Friday, December 31, 2010
Consider this an info-dump of Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman's latest postings at the New York Times. If this seems like something of an antidote to EurAmerican's atypically hawkish and euroskeptic posts from this week's Wall Street Journal, so much the better. Balance in partisanship -- that's what we like!
Krugman's pieces grow from the spark provided in this piece, also from the NYT, which takes the pulse of the current "we told you so" debate going on between Europe's solvents and debtors. It traces the germinations of the euroskeptic debate back to an obscure 1992 report from the Financial Times. In it the politologue Ed Balls observed a crucial and possibly disastrous difference between the nascent euro currency project and the environment of the US, another continent-wide monetary zone. The report concluded, to borrow the NYT piece's shorthand, that "Europe lacked the type of federal taxes and transfer payments used in the United States to ease economic divergences among its many states."
|Courtesy The New York Times|
The NYT piece goes on to juxtapose prominent voices from the euroskeptic and the pro-EU antipodes. Speaking about the current troubles, Norman Lamont, the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, had this to say about the euro in the near future:
“I have always said that the euro will break up,” Mr. Lamont said in a recent interview. “Not after the first crisis today, but after the second crisis, which could be 10 years away. This is, after all a political project, not an economic project.”
In contrast, Jerzy Buzek, the current head of the European Parliament, used with these words during December's opening of the Europe House, headquarters of the European Union delegation in London:
“We remember what happened in the last big crisis — it was something horrible, and such a threat is always waiting for us... Let us answer by having more solidarity. Overcoming history is an imperative for us.”
It bears noting that Buzek's tone on the euro crisis -- which is far from finished ravaging great swathes of Europe and the world -- suggests that the "last big crisis," as he puts it, is already past, and belongs to history. These pictures provide a markedly more compelling argument that the euro crisis is both ongoing and far more serious the Buzek's seemingly clueless tone would indicate.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
This article from Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish national and 2006 Nobel laureate in literature, merits a partial re-post from a (rare) EurAm link to The New York Review of Books. Pamuk underscores Turkey's bilateral relationships with France and Germany, couching these into telescoping perspectives on the European Union, "Europe generally," to borrow his apt phrase, and the West at large.
His view is primarily that of a capital-C Culture angle: he sprinkles references to it throughout the piece, shooting as high as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as low as Gauloises cigarettes. Pamuk is the intellectual's intellectual, forever able to flaunt his consecration by the Nobel kingmakers. What follows is a surveying of the global landscape from a Turkish vantage point, synthesized from a breadth of subject awareness enviable by any opinion leader.
"That Turkey and other non-Western countries are disenchanted with Europe is something I know from my own travels and conversations... There are also the emotional responses whose significance can best be explained by the example of relations with France. Over the past century, successive generations of the Turkish elite have faithfully taken France as their model, drawing on its understanding of secularism and following its lead on education, literature, and art. So to have France emerge over the past five years as the country most vehemently opposed to the idea of Turkey in Europe has been heartbreaking and disillusioning. It is, however, Europe’s involvement in the war in Iraq that has caused the keenest disappointment in non-western countries, and in Turkey, real anger. The world watched Europe being tricked by Bush into joining this illegitimate and cruel war, while showing immense readiness to be tricked. [italics EurAm]
When looking at the landscape of Europe from Istanbul or beyond, the first thing one sees is that Europe generally (like the European Union) is confused about its internal problems. It is clear that the peoples of Europe have a lot less experience than Americans when it comes to living with those whose religion, skin color, or cultural identity are different from their own, and that many of them do not warm to the prospect: this resistance to outsiders makes Europe’s internal problems all the more intractable. The recent discussions in Germany on integration and multiculturalism—particularly its large Turkish minority—are a case in point.
As the economic crisis deepens and spreads, Europe may be able, by turning in on itself, to postpone its struggle to preserve the culture of the “bourgeois” in Flaubert’s sense of the word, but that will not solve the problem. When I look at Istanbul, which becomes a little more complex and cosmopolitan with every passing year and now attracts immigrants from all over Asia and Africa, I have no trouble concluding that the poor, unemployed, and undefended of Asia and Africa who are looking for new places to live and work cannot be kept out of Europe indefinitely. Higher walls, tougher visa restrictions, and ships patrolling borders in increasing numbers will only postpone the day of reckoning. Worst of all, anti-immigration politics, policies, and prejudices are already destroying the core values that made Europe what it was.
In the Turkish schoolbooks of my childhood there was no discussion of democracy or women’s rights, but on the packets of Gauloises that French intellectuals and artists smoked (or so we thought) were printed the words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and these were much in circulation. “Fraternité” came to stand for the spirit of solidarity and resistance promoted by movements of the left. But callousness toward the sufferings of immigrants and minorities, and the castigation of Asians, Africans, and Muslims now leading difficult lives in the peripheries of Europe—even holding them solely responsible for their woes—are not “brotherhood.”
