An Intellectual Assault on Joseph Nye: Part One

Joseph Nye’s theory and advocacy of “soft power,” articulated in the early 1990s and developed during the last 15 years, have been a touchstone for virtually anyone studying or writing about international relations. It’s been impossible, particularly, to write about public diplomacy without having to throw it obligatorily into the custom-made “soft power” box that Nye built. In summary, Nye believes the fundamental aspects of effective power are changing; that this has become more “soft” in recent decades; and for the United States to remain dominant in global affairs it must adapt to wielding this “soft power” more effectively.

I’ve long found Nye’s theory troublesome but it took me some time to understand why. I don’t think he understands power, force and coercion and the nuance of their employment in foreign affairs. The strange dichotomy of “soft power” versus “hard power” long bothered me because it seemed to try to articulate something very complex by using mutually complementary contrasts, like trying to describe a Picasso using only “light blue” and “dark blue”.

What follows is the first in a series of assaults on Nye’s theory. By assault I mean I intend to take territory and to replace what I hope to destroy in the process.

I’ll start from a position of strength: Nye’s theory fails at the level of language. Briefly put, the “soft power/hard power” paradigm clutters more than it clarifies. In an attempt to provide a simple differentiating factor between aspects of national power, Nye has only blurred important distinctions beyond measure.

The absurdity of Nye’s apparent dichotomy is inherent in the words he applies, which pairs opposing modifiers to the same underlying object; specifically, he discusses power which may be “hard” or “soft”. To give a sense of what I mean, we may as well be using “More Power” and “Not-Power” or “Less Power” for all the additional clarity his distinction brings. There is a whiff of Orwellian Newspeak to this. Orwell’s 1984 philologist Syme would have liked “soft power”: Why try to articulate or describe this in more precise language when “power” and a modifier (“smart” comes to mind) serve the purpose just as well? The result, as Orwell has argued elsewhere, defeats complex thought.

This is no post-modern critique. It demonstrates at a practical level the problem of the language involved. What should bring more clarity makes this subject more obscure because it begs the question of what, exactly, power is (a specific point I hope to bring up in a later post). And in this case – which damns Nye the most in my eyes – he is willing to acknowledge that “hard power” is the equivalent of force but then won’t simply use the term, which is much more precise and accurate. But also inconvenient. When is hard power not force? When it’s paired with soft power. Which in turn is what, exactly?

In short, Nye’s language obfuscates. It refuses to name what we are really talking about, which is power and force. When we use language like this, it is far more clear what we are discussing. True power is not attractive, as Nye posits, it is conductive, and can for example include a wide array of (painful) economic and diplomatic tools. The full array of national power includes the organized, destructive and denying tools of military and paramilitary violence. Force can be coercive, punitive and destructive – aspects Nye strangely ignores in his description of power.

And that explains the false comfort we find in “soft power,” which as we will see here is not very soft at all. Nye makes quite a case for attracting and convincing countries, but that is simply another way of talking about diplomacy. Nations talking to one another can come to agreements based on mutual interests or previously unknown commonalities. In addition to forgetting this plain fact of international political history, Nye ignores the nuanced realities of foreign relations, which can also resemble parliamentary “horse-trading” — the barter in trade of deals that have been the staple of international diplomacy for centuries. (Most countries today see America’s ability to give away something for nothing as idiocy, not benevolence. The rest of the world simply can’t afford that kind of charity without an explicit quid pro quo.)

But beyond that we are talking about coercive if nominally peaceful means, non-violent tools that are powerful nonetheless. Coercion short of force can be almost as destructive as warfare and certainly as disruptive. We need look no further than the collapsing economies of the European Union and the power of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (for some) and the stronger economies (Germany foremost) have to wield over them to reform. This is simple power and there is nothing soft about it for the people living under it.

Nye has carved out an advantage for himself, of course, by wrapping up virtually every non-military aspect of national power in the non-threatening mien of “soft power”. But enlarging the basket and giving it an anodyne label should make us all the more suspicious. Because it is the difference among the tools in the various baskets, and the consequences of using them – or not using them – that has real effects for real people. And perhaps Nye, as well as his defenders and detractors, have forgotten that those real people are the ultimate source of power in political life.

I would replace Nye’s soft power language with this: there is only power – the full combined measure of a nation to act on the world — and force is a subset of national power; we have alternative tools of national power that are no less coercive but less destructive such as trade barriers, economic countermeasures, and sanctions. These are rightly labeled power because some countries have greater power (and more tools) than others. We have means to induce, cajole and convince without coercion and these are called diplomacy, public diplomacy, communications and (sometimes) propaganda.

There is nothing to be gainsaid from simplifying to the point of simple-mindedness. That is what, in part, Nye has done. We can use language to describe, accurately and with precision, exactly what power and force are and can do among nations.


