Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Germany Slammed by French Left, Domestic Press on Libya Vote

The French left has damning words for German foreign policy. The country, which recently decided to abstain from armed intervention in Libya in a March 17 UN Security Council vote, has since faced withering rebukes from the international community. 

Jean Quatremer, a star writer of the left-leaning newspaper La Libération, takes a decidedly EU-focused approach to his criticism, dismayed that "the [European] Union must, therefore, stay confined to what's humanitarian..." He echoed the words of new foreign minister Alain Juppé, who on Wednesday lamented, "must we resign ourselves to the EU remaining a humanitarian NGO?" He also quoted ex-foreign affairs minister Hubert Védrine, who lamented while in office that the EU must not grow into a kind of "giant Switzerland." When the Libé's top name aligns with the center-right French government's official voice on foreign affairs, Germany faces a uniformly hostile neighbor, which will also rally outside opinion into France's camp and against Germany's.

Der Spiegel, Germany's best-known English-language newspaper, has little better to say about the response to Libya by Angela Merkel and the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. In an article written collectively by Spiegel staff, the newspaper presents a symbolically potent show of solidarity against their government's latest foreign affairs calls.

"The general sense of consternation," they emphatically write, "raises the question of whether this government is simply out of its depth when it comes to foreign policy." They signal that Germany missed a great opportunity to forge a "yes, but" alternative. The team quotes a German diplomat's accusation that his government is guilty of "historical cynicism," and they surmise that "Merkel's administration now welcomes any bad news from Libya that suggests its partners were wrong to intervene." 

And as if Merkel thought it would alleviate anything, Germany unveiled a conciliatory gesture to send more surveillance planes to NATO operations in Afghanistan as a way to free up allied materiel and military hardware for the Libyan campaign.

France, Libya and Laïcité

The scholars Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse weigh in on the recent about-face by European leaders over mutliculturalism. The article's thrust is that the moves made by Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron are 'tacking to the right' in order to drain far-right voters toward their bases, and that such bald ploys only serve to undo decades of effort at integrating Europe's Muslims. These and other leaders only "savage a straw man" in attacking multiculturalism, and shoot themselves in the foot in the process. Below is a snapshot of the article's multiple thematic threads.

"The anti-immigrant opinions first voiced in late 20th-century Europe increased in intensity during the terrorism jitters of the 2000s and have been reinforced by burgeoning anti-Islam sentiment during the 2010s. What's happening is that the deleterious political impact of the 2008-2009 economic crises is now being felt, and the result is a sizeable populist wave throughout Western Europe.
This wave generally takes the form of extreme right parties -- even though some of them, like in the Netherlands and Britain, incorporate liberal elements like the defense of gay rights and women's rights. (The English Defence League has both Jewish and gay branches.) All of these populist movements, however, have one feature in common: they are explicitly anti-Islam. Just as anti-Semitism was the common denominator of populist movements in the 1930s, the single-minded focus on Muslim immigration has become the defining trait of anti-establishment parties in today's Europe. The logical effect is to push the center-right parties to the right, for fear of losing their constituency.
And tack right they have. In Germany, Merkel's speech was designed to catch up with the national debate sparked by Thilo Sarrazin's bestselling book, Germany Does Away With Itself,  as well as with an assertive nativist wing of her governing coalition. Sarrazin, a former Bundesbank board member originally from the Social-Democrat SPD party, has sold more than a million copies of his book, which denounces the dumbing-down of Germany through Muslim immigration. In Britain, Cameron must keep an eye on his populist wing as well as the British National Party. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte is cracking down on headscarf wearing and other behavioral signs of Muslim religiosity among state employees and unemployment check recipients in exchange for the parliamentary support of Geert Wilders's anti-Islam faction. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who successfully courted voters from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in 2007 by broaching the theme of "national identity," kept the flame alive with an official debate on the subject in 2009 and another on the wearing of the burka in 2010. This spring, his UMP party announced yet another debate on "Islam and laïcité" -- as France calls its official policy of religious neutrality.
 The laïcité debate follows on the heels of Sarkozy's aggressive maneuvering in the Libya crisis and may try to bring the French voice on Islam closer to home, in a sense. If the French populace can engage with high-profile political figures and thinkers on the current events of the Muslim world and how they might think about these things as a country, a laïcité discussion may center the discordant voices on whether France should be as active as it currently is. EurAmerican follows religious trends closely, so watch this space for more on how this debate develops in France and elsewhere.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Federal Disunity: Civil-War-era US and the Eurozone

Global Policy, a fairly new world affairs journal, has some interesting things to say on the current eurozone troubles. Its quality of links is slightly derivative, with liberal borrowing from the Economist and even Wikipedia. But it's still a worthy read, if for nothing else that its unorthodox comparison of leadership styles of US President James Buchanan (predecessor to Abraham Lincoln) and Angela Merkel.