One can understand how many Europeans might suffer anxiety and even panic as they seek to preserve Europe’s great cultural traditions, profit from the riches it covets in the non-Western world, and retain the advantages gained over so many centuries of class conflict, colonialism, and internecine war. But if Europe is to protect itself, would it be better for it to turn inward, or should it perhaps remember its fundamental values, which once made it the center of gravity for all the world’s intellectuals?"
Two noteworthy US media pieces have blipped on the Euro-pessimism radar, so I thought I'd echo them.
EurAm doesn't necessarily endorse these views in their entirety, though it's certainly closer to these than the euphoria sweeping parts of the anti-nuclear set. Regardless, at the end of the day, it's about the sharing of Europe commentary -- especially what's taking place outside of Europe, especially what's candid and controversial -- that allows you the reader to cut to the heart of transtatlantic debate.
So away we go:
1) Count on The Hudson Institute for consistently euro-pessimistic, moderate-conservative commentary from Washington. In today's Wall Street Journal, Hudson's economic policy expert Irwin Stelzer lays out acid commentary characteristic of his firm in a 2010 EU year in review, excerpted below. Note the passing reference to the US Constitution, lending a spontaneously Euro-American comparative view to the succeeding lines. Stelzer also leaves off with an intentionally troubling final thought on China, and the economic and geopolitical capital it could gain as the eurozone tailspin continues.
"All else that happened in Euroland in 2010 pales into insignificance when compared with the decision to set up mechanisms for replacing—some say supplementing, some say monitoring—national decision-making on fiscal policy with control by the Brussels-based Eurocracy, amending the Lisbon Treaty to make that possible. This is the step that the founders of the euro always knew would some day be necessary. That day has now arrived, and they are delighted.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Gavin Hewitt of the BBC has posted a wrap-up of the year 2010 in Europe. I'd like to underscore his recurring theme of the beleaguered status of European youth. He begins with three sketches of young people down on their luck: seemingly intelligent and educated young Spaniards queuing for unemployment benefits; a roomful of raised hands when Hewitt asks trade school students if they anticipate emigration; young Italians ready to riot at the broken promises of their government and the generation in power.
Hewitt goes on to describe their lives in the crushing uncertainly of economic souring, and the new civic religion called "austerity" that most accept only begrudgingly -- because they see no other choice. The year 2011, according to Hewitt, portends to be no less bleak.
"Youth unemployment and austerity are a dangerous cocktail that will play out on the streets of 2011. Austerity challenges a deeply-held idea of a European way of life where the state offers layers of protection. Old certainties are being swept away. Social contracts snapped. An ever-expanding public sector is being pruned. Europe, in the long term, may benefit from a smaller state sector, but no one should underestimate the shock of the new. [...]
In 2011 the orthodoxy of austerity, I suspect, will be challenged. The Greeks are tiring of the lean years that seem to stretch out before them. A new government in Ireland may try and renegotiate the terms of the EU/IMF loan. Increasingly voices question the fairness of it all. In Ireland the banks' debts were taken onto the government's books and the country headed for insolvency. A proud country [and in Ireland's case, an overwhelmingly young one] has sacrificed its independence - that's how many in Ireland see it.
It is a fair bet that in 2011 one or more country will restructure its debt.
Increasingly, when one returns from the streets of Greece or France or Italy, Brussels seems a side-show. While the unemployment lines lengthen for young people Europe's elite is preoccupied with institutions, with their place in the world. They have strategies for growth - but in the distant future. The discussions too often appear inward-looking. Occasionally there is a flicker of reality. The European Parliament, for instance, led the way in challenging bankers' bonuses. [...]
Ross Douthat of the New York Times takes on some of the more prickly cultural aspects of present-day American Christianity in his latest column. His prose begins with a certain whiff of cynicism before plateauing to a more insightful double book review of sorts on the state of the Christian faith, in a season when it is so consciously thought of (even if this mainly takes the form of shopping and social-event planning). Douthat begins:
"... This is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Boom!, cracks the columnist's irony. But Douthat's real thesis emerges late and tucked in among other thoughts of the third paragraph.
These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes... But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.
He goes on to describe the arch of American Christianity's progress to the state we find it in today. Borrowing the metaphor of "a shock and two aftershocks," namely the cultural revolution of the 1960s, followed by the religious conservatism that arose through the 1980s-era "moral majority" and the culture wars of the 1990s. The second aftershock is taking place now, "a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics... in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether."
On the European side of things, the near-empty churches and chapels scattered over the European continent seem to have experienced this exodus of the young decades ago. Not since before World War II has Christian life on the Old Continent known any semblance of thriving culture that includes a sizable contingent of the young. Perhaps the U.S. (and Canada, too) is slowly edging toward a European likeness, where Christianity is marginalized as a practice and sometimes openly mocked by opinion leaders in a manner not tolerated States-side.
Douthat ends with a provocative final thought, which bears an uncanny relevance to Europe if one chooses to read it that way. I'll make my conclusion by borrowing his:
"... Believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation [or civilization]. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning."
