Rise of the Rest

Anticipating the Coming Debate Over Foreign and Security Policy

When Washington returns in 2010 we will have a new issue to challenge the effective management of an already incredibly crowded agenda - a review of our intelligence, homeland security and counter-terrorism strategies and performance in the aftermath of the Nigerian-who-got-through. 

The coming debate could radically impact Washington's agenda in 2010. Given that these issues touch on a wide range of Congressional committees and areas of the Administration, and that there is a wide-held belief in DC that the reforms made during the Bush era were not completely effective or well done, it is going to be hard to control and contain the debate once it begins.   That there are so many different Congressional committees involved in this debate is itself a sign of the lack of coherence of the new counter-terrorism regime ushered in during the Bush era, from the DNI to DHS itself. 

The truth is that it may be time for the country to have a more systematic, thoughtful discussion about how to best deal with the global threat of terrorism, the nature of terrorism itself and how the two wars we are already fighting fit into our overall global national security strategy.  Over the last few days you could feel the American people saying - Nigeria? Yemen? Is there no end to this? How does all this relate to what is happening in Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan? It has been almost a decade now, with trillions spent, ten of thousands of American causalties, vast new bureaucracies built, a new significant escalation in Afghanistan, extraordinary opportunity costs - and what have we accomplished? Are we safer? What can we do better?  These are reasonable questions for the American people to ask.

If this debate lasts for months - which it could - it may very well knock other important priorities off the legislative calendar this year, a calendar that was already in danger of being incredibly overloaded.  Could we end up spending the coming year finishing health care, and having long and significant debates our economic and security policies, pushing a whole array of other important - but less important issues - off the agenda?

Does all this seem like an overreaction to a lone man who got through Fortress America? Perhaps, but that the vast new intelligence appartus built over the past decade didn't put some now clearly reasonable pieces together to stop a threat, and the attack demonstrated how the global jihadi network has spread beyond the places we are already significantly engaged abroad, has raised some critical issues which now seem inevitably headed towards a big, sustained and perhaps overdue conversation. 

Rather than fighting the consolidation of the 2010 agenda it may be in the interest of the governing party to embrace it, and not look defensive, as if they have other things they would rather be talking about.   Peace and prosperity drive most elections in the US, and 2010 may end up being no different.  The Republicans are already jumping on the Christmas Day attempt, and will no doubt spend the year ahead trying to reorient the national discussion to an area - national security - they feel will advantageous for them.  But given their actual record in the decade just past, and the extraordinary mess they left for others to clean up, the Republicans may rue the day the debate became about national security, for there is no way to have this debate without talking about the epic foreign policy and security failures of the Bush era, something they simply cannot disown.

So rather than wishing this new issue environment away, the President and the Democrats might decide rather to make it their own, and spend their political year making their case for how they hope to bring peace and prosperity to a country desperately seeking it.   They can take on the anarchronistic and disproven arguments of the conservatives head on, defining their vision and plans, and making very clear, where, on the two most important issues facing the nation, it is exactly they want to take us.  Not at all an unreasonable thing for the American people to ask of the governing party in a time of great transition and national challenge.

Happy New Year all. 

And a new year it will be.

Mon PM Update: On his Mother Jones blog David Corn chews over this essay a bit, and provides some thoughts of his own.

The Iranian Uprising Escalates

As hard as it to get information out of Iran (no foreign reporting is allowed), it is now very clear that something very significant has happened and is in the process of happening there today.  The opposition to one of the worst governments of the modern era is spreading, growing more organic, more national, and from what we saw today even more courageous and brave. 

A NY Times's blog, The Lede, has incredible accounts today of both the insanity of the government itself, and brutal reports from the streets of Tehran and other cities. 

The Obama Administration issued the following statement in response to the widespread murdering of every day Iranians by their own government:

We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran seeking to exercise their universal rights.  Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States.  Governing through fear and violence is never just, and as President Obama said in Oslo - it is telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation

More soon. 