The Ecstasy of Politics

Monument to the Velvet Revolution, made out of 86,000 keys donated by the citizens of Prague. (sycamore stirrings)

It’s hard to imagine in the deflated reality of the federal sequester, and as the winners of 2012 (however they define themselves) watch with undisguised glee as the losers (however they are defined) tear themselves apart at the annual CPAC conference, that there might be something very personally, individually rewarding about politics and political action.

The literally score of visitors to this web site may have noticed I have used this portal to promote CULTURESHUTDOWN, which has been working to draw attention to the situation of seven cultural institutions in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We were delighted to see our efforts met with an extraordinary response: more than 200 museums, galleries and libraries in 40 countries around the world. The reaction was made all the more meaningful when we saw the images come in, using the organization’s trademark “closed for business” tape. The repetition of the same trope, seen over and over again on so many artifacts and art pieces, is extraordinary.

I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say my friends (none of whom I’ve directly met yet) communicated something extraordinary among ourselves as this was happening – a profound emotion as we saw these other cultural organizations pledge their support to their counterparts in Sarajevo – something like elation, even ecstasy. I’d felt something like it before, but it was such an unusual experience that I thought it was purely unique to the situation, or to me.

But to see my friends now enjoy essentially the same experience was deeply reassuring and satisfying. It is difficult to find analogies in recent or historical experiences because I think this feeling must be connected to political action, the direct personal participation in politics.

The easiest and most common example of this is, of course, voting, and in a democracy this certainly bears repeating. Voting feels wonderful, satisfying, concrete. It is not an individual, selfish act, but a contribution to a whole. And knowing that many others — millions of others — are participating in the same act makes it an act of communion. Political action crosses some barrier — bridges some gap — between people.

Those who vote never feel their ballot is wasted or canceled out, or that there is no difference between the parties. They always feel they have done something real and extraordinary.

Voting in countries with a more attenuated relationship to democracy provides this experience, which is all the more poignant, direct and profound. This has been seen this across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, but I remember this particular description of Iraq during the country’s first elections in 2006, as described by George Packer:

A young Iraqi girl asked for her finger to be inked even though she was too young to vote in the election. (Ahmed al-Hussainey/AP via Christian Science Monitor)

“Sunday morning was strange and beautiful. The streets were so quiet that people later said it was like a feast day. Families, including small children and grandparents, were walking together along the wide avenues, everyone dressed in fine clothes.  ‘I’ve lived over fifty years, and I’ve never had such a feeling,’ [said one man]. ‘My skin had a strange feeling, like goosebumps. We’ve had a great culture for six thousand years, and now I think our humanity is proved.'”

It’s impossible to be cynical about democracy, and politics, in the presence of such feeling, and it’s important to remember that the political action of the Arab Spring and 1989, and the color revolutions, and those in-between — Serbia, Burma, and struggles elsewhere — provide this feeling, which has a strong moral vein. As Vaclav Havel wrote, for decades under communism, the political system very effectively denied its citizens the right to political action, which is to say collective moral activity.

The Velvet Revolution had its own ecstatic moments. Timothy Garton Ash describes the zenith of the revolution in Wenceslas Square in Prague, when hundreds of thousands citizens jangled their house keys together: “The people in the square make the most extraordinary spontaneous gesture. They all take keys out of their pockets and shake them, 300,000 key-rings, producing a sound like massed Chinese bells.”

It is easy to imagine the ecstasy of millions on Election Night in Hyde Park, Chicago, realizing the magnitude of what we had achieved. The 2008 election achieved something beyond the vote, just as the Civil Rights Movement achieved something more than just the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. Especially in the wake of the 2012 election, 2008 looks more and more like our own Velvet Revolution.

It’s unfortunate to recall it was this kind of mass reaction that political philosophers have feared for centuries. They could make very little distinction between the rule of the mob and bona fide democratic power. But that may be because they almost to a man never experienced political action personally, didn’t understand politics subjectively, and therefore never developed the subtle judgement necessary to parse the moral tableau they didn’t even try to study. So instead, as Pascal noted, they played games by drawing up constitutions for governments that would best contain the worst instincts of politics that they saw on display.

Those kind of instincts are hard to imagine when recalling the end of World War II in Britain. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, took to the balcony with other members of his government at Whitehall to address a huge crowd following the surrender of Germany. He called to the crowd, “This is your victory!” The crowd roared back, “No, it is yours!” It is hard to imagine a finer moment to capture the world’s most venerable democracy as it emerged from its gravest ordeal: its elected leader insisting the people had prevailed, and his voters insisting that he had.  And it easy to feel the relief, joy, maybe even the ecstasy of that communion.


“A Theory of Deeds” Threatens the Russian State

The web site of Togeza (Together), a Russian civil society organization.

Could helping your neighbor deem you an enemy of the state? The Duma, Russia’s legislature, is leaning that way by trying to regulate what de Tocqueville admired in early America: the “innumerable multitude of small undertakings” that constitute community, what we today call civil society.