UPDATE: In an event pregnant with symbolism given the above, the Obama family made a highly unusual church visit this past Sunday.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center, had this to say on US foreign-policy introspection in a recent article in The National Interest:
"It is hard to recall a time when foreign policy issues played so diminished a role in the American public's thinking. Midterm election exit polls found only 8 percent of voters saying that a foreign policy issue was a voting consideration for them, and more generally, national polls show just 11 percent citing a foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the nation. This is the lowest registration of international concerns since immediately before the 9/11 attacks."
He goes on:
"Terrorism, the most immediate threat to [the United States], is a big issue now lacking either prominence in the public’s mind or a heated debate among policymakers. Americans have expressed a steady state of concern about terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, but the polling suggests that most have become somewhat inured to the possibility of another attack. For example, there is no indication this year of widespread anxiety in the wake of reports that terrorists attempted to place package bombs on flights destined for North America. Most Americans (59 percent) say they are worried about an imminent terrorist attack in the United States, but the level of concern today is about what it was in July 2007, and has remained relatively steady since 2003."
Kohut concludes with some interesting thoughts on America's worries in the Asian sphere, specifically China and the Korean peninsula:
"As with terrorism, the public has deep concerns about America's place in the world, but these worries do not evoke a strong policy debate. Yes a growing plurality thinks the U.S. now plays a less important role on the world stage, and majorities recognize China's growing power and worry about it. But for now at least, there is little edge to American attitudes as a consequence. Few regard China as an enemy (17 percent) or a partner (25 percent). As has been the case for more than a decade, China is seen as neither friend not foe by most Americans (52 percent). In fact, more Americans now hold a favorable view of China than did so in 2007 and 2008.
"Neither the recent North Korean bombardment of South Korea as it stands, nor foiled terrorist attack in Portland Oregon seems likely to rouse the American public. If history is any judge, it will take a foreign policy crisis of a major order, to awaken public opinion on international affairs. And when Americans stir, it is hard to predict the new direction of their thinking. What is likely however is that a change in direction of public opinion will be relatively short lived. That has certainly been the case so far in post–Cold War America."
Kohut's last paragraph is his most poignant, and one that identifies a structural American gene within the national political DNA. This level of isolationism would strike European publics as downright otherworldly. Europe is small compared to the U.S., and its foreign policy thoughts are often foremost in mind given that they are always closer to home. The United States has the singular peculiarity of being separated from both allies and enemies by an ocean on each side. So when other matters become pressing, in this case the national economic crisis, unemployment and widespread disillusionment with Obama's platform of hope and change, U.S. citizens traditionally put foreign policy thoughts on a very distant back burner.
Paradoxically, the U.S. seems to be ignoring the very wars it launches, and Europe is just as (if not more) preoccupied with world affairs in which the United States is at work.
This cockamamie balance of today's Atlantic ring countries results in the world's progress toward multipolarization, a status much distrusted by many of the classical powers in the West.
And yet some see beyond this, toward a future power balance in which the West will dull its appetite for world predominance with a healthy slice of humble pie. Just last week Hubert Vedrine, the former French foreign affairs minister, hit the radiowaves asserting that the transatlantic community was guilty of "Western arrogance" and that its member nations are "no longer the masters of the world." The recent economic tremors certainly don't help matters, where in Europe the Euro currency seems ready to crumble. The United States are faring no better, with the latest studies putting the jobless rate at a disastrous 9.8%.
Of course, the obvious insinuation of Kohut's piece is that Transatlantics, while struggling to steady a rocking economic boat, shouldn't take their eye off of the horizon. Prolongued economic travails will only increase the likelihood that one or several Western states drops the ball in a fateful moment of security absent-mindedness.
Should this risky position continue, Kohut's forebodings of a "foreign policy crisis of a major order" -- we're all probably thinking September 11th -- may come to pass. As for predicting the new direction in Americans' thinking should another disaster happen, well, the last lurch in U.S. opinion led to the Iraq War. Yes it was strongly resisted, both in the U.S. and abroad, but it happened anyway.
American voters and the greater West risk more than they know while spending so much time navel-gazing over their domestic problems. They should also keep a watch on the dangers creeping just beyond its borders, and hone their global affairs literacy to know how best to act should action become necessary.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Hubert Védrine, former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed a view Wednesday on the radio platform France Inter that examines some of the philosophy surrounding the latest scandal from the WikiLeaks website. The latest in a stream of highly controversial leaks that signals a new breed of information-age security threats, WikiLeaks disseminated some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables to the public, setting off a public-relations firestorm for both U.S. and foreign governments and diplomacy bodies worldwide.
The following are selected translated excerpts from Védrine's characteristically ascerbic tongue, which I recognize (full disclosure) from my tenure as one of his interns. His commentary on vaguely-defined values such as transparency and the civilizational aspects of the information age merit reflection.
HV: "We live in a society that thinks that transparency is good in and of itself, without limits or rules, contrary to the fundamental principles of modern society..."
