US and China Explore New Relationship

An AcrobatIt will be some time before the full consequences of the California summit meeting between US President Barack Obama and China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, are revealed. Nixon-Mao it was not. Nevertheless, the well-timed + much-needed unscripted discussion focused on fundamental questions about the US-China relationship which has reached a new level of tension because of mutual distrust and suspicion. Xi rightly observed during a preparatory meeting with senior US officials that the US-China relationship, arguably most important bilateral relationship in the world, is at a “critical juncture.” But based on the 8 hours of meetings, “new model of relations” which both leaders pledged to create remains a largely aspirational goal. On the explosive issue of the cybersecurity, especially the cybertheft of US intellectual property, summit’s achievement was to stress to Xi the priority of the issue, and as outgoing US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters, place it “at center of the relationship.” In what may prove most notable outcome of the meeting, Washington and Beijing appeared to move closer on North Korea, agreeing neither would accept a nuclear North Korea. Beijing is chief provider of energy and food to the North. Prior to Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February, China has appeared to place stability on the Korean Peninsula above the nuclear issue. The Obama-Xi summit may have established a basis for closer coordination in managing nuclear problem and perhaps the eventual reunification of Korea as well. If so, such cooperation may help melt underlying mutual distrust that permeates the relationship. For Beijing, there is fear that the US posture in Asia is designed to “contain” a rising China; for the US, a fear that China seeks to deny the US a preponderant role in the Pacific, there is little evidence that the summit has put the relationship on a more positive path. Since 1972, eight presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, have pursued a remarkably consistent policy toward China, cooperating where possible and in seeking to manage differences. But the relationship may be at tipping point: current bilateral relationship as presently constituted is no longer sustainable. Over the course of this decade it will almost certainly either tilt toward being more cooperative or more competitive, toward more collaborative efforts to address global problems and manage regional security in the Pacific or toward a confrontation. The direction it drifts toward will go a long way to determining the future shape of the global system. Can new equilibrium in US-China relations, what Xi calls “a new type of relationship between major countries in 21st century,” be attained? Shirtsleeves, schmoozing and long walks can help create familiarity between leaders could prove helpful in a crisis. Better communication at the top can minimize misunderstandings. But at the end of the day, it is interests and to some extent values, not personalities, that shape a relationship. The world’s two largest economies, the world’s largest creditor and its largest debtor, the two largest energy consumers and Pacific powers, are deeply intertwined. Yet the tensions over cybersecurity, trade, currency manipulation, China’s behavior toward territorial disputes in East Asia, not least, differences in values between a democracy and an authoritarian one-party state have steadily deepened mutual distrust and suspicion (…..)



The German Prism: Berlin Wants to Spy Too

Der Himmel über BerlinThe German government has been largely silent on revelations of US Internet spying. Berlin profits from the program, is pursuing similar plans. Just a few days ago, the man whom many Germans now see as one of the greatest villains in the world visited Berlin. Keith Alexander, the head of the world’s most powerful intelligence operation, National Security Agency, had arranged meetings with key representatives of the German government, including top-ranking officials in Germany’s intelligence agencies and leading representatives of the Chancellery and the Interior Ministry. Alexander gave his usual presentation about how the world could be more effectively spied on and allegedly made safer. At such presentations, NSA chief likes to extol the virtues of his agency’s “incredible technical expertise,” and he urges allies to invest more in controlling +  monitoring today’s new technologies. Alexander maintains there has to be more intensive surveillance of Internet. But while they were still chatting about the Internet in Berlin government offices, news stories were breaking around the world that Alexander’s NSA may already have Web firmly under its control. Former US intelligence official named Edward Snowden had leaked information to the press on the virtually all-encompassing Prism online surveillance program. The world soon learned that Alexander’s NSA, with the help of direct access to the servers of US Internet giants, is able to secretly read, record, store every type of digital communication worldwide. The public also discovered that the Americans have a preference for spying on Germany, more so than on any other country in Europe. During the days of the Cold War, when Germans referred to US as “big brother” it had a positive connotation. Now, that term has entirely different meaning. Snowden’s leak raises big questions: How much surveillance of Internet is a free society willing or able to tolerate? Does the fear of attacks justify comprehensive monitoring of e-mails, search queries on Google, conversations on Skype? Can a country like Germany allow its citizens to be spied on by another country? The Surveillance cannot be based on blind faith in a democracy, but rather on a wide degree of acceptance by informed citizens, politicians and allied countries. This is by no means the case with Prism. There are plenty of reasons to venture a confrontation with the Americans over this issue, particularly in Germany, where there has been a greater awareness of the importance of data protection than elsewhere in world, where citizens have engaged in heated debates over routine data collection efforts such as the national census. “When the foreign agencies infringe upon fundamental rights on the German territory, State cannot look away,” says Dieter Deiseroth, judge at Germany’s Federal Administrative Court. “Accepting the massive collection of private information would be a serious violation of the principle that every state has to defend such rights,” he contends (…..)