Today’s Washington Post front page carries a story about a handful of Russians trying to do for their communities what their government and others have manifestly failed to do: caring for the sick in a remote, rural village; donating delivery services to those who can’t afford them; searching for the missing whom the police have given up on.

“This is our theory of small deeds,” said Yevgeny Grekov, the philosophically minded assistant to the delivery group. “It’s pure human energy.”

Unfortunately, these organizations and individuals have attracted the attention of the Duma as well as Vladimir Putin, who has personally harassed democratically minded non-profit organizations who monitored the last elections that made him President again. In Putin’s Russia, more control has been centralized in the Kremlin over wider aspects of human affairs.

The Washington Post places blame for this concentration and expansion of political dominion on a lack of individual trust among Russians and the reassertion of powers familiar from the Communist era. I’m more inclined to argue again that in repressive regimes the concept of civil society, civic action, and even individual initiative does not really exist — that in such a context, everything has political value as defined by the Center, and that all aspects of civic action are a means for state control over society. Therefore, anything or anyone acting independently of the state is a threat to the state, an independent and autonomous power base separate from — and necessarily opposed to –the Center.

This illuminates both Masha Gessen’s comments about the lack of “real politics” in Russia and Hannah Arendt’s definition of true and healthy politics as space, the commons.  The Duma is trying to subsume all civil society by dominating collective moral action in the same tiny, claustrophobic political box. After taking control of the Kremlin, the intelligence apparatus, the military, the parliament, the media and the church, that leaves just ordinary people working together for some common purpose.  After that, Russia will look very much like Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.

It may seem counterintuitive, despite all this I remain optimistic for Russians, mostly because in a country so large and with so many people, that noble “multitude of small undertakings” will always outstrip the ability and comprehension of the state.  Call it the power of the powerless or the weakness of strong states, but the Duma’s action against these individuals only demonstrates the fear of a sclerotic state against an increasingly confident society that has abandoned the government to take care of itself. And that, in the end, that may be the greatest threat the Kremlin faces.


Richard Ben Cramer and “What It Takes”

There was no shortage of praise for Richard Ben Cramer upon his death earlier this month. The author of What It Takes was widely lauded for writing probably the definitive campaign narrative, a hefty but breezy tome following eight candidates in both parties during the 1988 presidential campaign. If that sounds like another époque, it was; campaigns move at the speed of technological change and this one was no different. But it speaks well of Cramer’s reportage and writing that I can still recall scenes, set pieces and character-making elements of many of the candidates in his book which I read more than 15 years ago. It’s a peculiar irony that all the candidates he wrote about outlived their author.

Almost universally praised now, Cramer’s book was met with tepid reviews and sold poorly when it was released in 1992. Cramer was so despondent he never wrote again about politics. Little wonder. Although a driving, detail-littered book, the 1988 campaign was hardly era-defining. The book’s release date, four years after the 1988 campaign, was smack in the middle of the 1992 campaign. That year would give us our first baby boomer president, an aggressive campaign style that presaged the Internet age, and the full blooming salaciousness that Gary Hart’s peccadillos only winked at. If only Cramer had dedicated his awesome energy and focus to 1992, or 2000, or 2008, what then? Game Change would have looked like spare change by comparison.

What It Takes’ other glaring flaw is Cramer’s unwillingness, or inability, to take his narrative all the way through to the end – that is, from the early, earnest primary contests, through the horrible winnowing of the losers to the party conventions and then on to the general campaign and Election Day until the final winner is standing above it all: the President-elect of the United States, leader of the world’s greatest democracy, master of the Free World. But Cramer’s book ends abruptly – with an epiloguous glance back at Election Day, Michael Dukakis returning to govern Massachusetts in defeat – before the general election gets cranked up. And in that sense, Cramer has written the longest first volume ever put to press. So it will always feel unfinished to me.

Cramer’s prose is kinetic, intimate, profane, almost gonzo – hardly, I imagine, how those running the campaigns think of themselves, channeling the Kennedys or Reagans. But with that inside-the-bullpen perspective came something revelatory to me when I first read it: the candidates themselves. Cramer’s remarkable subjectivity, his willingness to look out at the world from the candidates’ eyes, I had never experienced before. With remarkable humanity and sympathy Cramer sketched these very different and driven individuals during some of the most extreme moments of their lives. The campaign is only one of those extreme moments. What It Takes taught me that their vantage point was a valid and important one.

That is probably Cramer’s greatest bequest to political reportage. These men and women may not be exactly like you or me – that, the book makes dramatically clear — but they’re worth understanding, wherever it is they stand.


The Subjective Political

Republican supporters console one another on election night in Las Vegas. (David Becker/Getty Images via The Guardian)

While virtually everything to be said about the recent presidential election has been said, it may help rein in the unseemly round of Democratic schadenfreude to suggest it wasn’t too long ago they were in the same position as the Republicans: specifically, that they went into the election convinced they would win and were genuinely shocked when they lost.