"... If Buchanan is remembered as one of the worst American presidents of all time, his successor Abraham Lincoln is remembered as perhaps its greatest. Although lacking in executive experience his underlying principle was unwavering: preserve the union at all costs. To this goal he was willing to subsume all other concerns, including his moral repugnance of slavery. To its end he was willing to commit to and sustain a bloody civil war and rebuff suggestions of compromise. Everything else was negotiable, but union was not. The result was a nation ripped apart by an enormously destructive and prolonged civil war, but also one reborn on a stronger footing. The slavery and secession issues that had, since America’s founding, threatened to rip the nation apart were (at an enormous cost) settled once and for all.

"It is from this parable-like take on the American Civil War era that perhaps lessons can be drawn for Europe’s undisputed present-day leader, Angela Merkel. The seriousness of the conundrum she faces is immense. Preservation of the European project requires a willingness to risk political martyrdom on her own part. The case for Germany continuing as the backstop of the Eurozone grows more unpopular domestically every day. Meanwhile the irresolute action and half-measures that characterised earlier attempts to save the single currency have merely postponed the day of reckoning. They have also, at almost every turn, increased the cost and the stakes of the next move. The case of the Greek Bailout is perhaps the most blatant example. Yet time and again her approach has seemed reductionist and pedantic. Bowing to national pressures she has proven more adept at tinkering with the terms of bailouts and turning the screws on profligate states, than on securing a long-term fix for the single currency. The result has been a continuing narrative of core vs. periphery and an ominous slide towards a series of defaults, which even the German coffers will not be able to rebuff."
See the piece in full here

Friday, March 18, 2011

Americans, St.Patrick's Day and the Morality of Drinking

Dig this from the Pew Research Center's findings on American morality and St. Patrick's Day. This week, Americans will celebrate Ireland's patron saint, and not necessarily because they have Irish heritage. For many this means excessive drinking, though the tradition is not morally neutral, at least in the US. A full 61 percent of Americans polled find excessive drinking morally wrong, Pew reports. There is also a huge disparity on the morals of drinking between self-identified liberals (50%) and conservatives (71%). An even greater divide runs along the education line: forty-three percent of those with a college degree disapproved of excessive alcohol consumption, while those with a high-school education or lower did so at a whopping 74 percent.

Also see Pew's study on American moral perceptions of sex, drugs and cheating on taxes.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lukashenko Versus WashPo, Or, Basic Freedoms

The Washington Post ran this interview Sunday between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and one of the newspaper's editors, Lally Weymouth. Last December, the country held elections that gave a victory and a fourth presidential term to Lukashenko. The news incited massive protests and the round-up of over 700 pro-democracy demonstrators. The EU and the US have responded by imposing sanctions and asset freezes on Belarus' top government officials and their families. Relations remain tense as the Lukashenko administration and opposition forces continue to struggle against one another both at home and in foreign diplomacy and press.

On an editorial note, Lukashenko exhibits what seems to be a fundamentally flawed understanding of the exercise of the freedoms of assembly and the press in the United States, which results in what is at times a comically arrogant disdain for these human rights. See the full interview for more discussion on legal rights, amnesty and the jailing of opposition leaders. 

The president's stance utterly owns his designation as "Europe's last dictator," as he was recently described by former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. He references ideas such as "propaganda" and "the fifth column" that smack of a Cold War rhetoric most in the West would be disappointed to learn had not vanished forever. The president goes so far as to offer a bizarre-o insinuation that President Obama may be assassinated and "repeat the fate of Kennedy" -- and this, according to the Belarusian leader, because he's not keeping a tight enough rein on his political opposition. 

The following are some of the interview's best parts, with Weymouth in italics and Lukashenko in regular typeface.

"If you hold an election and seven out of the nine candidates running against you end up in jail, it is not a very good signal to the West that [Belarus] is an open and democratic place. Plus, there were limits on the amount of money the candidates could raise and how much time they could spend on television. There was only one debate, and you did not participate.

"The question is not about the time limit the candidates [had] in the media. The question is what these candidates said. They were saying that Lukashenko needs to be hanged. Belarus is a wayward country. So, the Americans decided to treat the results of the elections in a very negative way."
"... If your security services had information that people were trying to engage in mass disturbances, they would arrest hundreds of thousands of people.
"I don't think so.
"You don't think so, but I know so."

"Why did you kick out the U.S. ambassador in 2008?

"Why do we need an ambassador who is masterminding the actions of the fifth column?
"Do you really believe this?

"I am the president of Belarus. I know this."

"What is your impression of President Obama?

"Good opinion, but you don't let him do his job.
"Who is "you?"
"The opposition.
"You mean Republicans?
"Not just Republicans - I mean businessmen, some part of the security forces. I don't think Obama would like to repeat the fate of Kennedy.
"Why did you bring that up?
"If Obama will go on pursuing his course of action, there will be people who may not like it. He will pursue the interest of the majority of his people, but there will be radical people who don't like this course of action. It may have bad consequences."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Neoconservatism and the Arab Revolutions"

Here's a teaser from Ross Douthat's review of discussion among neoconservatives about what the U.S. military should do or not do in the Arab crescent currently in tumult. He takes pains to highlight the present disparity between neoconservatives and the Israeli government, which are often mistaken for one another.

