Whose attention does North Korea want? by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2009, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Asia, Europe, Foreign Policy, Korea

Matthew Yglesias writes:

I guess it strikes me that the DPRK’s nose for grabbing attention seems a bit off if they’re deciding to do this over what’s a holiday weekend in the United States.

Depends on whose attention you’re trying to grab. It was a holiday weekend in the US, but I hear there was some kind of Asia-Europe foreign policy summit opening that day in Hanoi, followed immediately by an ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh that a lot of the same foreign ministers were going to.


Isn’t the Prime Directive kind of paleo-conservative? by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Foreign Policy, Science

Daniel Larison (a fan despite his political inclinations) on Star Trek:

There is almost nothing in the franchise’s politics that I find attractive, and the regular sermonizing was at times very unpleasant.

Isn’t the Prime Directive’s doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of (particularly underdeveloped) alien civilizations a classically paleo-con non-interventionist position? I would have thought Larison of all people would find it appealing.

Exterminate the brutes by mattsteinglass
April 26, 2009, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Foreign Policy, Health, Human Rights and Torture

My son got bit by a dog this evening, so we had to go in for a rabies booster shot. We were out having dinner in the garden of The Kitchen, a restaurant not far from our house that serves decent Mexican food and is located down a small alleyway with little traffic. The kids were playing hide-and-seek while we waited to order. My son ran off out the gate to hide down the alley while my daughter counted, my wife said “I’d prefer they stayed inside the garden,” I said “Eh, there’s almost no traffic down this alley,” and a second later Sol came running back inside crying, saying a dog had bitten him. One of those moments that makes parenthood such a relentless parade of demonstrations of your inadequacy rewarding and life-constituting experience. My wife and the restaurant owner ran into the alleyway to figure out what the deal was with this dog while I handled the kids. Not a deep bite, barely broke the skin in just one spot, but it hurt; I washed it off and put some ice on it.

The dog belonged to some poor neighbors down the alley. It was on a chain on the concrete stoop of a little brick hut the family uses as a kitchen/utility area. The hut gives directly onto the alley so the dog wasn’t fenced in, and it had already bitten the restaurant’s motorbike valet the week before. (He had unfortunately been in the bathroom when Sol ran out, or he would’ve stopped him.) The restaurant’s manager had demanded they keep the dog inside, which they hadn’t done. The owner was a tiny, blinking lady in her 60s or 70s who did not seem capable of understanding what the issue at hand was, which was simply this: could she prove that the dog was vaccinated for rabies? She said her husband had taken the dog in a week earlier to get vaccinated for rabies, because an announcement had gone around on the neighborhood loudspeakers instructing everyone to do that at the local Ward People’s Committee Headquarters. (Gotta love Communist public health. Seriously.) The problem was she didn’t know where the certificate of vaccination was. After twenty minutes of discussion we finally rousted her husband out to go search the house and try to dig up the paper. I say “discussion,” but I mean “threats”, largely on my wife’s part, to call the police and demand that this family pay our son’s medical bills. That seemed to be the only way to impel them into action — they just didn’t do anything until there was a threat of police action and monetary damages.

Meanwhile I had called my friend Heiman, an MD-Ph.D. who works on communicable diseases here, including rabies, to ask what he thought I should do. Since it was a stupid question, he responded patiently that if I was absolutely sure the dog was vaccinated, I didn’t need to get Sol a booster shot, but if there were any doubt whatsoever as to whether the dog was vaccinated, I should go get Sol the booster, since you don’t take a 0.001% chance on a disease that’s 100% fatal, in a country where it’s endemic. Duh. It can be helpful to have people lay these issues out clearly for you sometimes.

Anyway, as I waited for the husband to find the certificate, the old woman took my hand and led me over to the dog, explaining in simple Vietnamese: “It’s feeding pups. It’s feeding pups.” And there they were, indeed, nursing on the dog’s teats. Which explained why it was acting so aggressive. So you see, she implied, it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s not usually like this. Which, of course, pissed me off. What did I care whether the dog was usually like this or not? The only question for me was: was the dog vaccinated? Did they have proof? Either they had proof, or I had to go the doctor.

The restaurant’s manager had been extremely concerned and kind throughout the interaction, and she by now had called the police to intervene. She, obviously, couldn’t have a dangerous dog in the alleyway outside her restaurant. I went inside and ate the dinner we’d ordered, and a few minutes later the old woman dashed up to me, grabbed my hand, and began pleading. She couldn’t pay the money for my son’s medical treatment, she said. They were very poor. But she promised to kill the dog.