It’s not popular, and hardly analogous, to compare George W. Bush to Barack Obama, but the hostile partisan reactions to the incumbent were essentially the same. The policies of their first terms were considered so unpopular by the opposition party that they just had to lose, and all right-thinking, reasonable Americans would recognize this and limit him to one term. It was this sense of despair that the majority of Americans didn’t think the same way that really was palpable among Democrats in 2004 and Republicans this year — not just of real hopes dashed but that either they themselves or the American people had been somehow misled.

In the case of George W. Bush, it was about the war in Iraq. For Barack Obama, take your pick: the economy, the debt, immigration, etc. For those partisans opposing the incumbent, they felt that the question was so obvious — the weakness so clear — that any voter would have to side with them and vote him out of office.  But they didn’t.  Why?

Part of that may have something to do with swiftboating and the Rovian notion that most voters are already aware of the weaknesses of the candidates and vote based on some other interest. Certainly much of it has to do with how the campaigns are run, and how much money is involved. A firm Electoral College strategy helps narrow these issues down as well, too.  Iraq had a lot less of an impact in traditionally “red” states, particularly those with large military bases in 2004, for example, and Gov. Mitt Romney’s early dismissal of the GM rescue was death in Ohio this year.

But it also depends on how much Americans really care about these issues.  This leads me to a new exploration of what I haven’t discussed before about what we mean by “political“. When we use the term political, we’re often talking about the subjective, an ineffable balance of value we place on concerns of moral import. Not everything can be as important to us as others, without dismissing everything else.  This is the reason why we give to the charities we choose, volunteer for the organizations we do, and — ultimately — vote for the candidates we vote for. Not every candidate perfectly meets our checklist of priorities, but he or she is more likely to meet most of them, or get close to most of them, and more likely conforms to our values for the rest. Our political judgment thus rests on a subjectivity of value that is more subtle than simply ticking a box (although that’s what voting demands of us).

In this last election, which saw the quantitative methods in evaluating and assessing voter behavior elevated to a very high profile, it’s important to recognize that even these subjective (one is tempted to say analog) values can be captured with increasing digital detail and granularity. Much of this data is in the public domain, but far more — exponentially more — is captured by private firms and the major campaigns. This information is used to gauge and drive voter behavior. I’m not inclined to find that particularly sinister since marketeers derive billions in sales with essentially the same information, and consumers willingly part with this kind of information online through Facebook and with every Amazon purchase.

And it’s important to know that that subjective information is dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. No better evidence of that is the fact that the top issue of the 2004 campaign was Iraq, while in 2012 it was the economy.  But, importantly, that’s not to say it necessarily effected the election outcome.

This is a very long and complicated way of saying that that people think differently about different things and hold different values about different things, and feel more strongly about those things than other people do. That’s obvious. But it’s worth repeating.  Because if we didn’t, we’d all be the same, and being different is what makes us human. Specifically to this discussion, we wouldn’t have politics without that difference, and politics is how we mediate those differences. We’ve learned from terrible experience that countries insisting that everyone is or should be the same become apolitical killing fields.


The Problem of Propaganda

Hoang Nhat Thong (left) and Viet Khang (via

Last week, the Vietnamese government sentenced two musicians on the charge of “anti-state propaganda,” apparently the first case in recent memory that Hanoi imprisoned artists under the charge. But within the month the government put on trial three writers on the same charge of “anti-state propaganda,” so the accusation is clearly not a new one.  Vietnam is still a one-party state in the Chinese mold; while similarly opening up its economy, the government still maintains tight control over all communications and the arts.

The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.
This leads me to the particular charge of “anti-state propaganda,” an Orwellian construction which is common in Communist or post-Communist states such as Vietnam. It may seem peculiar to attack this particular epithet when the larger concern is for these artists’ and writers’ human rights. But when the charge for the “crime” involved includes the incendiary and imprecise word propaganda I think it is important to get involved in the semantics.The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.

Propaganda, like terrorism, is one of those post-modern words that has been used so often by so many to have lost any concrete popular meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t insist that it does have some real definition, especially when it is being abused to send people to prison by repressive governments.

We could begin by looking at its roots, which my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes dates to the 17th century, when Pope Gregory XV instituted a committee of Cardinals called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the congregation for the propagation of the faith. Commentators on propaganda often point to these origins and forget perhaps two critical aspects of the congregation. The first is the most obvious: the evangelical nature of the Church, which was dealing with the challenge of the Protestant Reformation at that time.

But most easily forgotten in our more secular age is the fact that even as late as the early 17th century the Catholic Church directly and indirectly ruled as a temporal power in Europe.  That is, the Church was a state.  This is important to my argument which will follow.

However, if you forget or choose to ignore that the Church was a state, then the roots of propaganda in state-mandated ideological propagation starts you on an entirely unproductive semantic path leading to today, when anybody or anything can be engaged in — or, more precisely, be accused of — propaganda.