PC: "Do you think [leading newspapers] shouldn't have [published the WikiLeaks contents]?
HV: "The written press is in such a state that they couldn't resist... I don't think they should have not done so, but they might have put things in a different light... We've got a definition of "transparency" that is in fact a form a masked totalitarianism."
PC: "Given what we've seen through WikiLeaks, can we assume that diplomacy is the art of dissimulation, or hypocrisy?"
HV: "No! It's like in a family: you don't talk about the same things in front of the children as in front of the grand-parents... That's what social life is founded on."
HV: "We have to get over maintaining this Western arrogance, whether it's in these diplomatic documents, or in the commentary made elsewhere, because we are no longer the masters of the world... We are no longer the masters of the world, we Westerners, even when we think we are a moral superpower, like the Europeans believe, even when the Americans think they have a military superiority that entitles them to control everything--no. We are in a multipolar world, we face emerging countries who no longer tolerate our telling them what to do on technological, juridical, economic, monetary, even in terms of values. I'm not saying we should launch new values, because I'm just as attached [to Western values] as you are... For WikiLeaks to pass through the prominent newspapers, to render its methods honorable in the name of transparency, it's a sort of laundering... What we need is not a WikiLeaks debate in diplomatic terms, but one of deontology, and on civility in digitized society."
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Ireland's financial house is on the brink of collapse, the transatlantic media is incessantly telling us. If the floodgates are to be held back indefinitely, Europe will need to coordinate both a stability plan and a mechanism by which the Eurozone never again finds itself prone to being swept away.
Ireland's troubles began at roughly the same time as every other beleaguered state in the eurozone, following the financial crisis in 2008 that spawned the generalized, global economic downturn that persists today. The country formerly known as the "Celtic Tiger" for its stellar growth and market conditions -- including a business-attracting 12.5% corporate tax rate, far below the 35% rate in the U.S. Ireland has since fallen from high up the totem pole of Europe's most robust economic performers.
A major element of the current worry over Irish finances is that the instability it has caused within investment markets will spread to other at-risk countries in the eurozone, namely Spain and Portugal. The 16 European countries that comprise the bloc all face serious exposure to a currency sapped of investor confidence; if market professionals decide en masse that the euro is a fool's bargain, the EU faces a nightmarish self-fulfilling prophecy by which dimmed hopes on the euro will fuel a sell-off of eurozone assets, which will depreciate their value, which will further dim investors' hopes, which will lead to more selling and more depreciation... The trick will be to stanch this vicious-circle psychology before Ireland and other precarious countries bring the entire eurozone to rock-bottom.
To combat this, European leaders have adopted a common and steely demeanor by which they hope to hold off full-fledged exodus from eurozone markets. The Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, declared through what seemed like gritted teeth that “I should warn those investors who are short-selling Spain that they are going to be wrong and will go against their own interests," as quoted in the FT on Nov. 28.
Zapatero “absolutely” ruled out any need for a rescue. But his words came just one week after Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen caved to pressure from fellow eurozone senior officials and requested a bailout from the IMF. Cowen had initially denied the need for an Irish bailout, and the dustcloud kicked up by Cowen's reversal of words has triggered demonstrations, feelings of betrayal among Ireland's citizens and further tumult on the waves of international finance.
It seems Cowen, Zapatero and others are scrambling to play the proverbial Little Dutch Boy, who in sticking his finger in the dyke was able to prevent a large-scale flood of his entire community. European leaders have in the last days all put their fingers in, but the levee doors are straining and leaking both confidence and political capital--neither of which the eurozone can afford to lose.
For more on the intra-Irish politico-economic situation, see this article from The Economist. Gulf Stream Blues provides a good big-picture summary. And the FT's Wolfgang Munchau ponders the formerly "unthinkable" moves still available to the eurozone, namely, in his own turn of phrase, "fiscal union or break-up."
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
If the media lead-up is any indication, next week's EU-US summit in Lisbon should prove as much a non-event as people are expecting -- and those are the ones actually aware of it.
Scheduled to begin this Friday, November 19th, The Great America blog from the French newspaper La Libération reports a sadly appropriate "Christmas tree" analogy for all the issues EU leaders want to air to a listening Barack Obama.
"The Europeans have so much they want to discuss with the United States that the agenda proposals of EU-US summits sometimes make you think of a Christmas tree," stated Pierre Vimont, currently the French ambassador to Washington.
Part of the unlikely success of the summit owes to its planning. Scheduled over the 19th and 20th, the summit will happen concurrently with a NATO summit. Yet the Europeans may get squeezed out on time to discuss purely political issues. The NATO portion will last a day and a half, with the entire EU summit apparently able, according to US planners, to be polished off in the remaining half-day. Or less, as the actual dialogue part of the meeting is set for a single 90-minute session.
