertook last year and then withdrew from.
After nine years of erratic U.S. policies—met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones—the negotiations have ended up almost where they started following the highly fruitful diplomacy of the Clinton administration that transformed Pyongyang from total intransigence to a willing and helpful negotiating partner. Indeed, by some counts, this was the Clinton administration’s only substantial and productive foreign policy success. (That said, a Republican majority in Congress during the Clinton years torpedoed commitments made by his administration, diluting the real benefits.)
During the Bush administration, North Korea has tripled the amount of nuclear weapons’ material it has in store. Worse, it has exploded a nuclear bomb and probably has enough material to produce half a dozen more.
This must count as one of President George W. Bush’s worst foreign policy feats. A record of commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honored. Bush called the regime “evil” and then offered aid. It refused to negotiate over financial issues (notably money laundering by Banco Delta Asia) then returned the funds it had impounded.
The global financial crisis has now hit Europe square in the face and, all of a sudden, this nascent continental superpower appears to have a chin far weaker than most thought.
The European Union was designed to create a strong trading zone of countries able to maximize each member’s industries, for mutual gains, in a global marketplace. Key to gaining cross-border industrial benefits was to fashion a financial harmonization that would eventually be crafted into a single market.
Fundamental to achieving this end was the formation of the Euro as the single currency, removing foreign exchange risks and making it easier for companies to grow across borders and produce a more flexible migration of workers. (The Euro was introduced across the European Union with the UK and Switzerland the biggest abstainers, mainly due to domestic concerns over independence.)
The EU’s political objective is now established as well—although it is very much work in progress. A complete harmonization of the European plan would impact businesses, cultures, and the way of life of everyone within the EU. If successful, the EU would be very well placed to compete on a global scale with other growing regions and probably would attract significantly more international business. However, the current financial crisis is putting an enormous strain on each member state.
The collective established within the European Union appears to be faltering under the strain of an unprecedented global financial crisis. We have seen the Irish go their own way to protect the customers of Irish banks, with similar situations occurring in Greece and Denmark. Heavyweight German economic regulators considered similar measures, but changed tack at the last minute, probably because of pressure from the UK and France. When the chips are down, it’s natural for countries to protect their residents, but this flies in the face of unity.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has proved powerless in this crisis. Each central bank in each state is taking its own unilateral action, leaving the ECB almost redundant. However, the worldwide reduction of interest rates agreed and acted upon recently shows how a coordinated focus can bring immediate benefits. Further actions of this type will eventually bring stability and allow the markets to settle at a new (albeit lower) level.
It’s worth making the point that there is a big difference between market volatility and the fundamental stability of global economies. Markets move by speculation and risk, while economies are slower to react and move more in line with inflationary forces and fiscal policies imposed by governments. For this reason, the billions of dollars that governments are pouring into supporting banks have little to do with the overall strength of markets, as the prices of shares in the banking sector may rise or fall with little linkage to the performance of other sectors as investors switch from one to the other. Governments must be cautious about pouring money into the markets as such actions can seem like casino bosses underwriting the losses of their biggest players. The players will simply continue to play harder betting more.
How far is downhill? Well, that’s like asking how long is a piece of string. But whatever the answer, the American/NATO military effort in Afghanistan, triggered by 9/11, seems to have all the marks of a quick descent.
In Barack Obama’s phrase, American public opinion doesn’t get it. How could they when Obama himself, supposedly a fresh eye on the international scene, bangs the drum for more troops and yet more force?
Does European and Canadian opinion get it? Apart from the Canadians, who have had the good sense and the foresight to give a date for the withdrawal of their troops, public opinion appears to be asleep at the switch.
Our Afghanistan policy, made within hours of the atrocity of 9/11, seems still to be to try to bomb the country to cinders, irrespective of the number of civilian casualties. How is it possible that Americans have yet not learned the lesson of Dresden, that wild and merciless bombing rather than leading to capitulation merely reinforces local opinion against the aggressor. And troops on the ground have continued to alienate local opinion with their seeming inability to differentiate between fighters and civilians.
The war is being lost as the Taliban, whether actively defending Al Qaeda or just fighting for their own piece of ground, gain the upper hand, improving their strength and their military skills by the month. The poppy growers watch their profits soar, with plenty of coin going to Taliban coffers, because the West is unable to face honestly the one policy that might work—legalization of the drug trade, as the former minister of finance of Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, suggested in Prospect magazine. (He argued for a controlled experiment in one province.)
President Bush, the American military, and now Obama seem to think the only way out is to take their failed tactics into Pakistan, despite the opposition of the government in Islamabad and its powerful military chiefs. (So much for territorial integrity, the war cry of NATO for Georgia.)
It is something of a marvel that the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement actually managed to receive the approval, however grudging, of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in early September. Many ardent proponents of nonproliferation had hoped that a curious combination of countries—ranging from a staunch U.S. ally, Australia, to a potential U.S. challenger, China—for very different reasons, would bury the deal in the NSG. The Australians were concerned about seeming to reward India, which has steadfastly refused to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). China, on the other hand, while couching its arguments in the rhetoric of nonproliferation, simply did not want to let India join the de facto nuclear club. Deft Indian and American diplomacy, combined with a subtle display of American political clout, including a phone call from President Bush to Chinese premier Hu Jintao, saved the day.
Despite this setback, the nonproliferation zealots still hope to have their day in Congress. Already some key members of the House, notably Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Howard Berman of California (both Democrats), have made intransigence to the deal well known. As Congress convenes to consider the deal, the nonproliferation brigade will quickly muster every conceivable argument, no matter how specious, to sandbag its progress.
What are their principal objections? Most importantly, they argue that it will have perverse consequences for the nonproliferation regime. India, a de facto nuclear weapons state that has remained outside the ambit of the NPT, will be able to maintain its nuclear weapons program and still partake in global nuclear commerce. This, in their view, is tantamount to rewarding a recalcitrant state. Furthermore, they argue that states which had previously joined the NPT may now reconsider their decisions given that India has been granted a pass. They also contend that the deal will energize various deceitful states, ranging from Iran to North Korea, to boost their nuclear weapons programs. In a similar vein, they suggest that Pakistan (also a non-signatory to the NPT) will now insist on equal treatment. Finally, they claim that nuclear power cannot possibly serve as a panacea for India’s expanding energy needs.
Each of these arguments, while seemingly attractive, is fundamentally flawed. The question of rewarding India despite its apparent recalcitrance is perhaps the most galling argument.