The New York Times columnist frames the ideas in a way that clearly belie his own empathetic position to neoconservative sensibilities. But he concludes, so true to form, with a soft-touch but clear rejection of the idea to wage intervention with any involvement of U.S. boots on the ground.

Douthat starts and ends as follows:

"[Here is] a good piece exploring the divide that’s opened between American neoconservatives and many Israelis over the revolutions and protests currently roiling the Middle East — with neocons welcoming the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the promise of democratic change throughout the region, even as the Israeli leadership classes wax more pessimistic about the likely consequences of replacing despots with more popular regimes. “Could there be a starker illustration of just how mistaken the neocon-Israeli conflation always was?” Kirchik [the author of the linked piece] asks, and he’s right: The last few weeks should bury, once and for all, the foolish idea that neoconservatism’s rhetorical commitment to democracy promotion is just a smokescreen for Likudnik dual loyalties or U.S. imperialism.
"... The last time we imposed a no-fly zone on a weakened Arab tyrant who we hoped would soon be toppled by his own people, the year was 1992 and the tyrant in question was Saddam Hussein — and we have been at war in Iraq, in one sense or another, ever since."

Friday, March 4, 2011

The EU's "Grand Area"

Earlier this year the British geostrategist James Rogers introduced this map of the European Union's current sphere of influence on European Geostrategy (part of Ideas on Europe). He calls it  the EU's "grand area." (See his full report from the Egmont Institute here.)

The zone covers a sort of C-shaped expanse that curves from Greenland and the North Pole, spreads over the European continent, North Africa and the Caucuses and then over the Indian Ocean, ultimately including Southeast Asian states like Singapore and Indonesia.

Rogers' depiction offers a reading of the eurozone's influence that is equal parts impressive and troubling. 

Impressive, in that the EU still leverages power over a huge swath over its home continent and former colonies. It includes the power centers of Russia and Central Asia, as well as those currently engulfed in popular unrest in Africa and the Middle East. Despite the grumblings of economists and euroskeptics, the EU still exerts massive influence on a huge slice of global territory. 

Troubling, however, in that those powers outside the "grand area" rank among those poised to dominate global affairs in the near and further future. The United States is conspicuously absent from the chart, as is for that matter the whole of the Western hemisphere. Many of the countries steadily gaining rank in tomorrow's multipolar power scheme -- including Brazil, India and China -- also fall outside the EU's influence zone. Even many of sub-Saharan Africa's former colonies align more to non-European powers, such as regional players like South Africa, than to their old patriarchs. 

There is much to hope for in the global power the EU says it wants to be. But, given that a good chunk of factors are missing from the EU's strategic equation, there's just as much to trigger doubts.  


Also see Rogers' illustration of current and future strategic recommendations for the EU, its neighborhood and those outside both.

ECB Code Words for Dummies

The Wall Street Journal's finance blog "The Source" analyzes European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet's use yesterday of the phrase "strong vigilance" in reference to the prospect of forthcoming interest rate raises, and what this means in numerical terms for market watchers. The Financial Times alternatively terms the code a "traffic light system" that indicates rate rises with a certain reliability.

Particularly interesting is the article's chart of ECB verbal expressions and their corresponding interest rate change metrics, which should demystify for all of us non-economists (myself included) some of the opaque language used by economists and finance folks on each side of the Pond. 

By the FT's count, the ECB has invoked the words "strong vigilance" and then raised rates seven out of nine times since 2005. 

The WSJ article surmised that Trichet's most recent use of the expression "strong vigilance" can be translated in layman's terms to, "we are worried about inflation and are leaning toward raising interest rates." 

Trichet's hawkish if nuanced rhetoric is widely perceived as a way of projecting a confident public front for the ECB in the face of grave concerns over the EU's economic recovery strategy on the eurozone's sovereign debt and the global financial crises.

If the past six years are anything to go by, turns of phrase such as "vigilance," "monitor closely" and in particular "strong vigilance" all preceded actual interest rate shifts orchestrated by the ECB. As the piece puts it,

“During the last tightening cycle, ‘strong vigilance’ was used one month prior to all policy moves (except for the one in March 2006, when only ‘vigilance’ was used). In addition, some form of ‘monitor closely’ or ‘monitor very closely’ was used in other months to signal that the rate normalization was not yet complete. Such code words could be used again this time."
Sources have varied widely on whether Trichet's words should be considered worrisome. Reuters says that the Frankfurt-based bank "stunned markets by indicating it could raise interest rates as soon as next month." In contrast, Seeking Alpha puts the odds of a rate hike at "above zero, [but] not much higher."