Obama's experience with Europe hardly lends itself to genuine taking of interest. He is perhaps the least Eurocentric president in American history, instead reaching out to China and the Arab world in his first diplomatic dealings. A diplomat cited in the Great America post describes the EU-US summit in Prague from April 2009, in which starry-eyed politicians caught up in Obamamania volleyed repetitive and exhausting commentary at the new President. Afterwards the word back in Washington was that Obama felt "drawn and quartered" in the Prague session. Little wonder, then, that he hurried through the subsequent gathering in Washington in November 2009, and skipped altogether the Madrid summit in May of the next year.
Starting next month Vimont will assume the position of secretary-general for the EU's European External Action Service (EEAS). His status as an éminence grise in one of the EU's leader countries and his deep experience in transatlantic affairs is meant to lend gravitas to the fledgling EU diplomatic arm, but his own words betray scattered confidence that the EEAS can launch smoothly in December. (See more of what I've written on the EEAS at The Hill's CongressBlog, or at EurAmerican here and a comprehensive version of the Hill article here.)
Friday, November 5, 2010
In the frenzy of international coverage on the U.S. midterm elections, voices on either side of the Atlantic are starting to turn from frenetic excitement to more cool-headed thinking on what lies ahead for American politics--and their effect in the world.
The latest post from Gulfstream Blues paints a damning picture of the new make-up in Congress, where Republican candidates won six seats in the Senate and a whopping 67 in the House of Representatives. But Democrats managed to hang on to their majority in the Senate, and have a steady ally in Obama; As most bills pass from the House to the Senate and then to the President, the new GOP-heavy House still faces tall hurdles in getting the Washington political machine to crank its way.
And the government shake-up may still be feeling the first tremors of the 2010 partisan earthquake. Some House Democrats have joined fed-up Republicans in calling for Nancy Pelosi to resign. Pelosi, the Speaker of the House and superlative bête noire of conservative circles around the country, has become increasingly seen as a stale mouthpiece of the Democratic Party.
Growing rumors place Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) at the top of the Democratic Party's leadership list, though his record is considered too moderate by many progressives under the Democratic party banner. But no clear alternative has emerged, giving Hoyer a strong shot at clinching the Democratic leadership despite some of his party's misgivings. A choice like Hoyer may bring his party's side of the rapidly partisan Congress toward the middle, which may neutralize some of the incendiary rhetoric heard in the election run-up. Then again, the fiscally conservative coalition of "Blue Dog" Democrats suffered heavy losses Tuesday, which may remove a stabilizing force from Washington's already polarized atmosphere.
Now that the Republicans have poured into Congress (the biggest victory in 70 years, writes The Washington Post), key questions have risen on message and how much the party can realistically expect to accomplish. The "Party of 'No'" has been surprisingly effective at stonewalling much of Obama's initiatives, stirring ire from within the country and baffled confusion from without.
Yet Republicans can't get too ambitious, or the electorate will throw them out in 2012. Nevertheless Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) publicly stated Thursday that his aim is to "deny President Obama a second term in office." He tempered these stiff words with a reminder to Republicans that they "have to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve, while at the same time recognizing that realism should never be confused with capitulation."
McConnell and Obama may find some common ground when they meet at the White House November 18th. Obama may agree to a temporary extension of high-earner tax cuts, and McConnell could build support for an upcoming House bill that would limit its current $1.4 billion operations budget. House minority leader and Speaker-apparent John Boehner (R-Ohio), has agreed to seek a 72-hour reading period for all bills, which will give the diminished Democratic caucus more time to consider new legislation.
Each of these measures will, if passed, play to the middle of taxpayers' concerns with profligate government spending on one end and, on the other, recession-era federal liquidity seen by many as vital to keeping the U.S. economy on track to recovery.
For European observers of the midterms, it is vital to accept that American politics is fundamentally different from politics on the Continent. The U.S. and Europe are not aligned on one continuous political spectrum. Their histories in classical liberalism, socialism and other political thought lines are connected but different. Observers frequently use the one-spectrum image to reduce transatlantic comparison to bite-sized and ultimately meaningless dimensions. Europe has its own political spectrum, and that of the U.S. is wholly separate; together the two form a kind of fuzzy X shape in which certain fundamental values and ideas make up the center in similar ways--or don't. All other branches trace their roots to distinct roots of the transatlantic political tree.
Criticizing U.S. politics is easy (and easy to oversimplify) from a European perch, especially given certain night-and-day differences, such as how much money is involved in American campaigning. The liberal commentariat unleashed withering rebukes on the mostly Conservative Supreme Court for having opened up the floodgates of deregulated campaign finance in 2009. But little suggests that more cash in the game means more money for conservatives, any more than for the Democrats as well.
"Perhaps the most important lesson from Election Day was that money simply can't overcome demographics. Republicans who spent big tended to run in states where the Democratic Party dominates," writes the Washington Post.