It is distressing that the otherwise wholly moral scholarship of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which held a massive and disturbing exhibit for several years (ending in 2011) on Nazi propaganda, could not be more precise when it came to defining what propaganda is. Here is what they have on their exhibit web site:

“Scholars, journalists, and politicians have long argued about how to properly define propaganda and distinguish it from other forms of mass communication. Propaganda is biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.”

(Bold in the original.)  In this definition there may be lost on the visitor to the exhibit or the site an insight made by Hannah Arendt during one of the war crimes trials after World War II: this definition fails to take into account the particularly warped reality of the Third Reich. The Nazis not only controlled every aspect of communications, but every aspect of those communications were used to serve the state. “Bias,” in that context, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how the Nazis approached propaganda.

But outside the Nazi context the definition could very easily be applied to any other form of “mass communication,” from legitimate advertising, to social marketing, to newspaper editorials, to political communications. “Bias” is the key word here. It is the essence of any practical choice we face, especially in politics.  More specifically, when we attempt to persuade the public on any important matter — childhood vaccination, for example — aren’t we engaged in an inherently biased activity? (Do we give opponents of vaccination equal time?)  Or to put this more precisely: I am sure those Vietnamese musicians and writers demonstrated ample bias in their attempt to shape domestic public opinion and behavior against the government. (If they didn’t before, I’m doubly sure they do now.) Does that justify their trial and imprisonment on charges of “anti-state propaganda”?

The Memorial isn’t alone in its imprecision. This site includes a standard list derived from a ground-breaking work from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis done in the 1930s.  It includes some of the usual suspects — bandwagoning, plain folks appeals, fear, testimonial — and provides some examples of propaganda that includes Enron, Newt Gingrich, the John Birch Society and the Office of Strategic Information.

All of this makes me extremely uneasy, mostly because you could apply most, if not all, of these critiques to a series of highly effective vaccination public service announcements that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a few years ago. (Unfortunately, my combination of key word searches failed to pull them up.) They featured a series (bandwagoning) of grandparents (plain folks) with their grandchildren on their knees, talking about (testimonial) what it was like when they were children, losing friends and family to the diseases that ravaged kids at that time (fear). But then there was hope (glittering generalities): vaccines were developed to protect children, vaccines that protect their own grandchildren.  Is this propaganda?

The other list includes only one government agency (the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Information), with the possible exception of the Maoist International Movement which may be funded by the Chinese government. This, too, is disturbing. We may not like what Newt Gingrich has to say or the way he says it, but how does that make what he says propaganda?

This is the core of my argument and why I mentioned the crucial distinction that propaganda had its root in the Church as state. If a musician can be imprisoned for engaging in “anti-state propaganda” — and a definition provided by the Holocaust Memorial seems to support the government’s case, then our understanding of this word is corrupted.  Let me define propaganda down.

Propaganda is defined as:

Communications by a state or its directly control agents.

That deliberately and substantially distorts, misleads or lies,

Against a material or corporeal enemy.

There may be concerns about what we do about the “communications” of terrorist or quasi-state entities, or the lies that are admitted by political enemies. As with my argument about terrorism, we have other words for them. They are terrorists, or liars, or engage in libel or defamation. (Some of these are legal causes of action in their own right; propaganda is not.) These words may not be as satisfactory as propaganda, but we need to hold propaganda in reserve against those states that maintain a monopoly over communications to real effect — and, as we have seen with Hoang Nhat Thong and Viet Khang, to direct detrimental effect over individuals.

It goes without saying that these musicians and their writer cousins are not propagandists. But many in their country may not know anything else because only their government tells them what to think. We can change the way we think about what governments tell us, and the way we think about propaganda, and this is a good place to start.


The Nobel Prize for Politics

Alfred Nobel (Wikimedia Commons)

The controversy and dismissive snark over the awarding of the European Union the Nobel Prize for Peace has sparked some discussion about the nature of the award.  I have long considered the Nobel Prize for Peace a kind of ultimate award for politics, bestowed for entering the arena and advocating and affecting extraordinary change on the international level.

We certainly cannot blame the committee for occasionally getting it wrong or engaging in aspirational choices. No one’s (or one body’s) judgment is perfect. The committee’s choices are more often than not quite extraordinary people and institutions who deserve more attention and notice than they have received so far, and live up to their reputation as our world’s finest representatives. Even President Obama was probably misinterpreted as an aspirational choice.  His award was more likely a political punctuation mark to an historical campaign that opened a new volume in our long, dramatic and often tortuous racial history.  It was the committee’s homage to Martin Luther King, a grand epigraph for an extraordinary new era dawning. Working overseas and watching the world’s reaction to his election, the Prize suited the international community’s understanding of his — and our — achievement, an American Velvet Revolution.