Top Obama campaign fundraisers slotted for diplomatic posts

Strike a Post - Part. TWOA trio of money men who helped President Barack Obama bring in record donations for his re­election last year were tapped Friday for the highly sought diplomatic assignments in Europe. John Emerson, a Los Angeles investment management executive who co-chaired campaign’s Southern California finance team, will be nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to Germany. The HBO executive James Costos, who helped raise more than $500.000 for Obama’s reelection, is in the line to be ambassador to Spain. And Rufus Gifford, a veteran political fundraiser who directed the Obama campaign’s finance operation, was selected to serve as next ambassador to Denmark. The long-expected nominations, announced by White House late Friday afternoon, are the continuation of a quadrennial tradition after campaigns, as presidents reward their major fundraisers and donors with plum diplomatic posts. Obama also named Ken Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief Services, to be ambassador to Holy See, as well as two career diplomats to Brazil and Ethiopia. Friday’s nominations come on heels of Obama’s nomination this week of Keith Harper, a top campaign bundler and liaison to Native American tribes, to a key human rights post at the U.N. Obama’s record in passing over career diplomats to head embassies is similar to his predecessors, according to statistics compiled by American Foreign Service Association. Group found that 31% of Obama’s ambassadorial nominations have gone to political, rather than the career, appointees, compared to 30% under George W. Bush and 27.8% under Bill Clinton. The organization, which represents more than 30.000 active and retired Foreign Service employees, has called on Barack Obama to curtail the practice. “Appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not routine practice it has become over last three decades,” the labor union said in a recent statement on its Web site. “Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto ‘3-year rental’ of ambassadorships.” But political fundraisers said well-connected donors often have their own qualifications to be diplomats. “Most of these people are captains of industry and the best at what they do in their own careers,” said veteran Democratic fundraiser David Rosen. “They all have lots to bring: They are sensitive, will be loyal. These people rise to the occasion.” In choosing Emerson to go to Germany, for example, Obama has selected a seasoned financial executive who brings a political background from his work in Clinton White House, colleagues said. “John was extremely well-respected inside campaign, both for his political experience + its overlay with his understanding of global financial markets,” said Wade Randlett, a top Obama campaign fundraiser who served with Emerson on an advisory committee to Office of U.S. Trade Representative. “It’s no surprise to me the president tapped him for what is obviously one of most important posts in global economics” (source: Matea Gold – The Washington Post – 15/06/2013)