Americans are sometimes chided as not voting in a way that considers all those under American governing influence, which is to say all those affected -- worldwide -- by all (or any one) U.S. policy. Ridiculous notions that "Europeans should get to vote in U.S. elections too" surface in op-eds like this one from European Voice:
"If European observers ever wondered if American elections matter, this mid-term election is likely to demonstrate how important shifts in political power can be, especially for Europeans and others who did not get a vote."
This kind of pontificating, with its apparent disregard for national sovereignty and will of the people, is exactly what alienates Americans from Europeans politically, and vice-versa. It does little to advance the understanding that would inform U.S. voters, who would lean on representatives, who would then legislate in the common interest of transatlantic citizens everywhere.
Let's be more specific, and take the foreign policy example of Iran. Fears over a U.S. military response to Iran's nuclear progress are largely overblown, contrary to what European Voice has claimed, because the two wars America is currently fighting leave next to zero political capital to take on a third fight. Likewise, the U.S. resistance to climate change legislation, a top-priority issue for Europeans, sits on the back-burner of Congressional legislation when global economic recovery, huge joblessness, and Iraq and Afghanistan are still left on its political plate--and all that, in an election year.
Many Republicans dug in their heels in 2008-2010 because they felt they had to. Greatly outnumbered in Congress, with furious voters at home, the GOP had to fight tooth-and-nail to preserve its influence. Some fear more entrenched partisan skirmishing through 2012; I wonder if a chamber held by each party may actually have the psychological effect of easing the pressure on each side not to reflexively dismiss the other's concerns. In an interview in the Washington Post, Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler (D-North Carolina) cited Bill Clinton's urge to grab at small-scale progress in the face of steep odds.
"If you can't get a dollar but you can get a dime, take a dime every time," Schuler quoted the former President.
With Democrats holding both the Senate and the White House, Republican triumphalism--or the liberal doom-and-gloom that has inversely mirrored it--is far from a practical, moderate reading of this week's events. If the GOP leads the pack today, there's no guarantee they won't stumble in future clutch moments. We saw as much in the mediocre transatlantic dealings of a Democrat-controlled House, Senate and White House since 2008.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
See it for yourselves, transatlanticists: this is a smorgasbord of headlines from across the pond, covering the US mid-term elections.
By tomorrow, Washington may be a considerably different -- and likely more Republican -- political capital, with all the attending pitfalls and windfalls that come with the seismic political shift both domestically and for the US' friends and enemies abroad.
Nuit cruciale pour Barack Obama et les démocrates ("Crucial Night for Obama and the Democrats")
"Marée républicaine en vue au Congrès" ("Republican Tidal Wave Seen From Congress") -- La Libération
Un scrutin à l'ombre de la crise immobilière-- Le Figaro
("An Election in the Shadow of the Mortgage Crisis")
Ce Tea Party qui bouscule la politique américaine "Tea Party Shakes Up American Politics" -- Le Figaro
Vers une large victoire des républicains
("Toward a Big Republican Victory") -- Le Figaro
"Midterm elections 2010: live" -- Daily Telegraph
"A Gathering Storm" -- The Economist
"Mid-Terms in America: Home Stretch" (audio)-- The Economist
"Republicans poised for biggest gains in Congress for a century" -- The Independent
'Obama Failed to Connect the Dots' -- Der Spiegel
More to come tomorrow, with an "after" post to complement this "before"post.
Count on The Economist to deliver detached, informed, and dispassionate assessments of the US political scene. This UK news source is far removed from the red-and-blue squabble here in Washington, as well as the political phase cancellation that renders both parties' politicking all but inaudible.
The piece is titled "Angry America," recognizing the palpable angst caused by historically high joblessness rates and the giant question mark looming over the day-to-day of many Americans' lives and plans. Yet it urges the US populace to "cheer up" over their immediate future, a rare cadence within the polarized American commentariat.
The piece is titled "Angry America," recognizing the palpable angst caused by historically high joblessness rates and the giant question mark looming over the day-to-day of many Americans' lives and plans. Yet it urges the US populace to "cheer up" over their immediate future, a rare cadence within the polarized American commentariat.
"(...) America is now an uncharacteristically uncertain place. Abroad it seems unsure of who its friends and enemies are. At home there are too many imponderables: over how the health bill will play out in practice; over what might happen to energy prices if carbon-pricing is resurrected via executive action; most of all, over what Mr Obama can do about those yawning deficits. People do not like uncertainty; so if Americans are angry, it is hardly surprising.
Mr Obama seems curiously unable to perceive, let alone respond to, the grievances of middle America, and has a dangerous habit of dismissing tea-partiers and others who disagree with him as deluded, evil or just bitter. The silver tongue that charmed America during the campaign has been replaced by a tin ear. Some blame this on an emotional detachment his difficult upbringing forced on him, others on the fact that he has lived all his life among tribal Democrats. Whatever the reason, he does not seem to feel America’s pain, and looks unable either to capitalise on his administration’s achievements or to project an optimistic vision for the future.