I could argue with the current award because it goes, amorphously, to the European Union – a large, multinational, multilateral, and multi-agency organization that has a difficult enough time defining itself as the awards committee might define it.  Moreover, Alfred Nobel specifically designated the peace prize in his will to a person working towards concord, disarmament, or peace conferences.  This places, I believe, a specific onus of specific moral agency on the individual, and the committee has forgotten the primacy of people’s action in achieving real, lasting political change by awarding the European Union this prize.

It is true that the Nobel committee has awarded many (nearly a quarter) of the peace prizes to institutions or “peace congresses,” (a favorite of Nobel) and in many respects this is worthwhile and appropriate because individuals can only do so much before they must use civil society, organizations and assemblies to achieve meaningful political ends.  One man shouting in a forest is alone and unheard and ineffective unless the trees follow him.  

But somewhere along the way the size and scale of the organization becomes either governmental or quasi-governmental, bureaucratic and automated.  That is what the European Union and the United Nations are today, for example. They are by design and in fact very different from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (the U.S. chapter of which I worked for) and Mèdecins Sans Frontiers, which are private groups created by individuals to come together around a common cause to achieve some moral end.  I think this is the root of the confusion over the awarding of the prize to the EU.  You would no more award the EU the prize as you would the Internal Revenue Service.  There is no connection between the moral and political agency of a public organization and the organization’s duties itself, which are defined by somebody else — their leaders, the voters, the citizens. There is a much closer connection to an individual’s moral agency, or a smaller, private organization’s activities, and the prize.

I admit there is little discussing what the EU has achieved, as it has progressed and consolidated an awesome counter-historical experiment in peace and reconciliation in Europe after hundreds of years of war, conflict, and race hatred. Peace and democracy have spread west, then east, and now poise on the brink of the Balkans; former warring parties there are reconciling in order to join. It is an exceptional model other organizations (the African Union is only the most specific) have followed. This is all to the good.

But who did this and by what political agency? Politics is an intimately human endeavor and it must be articulated, led, and followed.  Adenauer, Schuman, Spaak – these men sketched the architecture of the Union. King  Juan Carlos eased Spain towards democracy and reintegration with Europe.  Stepjan Mesic negotiated Croatia out of its nationalist past toward a future with NATO and the European Union, transforming the Balkans in the process.  Political change does not occur by happenstance, bureaucratic inertia, or the pure “administration of things”.

The EU operates by consensus.  This means that all at once the EU is at the same time the most political and least political major multilateral institutional in the world.  What I mean by most political is that every significant decision the EU takes must be argued and debated out and then agreed to by each and every member state.  So when a decision is made, the EU can act powerfully and effectively, but under no individual country’s leadership.

But like the United States under the Articles of Confederation, it is incapable of acting without consensus, which limits its range of action.  It also has no mechanism to act politically – under this definition I mean contentiously – forcing not simply compromise but a majority solution that requires less than the whole in order to act as a whole. (The bargain being the losers will be winners under a different arrangement later.  Under the current system, there are no winners and no losers, simply all or nothing.)

The missing mechanism of contentious political action has been noted before, of course, and it is a signature aspect of European political culture.  Europeans are unwilling to cede sovereignty to a federal structure, a decision that is important to respect.  But it is also important to understand how that limits the European Union to take decisions on truly contentious issues such as war and peace.  And in that case, it places into question whether it can achieve Nobel’s vision of peace, disarmament, and international concord.  Only under the robust action of then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy did the EU, for example, lead on ending the war between Russia and Georgia, but it’s not clear whether the agreement brokered will be both just and lasting.

Politics is hard.  The individuals and groups who have won the prize worked hard, sacrificed much, and fought hard, and often for very little. There is perhaps no better contrast than that of Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited the United States recently. Awarded the Peace Prize more than 20 years ago, she endured two decades of house arrest, during which her husband died abroad and she was denied access to her family. Her father, who negotiated her country’s independence, was assassinated and expunged from his nation’s historical record. She was maligned by the ruling junta for years. Her initial election to the Burmese assembly was annulled, and she was only recently (re)elected as a single representative to the parliament after years of single-minded effort.

It is hard to imagine a single member of the European Parliament from Western Europe tolerating so much for so little.


IKEA Pussies Out in Russia

Calling itself apolitical and nonreligious, Ikea removed this photo from a contest for its next catalog cover.The Moscow Times recently reported that IKEA, the world’s most recognizable home furnishings brand, recently pulled this image (left) from an online competition to produce the cover image for their products 2013 catalog in Russia.

In place of this image, which was produced and submitted by fans (apparently) of both IKEA and the recently prosecuted band Pussy Riot, the company issued this statement:

“Ikea is a commercial organization that operates independently of politics and religion. We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a means of propaganda.”

(English translation provided by The Times. I don’t know if the original was published in Russian or Swedish.)

At the risk of killing an issue that should be very much alive inside Russia, which has seen even more state-ordered constraints on civil society in the wake of the Pussy Riot sentences, it’s important to parse IKEA’s statement to understand just exactly how cowardly, stupid and hypocritical it is. IKEA has no grounds to pull this image and to replace it with this utterly misleading and disingenuous statement.