Venezuela gets a lifeline from the United States

Nicolás MaduroNicolás Maduro, former bus driver chosen by Hugo Chávez to lead Venezuela after his death, has been struggling to consolidate his position since being declared the victor in a questionable presidential election in April. With economy stalling, inflation spiking and shortages spreading, the new president appears at a loss about how to respond, other than to blame domestic and foreign enemies. Nor has he been able to overcome serious split in Chavista movement between his own, Cuba-backed clique and another based in the military. Perhaps most alarming for Nicolás Maduro, an energized opposition has refused to accept election outcome; its capable leader, Henrique Capriles, has been gaining sympathy around the region. The president of neighboring Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, met with Mr. Capriles on May 29, prompting paroxysms of rage from Mr. Maduro and his aides. Other Latin American governments, while avoiding a confrontation with Caracas, have made it clear they regard the new leader’s legitimacy as questionable; regional group Unasur called for an audit of the election results. One government, however, has chosen to toss Mr. Maduro a lifeline: United States. Last week Secretary of State John F. Kerry took time to meet Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on sidelines of an Organization of American States meeting, then announced that the Obama administration would like to “find a new way forward” with Maduro administration and “quickly move to the appointment of ambassadors.” Mr. Kerry even thanked Mr. Maduro for “taking steps toward this encounter”, words that the state-run media trumpeted. What did Mr. Maduro do to earn this assistance from Mr. Kerry? Sincé Chávez’s death in March, the Venezuelan leader has repeatedly used the United States as a foil. He expelled two U.S. military attaches posted at embassy in Caracas, claiming that they were trying to destabilize the country; he claimed CIA was provoking violence in order to justify an invasion; and he called President Obama “the big boss of the devils.” A U.S. filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, was arrested and charged with plotting against the government, a ludicrous allegation that was backed with no evidence. Though Tracy was put on a plane to Miami on the day of Kerry-Jaua encounter, Mr. Kerry agreed to the meeting before gesture. Nothing wrong, in principle, with diplomatic meetings or even in dispatching an ambassador to a country such as Venezuela. The State Department has been meeting with senior opposition leaders and has yet to say it recognizes presidential election results. But Kerry’s words amounted to precious endorsement for Mr. Maduro, and the Obama administration appears bent on cultivating him regardless of his actions. Perhaps the increasingly desperate new leader has secretly promised concessions to Washington on matters such as drug trafficking. But with senior government and military officials involved in transhipment of cocaine to United States and Europe, he is unlikely to deliver. In short, this looks like a reset for sake of reset, launched without regard for good timing or cause of Venezuelan democracy. (source: Editorial Board – The Washington Post – 12/06/2013) 

Libertarianism’s Achilles’ heel

GridlockIn politics, we often skip past the simple questions. This is why inquiries about the fundamentals can sometimes catch everyone short. Michael Lind, the independent-minded scholar, posed one such question last week about libertarianism that I hope will shake up the political world. It’s important because many in the new generation of conservative politicians declare the libertarianism as their core political philosophy. It’s true that since nearly all Americans favor limits on government, most of us have found libertarians to be helpful allies at one point or another. The libertarians have the virtue, in principle at least, of a very clear creed: They believe in smallest government possible, longing for what the late philosopher Robert Nozick, in his classic book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” called “night-watchman state.” (source:  E.J. Dionne Jr. – The Washington Post – 10/06/2013)

Anything government does beyond protecting people from violence or theft and enforcing contracts is seen as illegitimate. If you start there, taking a stand on the issues of the day is easy. All the efforts to cut back on government functions, public schools, Medicare, environmental regulation, food stamps, should be supported. Anything increases government activity (Obamacare, for example) should be opposed. In his bracing 1970s libertarian manifesto “For a New Liberty,” the economist Murray Rothbard promised a nation that would be characterized by “individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government, free-market economy”. Rothbard’s book concludes with boldness: “Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind”. This is where Lind’s question comes in. Note that Rothbard freely acknowledges that “liberty has never been fully tried,” at least by the libertarians’ exacting definition. In an essay in Salon, Lind asks: “If libertarians are correct in claiming they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in early 21st century is organized along libertarian lines?” In other words, “Why are there no libertarian countries?” The ideas of center-left, based on welfare states conjoined with market economies, have been deployed all over the democratic world, most extensively in the social democratic Scandinavian countries. We also have had deadly experiments with communism, a.k.a Marxism-Leninism. From this, Lind asks another question: “If socialism is discredited by failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?” The Answer lies in a kind of circular logic: Libertarians can keep holding up their dream of perfection because, as a practical matter, it will never be tried in full. Even many who say they are libertarians reject the idea when it gets too close to home. Strongest political support for a broad anti-statist libertarianism now comes from Tea party. Yet tea party members, as the polls show, are older than the country as a whole. They want to shrink government in a big way but are uneasy about embracing this concept when reducing Social Security and Medicare comes up. Thus do the proposals to cut these programs being pushed by Republicans in Congress exempt current generation of recipients. No way Republicans are going to attack their base.