Which ought not to be so hard. Despite its problems, America has far more going for it than its current mood suggests. It is still the most innovative economy on earth, the place where the world’s greatest universities meet the world’s deepest pockets. Its demography is favourable, with a high birth rate and limitless space into which to expand. It has a flexible and hard-working labour force. Its ultra-low bond yields are a sign that the world’s investors still think it a good long-term bet. The most enterprising individuals on earth still clamour to come to America. And it still has a talented president who can surely do better than he has thus far."
Here's a cogent wrap-up, from The Economist's "Charlemagne's Notebook" blog, of the EU economic governance summit that ended late last week in Brussels. Among the demands presented, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued for -- and won qualified concessions -- for a reopening of certain economic contours held in the landmark 2009 Treaty of Lisbon.
Merkel emerged as the clear winner -- and, it seems, one of the most effective national leaders in the Union. This is certainly true when compared with Herman Van Rompuy, whom the article insinuates as a kind of EU pipsqueak, out of his depth in the EU's play-for-keeps attitude among the Continent's heavies such as Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron. The blogpost's takeaway is as follows:
“I AM on the whole quite satisfied with the decision.” With these modest words, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, rounded off a remarkable victory at the end of a bruising European summit that concluded today.
Less than a fortnight ago, members of the European Union were universally opposed to Germany’s demand to reopen the EU’s treaties to strengthen the means of maintaining fiscal discipline among members of the euro zone. But within days of winning over Nicolas Sarkozy to her cause at the Deauville summit on October 18th, she got everyone to sign up to the idea of a “limited treaty change”. By the slow-moving standards of the EU, this happened in an eye-blink. It is a testament to the authority of Mrs Merkel, as well as the power of Germany’s constitutional court in Karlsruhe.
“Everybody was very sensitive to Mrs Merkel’s persuasive arguments,” is how one national diplomat put it. “Bullying,” said another. Whether by persuasion or compulsion, Mrs Merkel secured her main objective: agreement to amend the EU treaty to allow the creation of a “permanent crisis mechanism” to resolve the debt of countries that may be hit by a Greek-style crisis in future.
This means creating a bail-out fund similar to the €750 billion IMF-backed temporary financing facility that was created in May, imposing tough conditions on any country that taps it in future and making bondholders take some of the pain of saving insolvent countries. “The burden must never again be borne simply and only by the taxpayer,” she declared." (...)
This may turn out to be a baby step toward tighter EU integration, at a time when member states can hardly maneuver otherwise -- and would hardly choose to do so in sunnier times. Once the tight belt of the recession loosens, we'll see which European country strains for more room to breathe.
Monday, October 25, 2010
There's a lot of fresh news on the EU foreign policy front, so here's a roundup of salient headlines.
The European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's new diplomatic agency set to launch December 1st, saw two of its top posts publicly announced, confirming long-running (and accurate) rumors on the candidates. Pierre Vimont, a French national and eminence grise of the transatlantic diplomatic community, will act as executive secretary general. David O'Sullivan, a European Commission veteran from Ireland, is to serve as chief operating officer.
Vimont is a former French ambassador to the United States and has also acted in diplomatic roles for the European Union. EUobserver reports that O'Sullivan "has previously run the European Commission's education and trade departments, was head of cabinet for former commission president Romano Prodi and was commission secretary general.
On the transatlantic side, both Vimont and O'Sullivan should bring diplomatic heft to the EU's dealings with the U.S.. Both are battle-tested policy professionals. Both speak perfect English (Vimont distinguishes himself from ex- and current French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, neither of whom speaks English with much ease.)
If early EEAS naysayers chastised its head, Lady Catherine Ashton, as a "compromise candidate," the one-two punch of appointing Vimont and O'Sullivan may turn around the glass-half-empty outlook upon which some observers have insisted.
A coalition of far-right parties from throughout Europe convened Saturday in Vienna to organize a popular opposition movement against Turkey's accession to the EU. The collected groups will seek to launch a European Citizen's Initiative, a practice by which EU citizens can gather one million signatures in a petition to force the EU institutions to consider converting their demands into legislation. In a strange shift from the usually anti-EU-integration stance of Europe's far-right, some parties demanded that Turkey be barred because otherwise it would spell the "end of the European Union."
In what Europeans may see as a troubling sign of the times, Europe's high place in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is poised to slip. Following a 'historic' meeting Saturday in South Korea, European countries such as Belgium and Holland will be pressured to concede places to the "BRIC" countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and other emerging world economies. The IMF's managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had this to say about the Fund's changes and the greater symbolic paradigm shift:
"The ten biggest members of the Fund ... will be those who deserve to be the biggest members," he added, going on to describe how "the membership and quota of the membership are not really representing the importance and weight of the countries in the global economy."
Serbia has cleared a significant roadblock in its push to join the EU. Following a softened position on Kosovo, the EU rewarded Belgrade with an agreement to begin looking at its accession dossier. Yet the EU stipulated that it wanted redoubled cooperation with the International Criminal Court, especially in pursuing justice for Serbian war criminals such as Ratko Mladic.