The restaurant manager had come over to help translate, and at this point I didn’t even know what to say. I didn’t want or need this woman’s money. The booster shot wasn’t expensive, and our insurance would cover it. The problem was that this family’s dog had already bitten the motorbike valet, they had been told to keep it indoors or fence it up, and they hadn’t done it. The point of the monetary threat was to force them to do something about the dog. But I didn’t want them to kill the dog. I wanted them to fence the dog in, to go back and get it vaccinated again but this time keep the vaccination certificate — to just deal with their responsibilities like normal citizens, keep their animals on their own property or be conscious of the consequences of letting them run out into the alleyway.

But this is the thing about these kinds of cross-cultural interactions, the thing that makes them so often horrible and tragic. You can put pressure on other people to accomplish goals that you want. But you can’t dictate to them how to go about delivering those goals. You can show them that the consequences of the dog biting a foreigner’s kid will be dire; but while you may think the logical solution is vaccination and a fence, they may think the logical solution is to kill the dog. Whatever norms their society operates under — norms which may appear crazy, perverse, brutal and counterproductive to you — will likely be repeated and intensified in their approach to meeting your demands on them. This isn’t just a problem that appears in interactions across national cultures; it happens across class cultures, between two different families, or for that matter between individuals. You try to teach someone how to do something the “right” way (your right way, anyway); they won’t do it; you finally set a target and threaten to fong the bejeezus out of them if they don’t deliver the target; and they find a way to deliver that target that’s so completely screwed up and wrong, by your lights, that you wish you’d never asked for it in the first place. Usually it somehow involves taking the whole thing out on whoever is weakest and most vulnerable inside their own system. And you find yourself thinking, it’s hopeless. The only solution is to exterminate the brutes. Which is exactly what they’re thinking too.

Obama’s slightly patronizing greeting to Iranians by mattsteinglass
March 20, 2009, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Foreign Policy, Iran

Obama’s video message to the Iranian people and their leaders is a strong step forward, but — to quibble — I wondered about the sightly patronizing tone he adopts in places. For example:

Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place.

This is the kind of thing one might expect to hear on a National Geographic program about Iranian culture for Americans. Just try flipping the script for a second, and imagine President Ahmadinejad saying to Americans: “Over many years your movies, your music, your businesses and your consumer technology have made the world a better and more entertaining place.” You’d think, well, it’s nice that he’s trying, but he doesn’t really know anything about us and it sounds like he’s about to compliment us on our delicious Big Macs. He’s complimenting us, but based on shallow cultural-appreciation stereotypes. The problem is worse going in the Iranian direction because of the echoes of orientalism: we are the cosmopolitan, powerful future, and they have such a wonderful indigenous culture. Not that he’s actually complimenting them on their beautiful carpets, but the “your art” thing just seems…well-intentioned but patronizing:

Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans.  We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.

For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained.  But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.  Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays — by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.

This sounds to me like it’s geared more towards an American ear than towards an Iranian one. Iranians don’t need to be told that they celebrate the holidays by gathering with their families, like people anywhere on the planet. It’s Americans who need to be told that, in order to de-otherize the image of Iran. It might be worthwhile to tell Iranians that Americans celebrate our holidays pretty much the way they do, by gathering with family etc. But to speak to them about how they celebrate their holidays seems to me to confuse the tone of address slightly. Imagine, say, Khrushchev telling the American people in 1957: “Tomorrow you will celebrate your national kholiday of ‘Thenks-gee-veeng’, and you will gether with your femillies much as the people of the Soviet Union do when we celebrate the founding of our country.” You’d think: well, nice gesture, but…not exactly. Our holidays actually mean something pretty different from yours.

This section, in contrast, seems exactly right:

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders.  We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.  This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

Fair, simple, and straight-up. You have your interests, we have ours, we would like to talk. But then we go back to the  slightly off-key stuff:

You, too, have a choice.  The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.  You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.  And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this isn’t the kind of thing one can effectively say to the citizens of a different state. Obama could say this to Americans: “the measure of our greatness is not the capacity to destroy.” As an American leader, it’s part of his job to offer the country definitions of its values and goals. But I’m not sure he can do that for Iranians; that sounds to me like overreach. And it sounds like the kind of hegemonic attitude which as Fareed Zakaria so incisively pointed out this week has infected the entire Washington elite, not just the GOP.

I could be completely wrong; maybe Iranians loved the speech. In any case hopefully they’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and it’s got to be better than eight years of “axis of evil” nonsense.

Regional blocs, not global ones by mattsteinglass
December 23, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Foreign Policy

Will Marshall thinks we should turn NATO into a global alliance by including Japan and South Korea, Brazil and Chile, Australia and New Zealand, India, and so forth. Matthew Yglesias thinks that’s a bad idea. One of the reasons Yglesias is right comes in Marshall’s first paragraph:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the most successful defense alliance in history. Today, however, the alliance is stumbling blind, and it badly needs a new sense of common purpose.