But this inconsistency (or hypocrisy) contains a truth: We had something close to a small-government libertarian utopia in the late 19th century and we decided it didn’t work. We realized that many Americans would never be able to save enough for retirement and, later, that most of them would be unable to afford health insurance when they were old. Smaller government meant that too many people were poor and that the monopolies were formed too easily. And when Great Depression engulfed us, government was helpless, largely hand-cuffed by this anti-government ideology until Franklin D. Roosevelt came along. In fact, as Lind points out, most countries that we typically see as “free” and prosperous have governments that consume around 40% of their gross domestic product. They are better off for it. “Libertarians,” he writes, “seem to have persuaded themselves that there is no a significant trade-off between less government and more national insecurity, more crime, more illiteracy and more infant and maternal mortality ….” This matters to our current politics because too many politicians are making decisions on basis of a grand, utopian theory that they never can or will put into practice. They then use this theory to avoid a candid conversation about the messy choices governance requires. And this is why we have gridlock. 

Getting to Know You

United States + ChinaThis week’s summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China is an important opportunity for leaders of world’s two largest economies to chart a smoother path and avoid the destructive conflicts that have historically afflicted relations between rising and established powers. Mr. Xi is still settling into his job as China’s political leader and is a relative newcomer on world stage compared to Mr. Obama, now in his second term. But he seems to well understand the stakes. He told one of Mr. Obama’s top aides last month that ties between the 2 countries stand at a “critical juncture” and it is time to explore “a new type of great power relationship.” The world is eager to hear just what he has in mind. The two presidents have agreed to an informal format for their talks in California on Friday and Saturday that affords far more time for serious discussion, at least six hours, than is usual for such encounters, which tend to be limited to a carefully scripted talking points. This makes sense because there is a great deal of ground to cover, not just broad political and economic issues but specific points of contention. One fundamental question of a great interest to Washington is how Mr. Xi intends to wield power. Tensions are inevitable between big economic and political competitors, and some in this country have been too eager to cast China as next great adversary. Still, Mr. Xi has displayed a disturbing nationalist inclination as well as a willingness to back the military in its increasingly dangerous attempts to assert primacy in the South China and East China Seas over Japan and others. With this mind, Mr. Obama’s task is to reassure Mr. Xi that his own efforts to refocus his foreign policy on Asia need not threaten Beijing. But he also needs to make clear China’s aggressive approach to maritime disputes is unacceptable. There is also the no less contentious and perhaps even more threatening matter of the cyberwarfare. Amid growing tensions over claims that the Chinese hackers are carrying out cyberattacks to steal American corporate and government secrets, 2 governments recently agreed to hold regular talks on setting cybersecurity standards. The meeting will be Obama’s chance to lay out the evidence behind these claims and to make the case why such intrusions, especially in the commercial sphere, are a serious threat to relations between the 2 countries. Enlisting Mr. Xi’s personal commitment to curb them would be a major step forward. Mr. Xi has signaled an interest in reforming China’s state-managed economy, which is expected to provoke an airing of complaints on both sides about restrictive trade policies. Mr. Obama should welcome the recent $4.7 billion offer by a Chinese company, Shuanghui International, to buy American pork producer, Smithfield Foods, as illustration of healthy free trade that benefits both countries. But he would be remiss if he did not also point out even as Chinese companies like Shuanghui expand overseas with relative ease, American and European companies face numerous obstacles in China. The agenda must also include North Korea. Beijing recently has played a constructive role in persuading North Korea to calm its threatening rhetoric and urging a resumption of talks over its nuclear program, but it has resisted joining United States and South Korea in figuring out how best to respond if North Korea implodes. The United States and China are each other’s greatest strategic challenges but they are invested in each other’s fate. This requires continuing efforts to confront common problems and to manage differences honestly and transparently, a task that can be eased by a successful meeting. (source: The Editorial Board – NYTimes – 05/06/2013)