This issue returns to what I have consistently written about here on this site: the fundamental definition of the political.  The political can be defined by moral norms that we choose for others.  And in this case, IKEA is unwilling to allow others — that is, Russians — to express those particular norms in their own, free way, using IKEA as a platform.  IKEA doesn’t have to choose this particular image for its catalogue cover, but since the company opened up the site to all comers they are obligated to allow anything that is not obscene or shocking to remain.

IKEA advertisement from Italy, 2011

Moreover, IKEA is acting hypocritically by removing a user image given its own advertising history. In 2011, the company ran an advertisement (right) in Italy featuring a gay couple with the tagline, “We are open to all families”.  Italy is, in part, a deeply Catholic country and culturally deeply conservative.  It is difficult not to see this advertisement — issued from the company itself — as a political statement given the social context, whether or not you support the idea of same-sex couples and families.

I am much less tolerant of IKEA willing to make a political statement — specifically, stating in public that gay couples are or should be the social norm — and then denying its own customers the same ability to use the brand to express support for their political idols.

I should add here that I utterly reject the assertion (barring any error in translation) that the photo’s authors are engaged in propaganda.  Propaganda is one of those terms that has been abused of any intrinsic popular meaning, but I am willing to assert that only states can engage in propaganda.  Besides, the image itself is benign enough to be stripped of the provocation normally associated with propaganda — perhaps a subtle commentary on the “punk prayer” that got Pussy Riot arrested in the first place.  (Decontextualization can be a keen means of understanding art and political commentary.)  And it further demonstrates IKEA’s complete incomprehension of political expression at a time when its compatriots across Scandinavia are supporting democratic movements among their eastern neighbors.

IKEA owes not just the creators of this image but its customers and the Russian people the respect and understanding of political expression.  It should repost the image and apologize.


Confining and Defining Terrorism in Syria

Syrian refugees in Turkey (

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared Syria a “terrorist state” while the country has hosted a crush of refugees fleeing regime persecution across the two countries’ shared 556-mile border.

Turkey is a powerful and influential country in a volatile region, and this sounds like tough rhetoric regarding an intransigent and repressive neighbor. For many observers, this was precisely the kind of language needed to pressure the regime of Bashar al-Assad to change course or relinquish control to the opposition and end the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, there is a stream of thought that firmly believes that “terrorism is terrorism” whether committed by state or non-state actors. The notion of equivalence focuses on the victims — usually civilians — and the particular horror inflicted by armed violence.  The United States (and its allies) are regularly if frivilously accused of “terrorism” by those on the left. More sophisticated commentators, such as my fellow observer at Foreign Policy Remi Brulin, apply a post-modern argument to the application of “terrorism”. In essence, he argues that “terrorism” has been entirely stripped of any real or intrinsic meaning and therefore serves almost entirely as a political weapon: label your enemy as a “terrorist,” and you win.  (This is most easily seen by Assad’s regime, who regularly blames state massacres on “terrorists”.)

I am entirely unsympathetic to this argument because it does not reflect the real world, nor is this the world we want to live in. We want to live in a world where violence does not solve our political conflicts. Even when force is required or necessary, we want force to be controlled by the rule of law of states.  To throw up our hands under the belief that anyone or any thing can be a terrorist ignores reality, international law, and state law.

Terrorism, as defined by U.S. law, confines the crime to an individual committing acts of violence in order to change policy. It is important to note, of course, that terrorism is limited to the individual and its political component: terrorism is a political crime. But that is why terrorism is and should be seriously condemned. Particularly in a democracy, the means for political change are readily available to the individual. Violence for the purpose of political change is not acceptable.  (I admit I was annoyed that the “War on Terror” never was articulated in clear moral terms, as antithetical to democracy and the international state system.)

We may have an honest difference of opinion and ideals when it comes to the appropriate and legitimate use of force for political change at the state level.  But this is where I believe the equivalence of state and individual terrorism is both false and unhelpful.  Because both state and international law provide a cause of action for the inappropriate and illegitimate use of force.  War crimes, aggression, crimes against humanity, rape and genocide are each a cause of action in international law.  For the individual — mostly murder, assault, rape and other similar crimes — are all punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the criminal and military codes of states.  It is entirely appropriate to label these crimes as such when they arise: labeling a state a terrorist or an individual unaffiliated with a state a war criminal is not just confusing, it is simply bad law.

It is true that terrorism has not been specifically defined under international law (certain arguments notwithstanding) and that does have much to do with the political wranglings that Brulin discusses (the canard that one country’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter,” etc.). But this illuminates the fuzziness of Erdogan’s statement about Syria.  A “terrorist state,” under current law — state and international — is no terrorist at all. Erdogan’s characterization, while sharp, invokes no cause of action under international or Turkish law and demands nothing of Erdogan, his neighbors or his allies. It changes nothing.