"It's the start of the process," said Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency through December.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The European Parliament voted in a decisive show-of-hands vote today that it will move forward with the finalization of plans on the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The vote was focused on relaxing staffing rules, following early demands by newer and less well-represented member states to enshrine into law measures gauranteeing geographical and gender balance in the EU's new diplomatic service, set to launch December 1st.
The official vote will take place tomorrow in Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament. At the same time, representatives will also be voting to relax the EEAS' budget rules.
Drafted by German MEP (Member of European Parliament) Bernhard Rapkay, the bill seeks ensure for the EEAS the “highest standard of ability, efficiency and integrity, recruited on the broadest possible geographical basis from among nationals of member states,” the European Voice reports.
The service's staff should comprise an “appropriate and meaningful presence of nationals from all the member states." The rules also foresee the promotion of equal opportunities to ensure a better balance between men and women.
Pan-EU balance remains a bone of contention among many of the EU's states, especially its new members which typically hail from Eastern and largely ex-Soviet republics such as Romania and Bulgaria. On gender, many leaders across Europe have demanded there be a set minimum for women in senior positions, a result of the generally progressive attitudes in Europe advocating women's professional equality.
Promising geographical as well as gender balance is seen by these states as a way of securing a decent footing within the fledgling diplomatic corps.
Editorially speaking, the loosening-up of gender and geographical balance will surely allow the EEAS more of the room it needs to maneuver a successful start. Whether the lack of gaurantees for balance will rear its ugly head down the road, however, remains very much an open question.
Monday, October 18, 2010
The crisis in France is coming to a boil as mass protests against retirement benefit reform throttle the country. The malaise is now spreading to all generations, as shown through the nascent student movement rising up in solidarity with those fighting to preserve their once and future pensions. (See video from Euronews here.)
The genesis of the demonstrating is President Nicolas Sarkozy's move to up the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, a result of aching public coffers that are weathering recovery from the global economic crisis only with extreme duress. The pension cuts have met ferocious resistance and has generated nearly a full week of open-ended general strikes.
Multiple reports of car fires and clashes with police have ricocheted throughout Europe as troublemakers mix with demonstrators, some still in high school, to join the anti-reform groundswell.
Young people expressed both anger over the reform, seen in much of the country as draconian, and fears over recession-time prospects in the transition from their status of student to job seeker.
In a separate but no less serious development, French oil refinery workers have jumped on the bandwagon for the resistance by refusing to work while motorists of all stripes panic over how their fuel is to last. The oil industry lobby estimates that shortages will be felt by mid-week if no major change takes place.
... Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune counters, "this reform is a no-brainer. Come on, France, get real!"
UPDATE: "France, the Unions and Fiscal Reality," 10/19/10.
UPDATE: "France, the Unions and Fiscal Reality," 10/19/10.
NYT/IHT journalist Judy Dempsey serves up some interesting perspective on Germany and Portugal's recent assession to nonpermanent seats to the UN Security Council. She uses China as an axis of comparison with western powers' UN moves, catering to the center of focus for the American majority of her piece's readers.
By default, her article relegates Europe to the same observer status Germany and Portugal have just won.
The following excerpts bring the China element to the fore:
"Europe’s decline is partly linked to China’s growing influence as an economic power, donor and lender. From Belarus to Iran, across Africa and Latin America, China is lending money, forging trade deals and building roads, airports and schools while tapping the natural resources of these countries.
And there are no strings attached. “China sets no conditions, unlike the E.U., which often sets them in an inconsistent way” [quoted from source]. Indeed, China’s way of doing things is seen as a direct challenge to Europe’s dominance in development aid and trade agreements."
"... With the radical shifts in global influence led by China, Europe’s influence is waning, and fast.
The E.U.’s hopes of supporting human rights and democracy around the world are at risk of being defeated by changes in the global balance of power,” said Anthony Dworkin, international law expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the United Nations, where the Union has suffered embarrassing defeats.
Last month, it failed to win expanded rights to the General Assembly, where it has observer status. A new status would have allowed Brussels the right to make proposals, circulate documents and address the Assembly.
To the dismay of Catherine Ashton, the Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy [as implemented by the EEAS], some of Europe’s closest allies — Australia, Canada and New Zealand — abstained. Diplomats blamed the Union’s lack of strategy and consultation.
“The E.U.’s shambolic defeat was more than a humiliation,” said Paul Luif, Europe expert at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs in Vienna. “It showed the growing lack of support for an E.U. that seems more and more ineffective at the U.N.”
The article's title is "For Europe, a Challenge to Make Its Voice Resonate." Sounds more than a bit like "Europeans Woo U.S., Promising Relevance," also from the New York Times. One of its most prominent columnists, Roger Cohen, has similarly declared that "Europe is history," a "strategic backwater."
If what is arguably America's most Europhile newspaper sees grim days ahead for Europe, it should be equally gloomy -- and disconcerting -- to ponder the EU's eclipse within the UN Security Council specifically.