Update 830pm Mountain Time: Despite the extraordinary steps the Iranian government has taken in recent months to contain the information flow from inside Iran to the rest of the world, we - all of us - are able to watch graphic scenes of Iranian government repression in almost real time.  The people of Iran have through the year desperately attempted to share these images and accounts using the modern tools available to them - mobile devices, facebook, twitter, youtube and email.  That we are able to see so much despite the government's efforts should be a powerful warning to other repressive regimes that there is no going back now in this digital age.  These new tools are giving regular people just too much power. Repression has a powerful new opponent, one of the most powerful it has ever had - the ubiquitous global communications network that really is, truly, always on and increasingly everywhere.

Consider this new passage from The Lede:

The Lede will continue to follow events in Iran and sift through the evidence of protests and clashes posted on the Web in the days ahead. The Iranian journalist and blogger Omid Habibinia notes that this final video we will embed today appears to show a Basij militia building in Tehran burning on Sunday at or near the country’s state-run oil company. The fact that more than half a dozen people can be seen in this clip recording the incident suggests that we will continue to have a lot of material to sort through.

This is why in the midst of the news flowing out of Iran today I tweeted (simonwdc if you want to follow):

Increasingly feels like the great ideological battles of our coming century will be less left vs right, and more open vs closed.

Given all that has happened in the Middle East in recent years, and the role Iran has played, what is unfolding in the streets of Iran may be the most important set of political events taking place any where in the world today.  The global legitimacy of the leaders and institutions in power are being destroyed now, weakening Iran's hand in the nuclear negotiations taking place now, for sure, but also, eventually, weakening the hand of their political allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other countries in the region.

But it is also a powerful warning to the repressive regimes in the region - US allied or not - that the will of their own people can no longer be dismissed as before.  For a region so despotic these events - cries of death to the current elected President - must be both thrilling for champions of democracy, and terrifying to its opponents.

So given all this, should our President, on vacation, getting a very needed rest, do more? is the statement released today, stronger than similar statements released earlier this year, enough?  What else could be done? Should be done? Can the free nations of the world do more than suggest that we are watching?  The answer, I think, has much more significance than just the events unfolding in Iran now.  It will help lay the intellectual predicate of what we will come to know as the Obama foreign policy doctrine in the coming years.

I weighed in on all this in quite a lengthy essay back when the Iranian Uprising began in earnest. 

I can't stop watching the images coming from Iran, and feel myself wanting to do much more than blog and write.  I end by wishing the people of Iran, potentially sacrificing so much in the face of such a horribly dangerous and repressive government, well in their inspiring struggles in the days ahead.  My thoughts, prayers and wishes are with you.

Tues Afternoon Update: Many news agencies have reported the arrest of Iranian opposition leaders today, and the Lede has more videos of the clashes yesterday.   At his press conference this morning, the President said this about what was happening in Iran:

The United States joins with the international community in strongly condemning the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has apparently resulted in tensions, injuries and even death.

For months the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights.  Each time they have done so they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days.  And each time that has happened the world has watched with deep admiration for the courage and the conviction of the Iranian people, who are a part of Iran's great and enduring civilization.

What's taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country -- it's about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves.  And the decision of Iran's leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away.  As I said in Oslo, it's telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation.

Along with all free nations the United States stands with those who seek their universal rights.  We call upon the Iranian government to abide by the international obligations that it has to respect the rights of its own people.  We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran.  We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there.  And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.

Tues PM Update - The NY Times is reporting that the Iranian government has lashed out at the West, for, I guess, paying attention to its murdering and jailing of its own people. 

Thinking About Avatar This Morning

Like many Americans this past week I went to see Avatar last night with my dad and my two sons.  The buzz on the web about Avatar has been intense, and much more favorable than what the critics have mustered up so far.  Count me in as one of those who thought it was something more than a traditional film, so full of imagination and visual power that it was different in kind than most films today.  It was, perhaps, a portent of what is to come, as advances in animation and 3D - and the ability for visionaries like Cameron - to imagine what to do with these extraordinary new tools available to them today.  

But what is sitting with me this morning is its message.  At its core is a very direct anti-Americanism, or least an anti-corporatist/militarist America, and in that sense it feels very much like a film originally conceived and reactive to the global image of America during the Bush era.  