This is important for reasons I have outlined before: international law is entirely dependent on the political will of the international community for enforcement actions.  Had Erdogan accused the Assad regime of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, he would have invoked the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.  This would have put the UN Security Council on the hook to enforce the ICC founding statute. Turkey’s political capital is substantial, but not substantial enough under these circumstances in effect to bring the UN to the brink of war in Syria. (And Assad is not so stupid as to attack outright Turkey, a NATO ally that can invoke the collective defensive provisions that would bring down the might of the Western democracies that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.)

In short, this argument demonstrates the importance of a precise and legal definition of terrorism — and a precise and legal discussion of terrorism.  We could all agree and nod sagely and cynically with Remi Brulin and his postmodern compatriots that Erdogan called a spade a Kalashnikov, but it does absolutely nothing to change the situation for tens of thousands of refugees, the Free Syrian Army, or the millions of average Syrians caught between a brutal and repressive state and the opposition trying desperately to change the country.  Only the actions of states and individuals — by law, ideals or interest — will bring that about.


How to understand “Swiftboating”

The Raid, May 2, 2011 (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new thread coursing through the U.S. presidential campaign has been an attack on President Obama’s alleged disclosures regarding the raid last year that killed Osama bin Laden.  A 501(c)(4) political action committee called the Special Operations OPSEC [Operational Security] Education Fund has asserted that the Administration’s disclosures regarding the operations — particularly the revelation that SEAL Team Six carried out the May 2, 2011 mission — have seriously compromised the operational security, safety and effectiveness of covert military and paramilitary units like the Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, and CIA.  They may have a point.  In August later that year, 15 SEALS from the same team were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.  Operational Security in the region, where infiltration and “green on blue” violence is a growing threat, is a vigilent concern.

The President’s supporters view this attack not as a benign public informational campaign on behalf of servicemen but as a hollow-point partisan attack benefiting the campaign of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. After all, didn’t President George W. Bush land dramatically on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to announce in front of a roaring crew that “major combat operations in Iraq are over”? Didn’t Coalition Provisional Authority administrator J. Paul Bremer crow “We got ’em!” after Saddam Hussein was apprehended? Surely there can’t be some sour grapes that after ten years the main target of Tora Bora was killed under a Democratic Administration?

But the President’s campaign immediately pushed back on the group’s 20-minute documentary by referring to it as “swift boat tactics,” a reference to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the organization that very effectively derailed the campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004.  Conceptually, Swiftboating is so commonplace now that the campaign spokesman didn’t even have to explain himself, but it’s important to really understand what he’s getting at.  Swiftboating is a modern political tactic but it is not particularly new, nor is it eminently Republican (or American).  When the campaign uses the term, it is shorthand for lying.  But the tactic is more sophisticated than that.

What we know as “swiftboating” is, in modern electoral politics, the tactic of attacking your opponent’s strong point.  This seems counterintuitive, especially since politics is often equated to war or sports, when the frontal assault is usually a quick way to die.  But Karl Rove, the contemporary master of this stroke, once said, “I don’t attack people on their weaknesses.  That usually doesn’t get the job done.  Voters already perceive weaknesses.  You’ve got to go after the other guy’s strengths.” (Emphasis added.)  And the reason is this: with their backbones broken, your opponents can no longer support the weight of their convictions.  In war, attacking a weak point is critical to a breakthrough.  But in politics, if you attack an enemy’s strong point and destroy it, you leave him with nothing at all.

That was Kerry’s critical mistake in 2004.  He held himself up as a war hero against his opponent’s more ambiguous service record.  But his own political history was more complicated than his Naval record in Vietnam — he was outspoken against that war, flip-flopped on Iraq war funding — and left himself vulnerable to an assault on his own, self-selected selling point: “My name is John Kerry, and I am reporting for duty.”  Once doubts were raised, it was hard to claim that he was much better than the alternative.

Again, this is not a uniquely Republican tactic. The “wimp factor” was maliciously applied to George H. W. Bush, a genuine war hero if there ever was one: a volunteer after Pearl Harbor at 19, the youngest naval aviator at 20, shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine after losing his navigator.  And right now, the Obama camp has taken a golden opportunity to attack Romney’s business record.  As with Kerry, all’s fair in politics: Romney is publicly running on his experience as a venture capitalist, and that practically begs for a closer look at what that experience actually was.

If the “swift boat” analogy to the OPSEC challenge is true, the Obama Administration and campaign should simply treat it for what it is, an attack on a strength.  Barack Obama made, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “one of the gutsiest calls I have ever seen a president make,” and ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  The previous President and a Republican president would have had to made a similar judgment. A well-trained American serviceman pulled the trigger and the intelligence apparatus delivered the right information for him to act on.  But ultimately — and the OPSEC men should know this — given the mission’s fraught political context, only the President could make that call that brought hell’s torment to the world’s most wanted man.

And the President made the right one — unlike, I would add, so many made before him.