The West’s Ukrainian amnesia

russia_bear-vs-usa_eagle-war1Monica Attard reports in The Hoopla on a very recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he forcefully puts his country’s side of the current conflict with Ukraine.  I was especially struck by this observation:

The US, [Putin] said, had instigated a “coup d’etat” in February to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich when he reversed his decision to sign up to a trade deal with Europe rather than Russia.

The stance echoes a fundamental point of a long post I wrote a few months ago on the Ukraine situation.  More generally, Attard puts the broad situation in its Great Power context:

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Scottish independence: a good idea or a bad idea?

Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.

The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.

Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:

  1. These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there? Continue reading

Iraq: 10 things that seem to be true

As we head back to Iraq, I’m struck by the way in which those making the case both for and against are avoiding certain ideas which seem to me to be true:

This is not 2003 all over again. At least on a moral level, and at least as far as action in Iraq goes. We have been invited in by the Iraqi government, giving the military campaign a legal and moral basis for action that the 2003 war lacked, and IS is thoroughly dominated by murderous zealots. Tony Abbott has been careful to say that attacking IS in Syria would be very different to what we’ve signed up for so far, which it would, and he deserves credit for that.

IS is not an existential threat to Australia. No kudos to George Brandis, who claimed this week that IS “represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us”. Brandis’s statement avoids outright lying only by his addition of the phrase “or seeks to be”. This has strong echoes of the 2003 b.s. about how Saddam could threaten the world with nuclear weapons, It is not quite as stupid now as it was then, but that’s not saying much. Lots of loony zealots seek to be an existential threat to the Australian state. There’s a world of difference between the wish and the capability. IS currently appears weak on capability, though that could change. There’s more chance of Australia being seriously damaged by a mutated Ebola virus, and we react to that threat with a few million dollars every so often.

We have some responsibility to help make Iraqis’ lives better. In 2003 we invaded their country and failed to do what we said we’d do. The military did its best, but we needed other tools in the kit, didn’t have them, and like some blundering amateur, didn’t even know we needed them. We helped make their country vulnerable to the violent zealots. Those violent zealots are now trying to impose upon millions of Iraqis a particularly nasty brand of theocracy. We seem to have alarmingly little national shame about this, and remarkably little sense that by creating the mess, we created a lasting responsibility to fix it. This is what Colin Powell once explained to George W. Bush as the “Pottery Barn principle” – you broke it, you own it.

We will run into unintended consequences. The idea of unintended consequences is hard enough to keep in people’s minds in the economic debate. But in the foreign policy debate people seem ready to discard it at a moment’s notice. And when things go wrong, instead of reassessing, they defend the purity of their motivations. Chris Berg of the IPA has dubbed this the “it’s the thought that counts” school of humanitarian intervention. It is probably too much to expect, but we ought to conduct this debate with an honest acknowledgement that things are not likely to go to plan. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s admirable observation, we face both known and unknown unknowns.

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Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? | Jesse McCarthy at The Point

In this marvellous essay, Jesse McCarthy puzzles over why there is “a bloody knot in the social fabric that is as vivid in Ferguson, Missouri today as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem half a century ago.”

He starts with “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem”, James Baldwin’s essay from 1960.

It is hard on the other hand to blame the policeman… he too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed… He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is. … He can retreat from his unease in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

“Want to be treated like men.” That wish, together with all its many ramifications, is in McCarthy’s view ground zero. Continue reading

Iran Air Flight 655: How did Australia react?

A question for Troppodillians: does anyone have a record of the Australian Government’s response to 1988′s accidental US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655?

I ask because the parallels with the MH17 shootdown are so clear.

At a political level the government’s response has so far been well-judged. There are few negatives in getting upset about the deaths of Australians overseas, particularly at the hands of a group aligned with a nation whose policies we rightly dislike, whose statements we quite sensibly distrust, and with whom we have few important links.

But at a moral level, it seems to me difficult to judge this episode more reprehensible than the Flight 655 shootdown. MH17 was shot down by untrained yahoos informally but closely connected to the Russsian government, probably by mistake. Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes on the orders of a formally trained US warship commander, fairly certainly by mistake.

The US, remarkably, never apologised to Iran or anyone else over the shootdown.

And my dim recollection is that the Australian Government responded that it was all a regrettable accident. Hansard’s online search doesn’t return anything from 1988. Does anyone have more detail?

A reminder of the response to Flight 655, from the careful-with-the-facts for Age journo Tim Colebatch (who was a foreign correspondent in Washington at the time): Continue reading

Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Continue reading

Predictions versus outcomes in 2013?

In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.

Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.

                 Failed predictions

The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.

What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading

Estimating Habit Formation in Voting. Thomas Fujiwara, Kyle C. Meng, Tom Vogl

Abstract:

We estimate habit formation in voting–the effect of past on current turnout–by exploiting transitory voting cost shocks. Using county-level data on U.S. presidential elections from 1952-2012, we find that precipitation on current and past election days reduces voter turnout. Our estimates imply that a 1-point decrease in past turnout lowers current turnout by 0.7-0.9 points. Consistent with a dynamic extension of the Downsian framework, current precipitation has stronger effects following previous rainy elections. Further analyses suggest that this habit formation operates by reinforcing the intrinsic satisfaction associated with voting.

Paper available here. Which puts me in mind of the great William James – I guess Hume got this sort of talk going – though that’s a guess: Continue reading