Without giving away too much for now, I kept thinking that in many ways this film was really designed for a global and not just an American audience.  At its core it is an attempt by a harmonious people to repel the advance of what can best be characterized as American imperialism.  This sentiment is sure to strike a chord with a great many people in the developing world today, and speaks to something that I have been concerned about for some time - that for many in the world today the US has become the latest manifestation of West's imperial/colonial tradition, a tradition which frankly did a great deal of damage to many societies and cultures across the world. 

For American audiences this idea of America as an imperial power rather than as history's most powerful  inspirational liberator will create a narrative dissonance, a non-comforting message during this holiday season.  In our historical narrative and understanding of ourselves, America was born through the overthrowing of an arrogant, greedy colonial power, and has remained - WWII, Cold War - in our minds liberty's greatest global champion.  There really isn't a narrative available in the US today that positions us as imperialists/oppressors, which is why this film will be so jarring for some, and why I think its ultimate audience is global, not here in the US. 

That for many the experience of Western imperialism/colonialism has been so culturally devastating, and there is a great worry and fear rampant in the world today that America rather than a brake on that global tradition has become its latest champion is a global dynamic that I think many American elites are simply unprepared for today.  I have felt it in my travels these last few years.   There is a restlessness out there as societies across the world mature, modernize, and their people become more educated, affluent and information rich.  There is a growing desire for self-determination alive in the world today by the world's rising powers and people, a sense that as they master the first stages of modernization they want to manage the next stages with less intervention  - cultural, economic, political - by the West.  Fareed Zakaria has described this dynamic as the "rise of the rest," which for us here at NDN is seen as a new stage in the recent extraordinary wave of globalization which has spread across the world these last 20 years.  

We are in so many ways entering a new stage in the geo-politics of the globe, something that I still think we are simply not talking enough about here in the US. For many I know there was a naïve sense that with Bush gone the global American image and cultural power would be in "recovery," returning to where it was before the misguided and damaging years of Bush.  But as the current Administration is discovering, the global Pax Americana which kept the world peaceful and prosperous needs to be seen now as a relic of 20th century global politics, and not something that is going to convey to this new century.  New global arrangements, with America in the lead but playing a different role, will need to be fashioned.

So while I am not agreeing with the characterization of the US in Avatar, it cannot be dismissed as the rantings of a Hollywood liberal.   Cameron is tapping into something deep and powerful flowing through the world's rising people today, and in that sense this great movie really be even greater than the historically significant special effects so many have focused on so far. 

Go see it.  It is an incredible film, one of the best I've ever seen.  And feel free to share your thoughts about it here.

Update: In a very short period of time Avatar has broken $1b in receipts, with only a third of that coming from the US.  It has become a truly global media event, quickly.

Update Mon Jan 4 - Gideon Rachman pens this interesting column in the FT, "America is Losing the Free World," which explores some of the same themes.

Should Access to Mobile Networks Be a Universal Right?

A few days ago my friend Alec Ross sent around a link to this statement from State: 

The United States welcomes the United Nations’ final passage of the resolution calling upon the Government of Iran to respect its human rights obligations fully. In passing this resolution, the international community has demonstrated once again its deep concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran and the government’s failure to uphold its obligations under its own constitution and international human rights law.

The resolution, first adopted last month by the UN Third Committee, expresses deep concern over the brutal response of Iranian authorities to peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the June 12 election. It calls on the Government of Iran to abolish torture and arbitrary imprisonment, as well as any executions carried out without due process of law. Furthermore, it calls for the end of execution of minors, as well as the use of stoning as a means of execution. The resolution also calls on Iran to release political prisoners, including those detained following the June election. Finally, the resolution calls on Iran to cooperate fully with and admit entry to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.

Those in Iran who are trying to exercise their universal rights should know that their voices are being heard.

We should all be pleased the International Community is taking the brutality of the Iranian regime so seriously.  But I kept wondering, throughout this statement, should we putting access to mobile networks in as one of those rights denied by a repressive regime? Iran has repeatedly, and comprehensively, shut down access by regular people to their own mobile devices throughout this recent government crackdown against dissent. 