Meet the two-world hypothesis and its havoc

Demolition ManThe sewing machine was the smartphone of the nineteenth century. Just skim through the promotional materials of the leading sewing-machine manufacturers of that distant era and you will notice many similarities with our own lofty, dizzy discourse. The catalog from Willcox & Gibbs, the Apple of its day, 1864, includes glowing testimonials from a number of reverends thrilled by the civilizing powers of the new machine. One calls it a “Christian institution”; another celebrates its usefulness in his missionary efforts in Syria; third, after praising it as “honest machine,” expresses his hope that “every man and woman who owns one will take pattern from it, in principle and duty.” The brochure from Singer in 1880, modestly titled “Genius Rewarded: or, the Story of the Sewing Machine”, takes such rhetoric even further, presenting the sewing machine as the ultimate platform for spreading American culture. The machine’s appeal is universal and its impact is revolutionary. Even its marketing is pure poetry: “On every sea are floating the Singer Machines; along every road pressed by the foot of civilized man this tireless ally of the world’s great sisterhood is going upon its errand of helpfulness. Its cheering tune is understood no less by the sturdy German matron than by the slender Japanese maiden; it sings as intelligibly to the flaxen-haired Russian peasant girl as to dark-eyed Mexican Señorita. It needs no interpreter, whether it sings amidst the snows of Canada or upon the pampas of Paraguay; Hindoo mother and the Chicago maiden are to-night making the self-same stitch; the untiring feet of Ireland’s fair-skinned Nora are driving the same treadle with the tiny understandings of China’s tawny daughter; thus American machines, American brains, and American money are bringing the women of the whole world into one universal kinship and sisterhood”. “American Machines, American Brains, and American Money” would make a fine subtitle for The New Digital Age, the breathless new book by Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, an institutional oddity known as a think/do-tank. Schmidt & Cohen are full of same aspirations, globalism, humanitarianism, cosmopolitanism, that informed Singer brochure. Alas, they are not as keen on poetry. Book’s language is a weird mixture of the deadpan optimism of Soviet propaganda (“More Innovation, More Opportunity” is the subtitle of a typical sub-chapter) and the faux cosmopolitanism of The Economist (are you familiar with shanzhai, sakoku, or gacaca?). There is a thesis of sorts in Schmidt and Cohen’s book. It is that, while the “end of history” is still imminent, we need first to get fully interconnected, preferably with smartphones. “Best thing anyone can do to improve quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.” Digitization is like a nicer, a friendlier version of privatization: as the authors remind us, “when given access, people will do the rest”. “The rest,” presumably, means becoming a secular, Westernized, democratically minded. Of course, more entrepreneurial: learning how to disrupt, to innovate, to strategize. (If you ever wondered what gospel of modernization theory sounds like translated into Siliconese, this book is for you.) Connectivity, it seems, can cure all of modernity’s problems (…..) Great beacon of hope, described as “America’s Chief Contribution to Civilization” in Singer’s catalog from 1915, did not achieve its cosmopolitan mission. (How little has changed: a few years ago, one of Twitter’s co-founders described his company as “triumph of humanity.”) In 1989 Singer company, in deeply humiliating surrender to the forces of globalization, was sold off to a company owned by Shanghai-born Canadian that went bankrupt decade later. American machines, American brains, American money were no longer American. A day Google, too, will fall. Good news is that, thanks in part to this superficial, megalomaniacal book, company’s mammoth intellectual ambitions will be a preserved for posterity to study in a cautionary way. Virtual world of Google’s imagination might not be real, but the glib arrogance of its executives definitely is.