“I’ve got this cool old tool, now I just need some mission for it” is almost never a good way to make policy.

But the main point is that regional military-political blocs like NATO have proven fairly successful in the last 20 years at promoting stability and staging interventions in crises, while interventions by non-regional blocs have been pretty unsuccessful. NATO ultimately did resolve the Yugoslavian mess. East Timor worked because of Australia. In areas where the West is frustrated about long-running crises, such as Burma and Zimbabwe, the only players that can realistically resolve the situations are the regional ones — southern African nations in Zimbabwe, ASEAN in Burma. NATO works because it’s regional and there’s a regional consensus on European norms of governance and European security interests. Diluting that by bringing in lots of very different countries from all over the map would be a big mistake.

Japan suspends Vietnam aid, Vietnamese grateful? by mattsteinglass
December 6, 2008, 8:27 am
Filed under: Development, Foreign Policy, Japan, Vietnam

So Japan, impressively, has gone ahead and suspended all new aid to Vietnam due to the massive Pacific Consultants International corruption scandal, which has led to jail terms for several Japanese executives, but where the Vietnamese have been stonewalling their investigation of the officials who took or demanded the bribes. (Which amounted to millions of dollars, on some of Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest infrastructure projects.)

What interests me is that, as you can see in my article here, not all Vietnamese are entirely upset. Which I find revealing, and typical. East Asians resent outsiders tub-thumping about human rights. But they are often grateful when outsiders attack the corruption, industrial and environmental poisoning, etc. in their countries which their own governments are incapable of taking on. I still think this is a missed opportunity for public diplomacy.

No, actually “soft power” is the right term for it by mattsteinglass
December 4, 2008, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Foreign Policy, United States

Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, two of the world’s greatest bloggers, are back on their ridiculous hobbyhorse arguing that we should retire the Joseph Nye term “soft power” and think up a new one. Their objections to the use of the term are silly. Here’s the deal: “hard power” is the use of forms of compulsion, particularly violence, to make people do things you want them to do. “Soft power” is using your position and significance to arrange the situation such that people want to do the things you want them to do. Klein tries to argue that the latter isn’t really “power” at all:

The problem isn’t just the “soft” part, it’s the “power.” After 9/11, there really was a strain of foreign policy thinking where the simple demonstration of power was an end in itself. As Michael Ledeen put it, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” It’s power for power’s sake. And hard power will always make more sense in that framework.

Insofar as liberals — and moderates, and realists, and non-insane people — have a response to this, it’s not within the “power” framework. It’s about goals, and ends, and strategies. It’s “hard power” versus strategic goals, or the national interest. I’m not sure if there’s a two word summation. Though, in the short-term, “Remember Iraq?” will probably work as well as anything else.

This is nonsense. Obviously there are many kinds of power besides “throwing people against a wall”. If I were introduced to Donald Trump, for instance, I would probably accord him an immense amount of deference and try to ingratiate myself, not because otherwise he might pick me up and throw me against a wall (well…maybe) but because he is hugely rich and famous, and thus has the ability to affect my prospects for good or ill in myriad ways. Hence, we say that Donald Trump is a “powerful” man. He can use his strategic assets (fame, wealth) to shape the playing field such that others want to do what he wants them to do. But of course if Trump were to actually threaten to throw me against a wall I might be so angry and threatened that I would respond by insulting him and maybe even trying to tackle him pre-emptively.

Clearly, as anyone who’s read Sun Tzu would recognize, the ability to shape the field of play is the most important kind of “power”. Anything that gets people to kiss your ass without your having to do anything is power. Indeed, I started this post by noting that Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias are great bloggers, mainly because I tremendously enjoy reading their work, but in part because they’re respected and widely linked members of the liberal blogosphere and you don’t want to piss them off by calling some of their posts “silly” without communicating that in the wider context you think their work is great. And that’s a modest kind of power, too, though it involves no foreseeable threat of anyone being thrown against a wall.

Add.: The point is even clearer with reference to Yglesias’s line: “But what Joseph Nye is talking about when he writes about soft power is something more like brand appeal than a form of “power.”” How is brand appeal not a form of power? I think we would all agree that the New York Times is a powerful institution. How much of its power comes from its brand? Gotta be more than 50 percent, right? And beyond brand appeal there are a lot of non-coercive elements that are unquestionably forms of power. Exxon and the AARP both have tremendous power based on things that have nothing to do with coercion. If you think coercion is the only thing that has power to shape others’ behavior to serve your interests then you’d better tell all those corporations that they’re making a tremendous mistake, sinking all that money into advertising every year.