For some this may sound a little too techie.  But is it? If increasingly the way you connect to your friends, your family, the outside world, the way you get your information, news, conduct commerce, learn, the place you store your photos, your family videos, your messages from your son from school all live on these networks why should the government be able to shut them down?  Is arbitrary imprisonment of a few people really that much more malevolent than the arbitrary, capricious closing down of mobile devices for millions of people?

Obama has floated the idea of access to the global communications network as being a universal human right.  Should it be? 

Would love your thoughts on this one.

Some Thoughts on President Obama's Historic Global Opportunity

In June, in the midst of the uprisings in Iran, I wrote an essay about the role of President Obama in global politics. I republish it, today, on this day of his Nobel Peace Prize speech, and am as hopeful and inspired this morning as I was then:

I'm not going to have enough time to get this all out this morning, but to start, I want to agree with folks like Fareed Zakaria and Zbig Brzezinski that the central dynamic driving global politics today is the "rise of the rest," or the powerful aspiration of the rising peoples and nations of the world to have their shot at a version of what we call the American Dream. That dynamic, which Barack Obama began to address in his Cairo speech, involves many other strands of history - the end of colonialism and the Cold War, the transformative cultural impact of globalization, rising standards of living around the world, the rapid spread of the Internet and mobile devices putting ever more powerful tools in the hands of the world's people, the emergence of a global Millennial Generation comfortable with these tools, more affluent and educated and globally aware than their parents, eager to seek a better life for themselves and their countries. 

Informing and inspiring this global transformation of course is the radical promise of equal opportunity for all offered by the America's founding fathers. Obama discussed it this way in his recent Cairo speech: 

....Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words - within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

......I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

As Obama alludes to in his speech, the way President Bush attempted to "spread democracy" did much in recent years to undermine and degrade the American championed vision of democracy just as an enormous part of the world was awakening to its possibilities. This disappointment with the perceived anti-democratic leanings of an American President acting on the global stage - at this point in history - itself became a very powerful global dynamic, and was central to the global rejection of Bush and the neocons by peoples and governments around the world. 

Another factor in this "rise of the rest" is race, the emergence of non-white European global powers and peoples. Only about a billion of the world's seven billion people are of white European heritage, and there can be little doubt now that this century will see the America-European dominated global order give way to one more representative of the people of the world and its emerging demographic realities. We saw some of the first manifestations of this in the recent G-20 meetings with the discussion of how to reorganize the IMF.   The seats at the tables of power will be increasingly occupied by non-white, non-Europeans, which in and of itself will become a powerful visual, or as we call it, "optic," in the emerging global order of the 21st century. 

Which brings me to Barack Obama, a self-described racial "mutt," a man who grew up in multiracial societies in Indonesia and Hawaii, and who was elected with the very potent high-tech and democratizing "new tools" of the 21st century. In ways that I think we are only beginning to understand, he has himself become the extraordinary global symbol to those aspiring for more for themselves and their countries everywhere - the story of an outsider, a member of an oppressed class made good; of the overthrown of a oligarchical oppressive power through a popular democratic uprising; of the use of powerful new tools to give regular people a voice in their own futures; and one of the most powerful parts of this story, the emergence of a non-white leader as the leader of the most important nation in the world, at this time of the "rise of the rest." 

For all of these reasons I don't think Barack Obama has the option of becoming an advocate of the realist school of American foreign policy. He has already been cast in a different role by history - one of inspiring champion of all those throughout the world who need someone to speak for them. I will not argue that what we are seeing in Iran today is a direct result of the Cairo speech, or of Obama's direct inspiration to the forces of modernization and democratization inside Iran. But there can be no doubt that Obama's rise has injected a new inspiring dynamic into the rising world, and these forces, unleashed, have the potential to remake the world for good or ill. Our President, as chief global advocate of free and open societies, cannot sit on the sidelines as people attempt to throw off the shackles of old and anti-democratic regimes. This moment is too important, this particular leader too powerful, for America not to ambitiously re-assert itself as the great global champion of universal aspirations of all the world's peoples. 

Where this takes us it is too early to tell, but go there we must, as are witnessing the birth of a global "new politics" of the 21st century very different from the global politics of the century just past. And in Barack Obama, this "new politics" has found its first global leader and inspired champion. May he have the courage and vision to seize this global opportunity, as this may be, more so than any other, his ultimate calling.

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