The Yugoslav Idea (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

The whole of history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of this “City of God.”

St. Augustine

THE ONLY QUESTION in western political philosophy is how people live together.  All forms of government seek to answer this question.  We most often talk about this in terms of thesis and antithesis, examining the differences between republicanism and monarchy, democracy and autocracy, prime ministers and dictators, power and autonomy, pluralism and homogeneity.  These oppositional dichotomies tend to dominate our understanding of politics and distract from the similarities they often share.  I find it much more illuminating to compare like cases than unlike cases.  Which brings us to the idea, and the problem, of Yugoslavia.

The idea of a political union of the western Balkans dates to the 17th century and took its modern form following the 1848 national revolutions in Europe.  During World War I, politicians in exile in London formed the Yugoslav Committee to pursue the project.  As the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes arose more or less organically as the constituent states declared independence and pledged loyalty to the new kingdom to be led by Alexander I.

Proclamation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in Congress Square, Ljubljana, Slovenia, October 1918. (Photo by Fran Grabjec, Museum of Modern History via Wikipedia)

Yugoslavia was one of only two polities that lived and died in the 20th century.  The Soviet Union was the other.  Several imperial regimes collapsed as Yugoslavia rose, but most had existed for centuries, dominating the western Balkans during that time.  Twentieth century Yugoslavia was created to solve a 19th century problem, which was domination and interference from more powerful neighbors, including Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Bulgaria.  All southern Slavic populations experienced this but with very different effects and outcomes.  After centuries of being divided and conquered, the historically Slavic states determined they were stronger united.

This was true as far as it went.  While the western Balkans shared history, language (mostly; Macedonian is more related to Bulgarian and Albanian has no peer anywhere), and some beliefs, in reality Serbia with the largest population was the most dominant republic.  So after resolving the problem of external domination, Yugoslavia next had to address the problem of Serbian domination of the union.

Kingdom of Yugoslavia coat of arms

Following Alexander’s assassination, the kingdom was named Yugoslavia.  Germany invaded in 1941, one of the most costly misadventures in the war.  Soviet-supplied communist partisans led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, were the most successful guerilla outfit in Europe.  Tito managed not only to bleed the Germans: he sidelined the Yugoslav government in exile, consolidated power, and won material from both the Allies and from Italian forces stranded in the Balkans after the capitulation.

As the war ended, Tito had a strong hand.  He had won over or coopted every other major political or opposition group in the country.  With this coalition, he held the first election after the war in 1945 and won a majority of seats in parliament.  The parliament promptly removed Peter II (he refused to abdicate and died an alcoholic in Denver in 1970) and rewrote the constitution as a socialist republic with Tito as head of state.  He remained in control for the next 35 years.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s coat of arms

Tito proved adept at driving the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, playing them off one another to the country’s benefit.  He dodged several Soviet assassination attempts and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement.  Yugoslavia had perhaps the most workable, purely socialist economy in Europe, with factory and farm collectives operating independently in a kind of managed competition.  There were no immigration restrictions so Yugoslavs traveled freely.  The country’s exports (including firearms and Fiat cars built under license by Zastava) permitted foreign imports as well.  For my friends in Warsaw Pact countries during this time, Yugoslavia was a consumers’ paradise compared to home.

There are, of course, many arguments for why Yugoslavia fell apart.  Tito, the strongman, died in 1980.  The parliament then decentralized the government and economy to the constituent republics.  This needless, inefficient multiplication of government functions helped stall the economy.  By the early 1970s, 20 percent of the Yugoslav workforce was employed abroad.  Following the oil shock, the Yugoslav economy began to fall apart.  The dinar cratered and the government soon buried itself in foreign debt to prop up production.

Into this crisis and power vacuum stepped recently radicalized ex-communist apparatchiks like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman.  Milosevic, as nominal president of the federal Yugoslavia, first deployed the Serb-dominated national army to corral republics like Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from seceding.  When this failed, he unleashed his army and irregulars in the Bosnian Republika Srpska to absorb Serbian populations centers and cleanse Bosnian Muslims from their country.  This resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica that provoked first UN and eventually NATO intervention to halt the slaughter.

French forces deployed by NATO to Sarajevo, January 1996. (NATO)

The war, it should be said, was not unique at the time.  As the Soviet central government weakened, republican leaders like Boris Yeltsin seized power and legitimacy.  With Mikhail Gorbachev deposed and the special committee dissolved in 1991, the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union realized their independence.  That came not without bloodshed, including the prospect of a pitched battle in Moscow between rival Russian and Soviet authorities.  Gorbachev warned he would not intervene in his eastern European client states but did not hesitate to crush national demonstrations in the Baltic republics.  Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova all engaged in civil war after independence.  The object of this violence, as in Yugoslavia, was political control.

But neither was the war inevitable.  It was not the fated result after centuries of smothered ethnic hatreds and foreign domination.  Political power can be shared peacefully.  War is always a choice.  That is why the comparison of similarly structured states and governments are more worthwhile than pitting opposites against each other.  For example, the similarities between Yugoslavia and Belgium are clear to see: a loose federation of three semi-autonomous regions, divided by language and (partially) religion, each triplicating government services.  As unsatisfactory and inefficient as this system of government is, it is impossible to imagine Walloons, Flemish, and ostbelgien taking up arms to destroy the state.

What is left behind in the former Yugoslavia?  As my friend Peter Korchnak has diligently documented, there is much to remember and a powerful nostalgia for that country pervades those who fled the war only to return to a landscape they could no longer recognize.  Yugoslavia made sense of the complex intersection of language, faith, and ethnicity especially in mixed marriages (which depending on the census ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent of all couples).  It stood as an example of united opposition to fascism and genocide.  It rejected as false the dichotomy between liberalism and communism. It meant something.

Yugoslavia was, in short, an ideal – an e pluribus unum in the Balkans – whose death, like the threat to democracy we now face, feels like a betrayal.

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Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III)

A plenum convened in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 9, 2014 (via Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso)

The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.

It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union).  I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.

And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.

But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.

In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.

Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east  and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.

But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.

It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.

While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.

What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla,  Zenica and elsewhere.

As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum.  That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.

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American Republic, Now Available from Amazon

I’m pleased to announce that my book, American Republic: Essays on the Nature of Politics, is now available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon.com.

American Republic includes the original book, plus three essays that first appeared on this site: “The Plastics and the Political,” “Faith, Politics and ‘The West Wing,'” and “Democracy and Political Language”. 

The Kindle format retails at $6.95 and the paperback is also available for $12.99.

The paperback is also available direct through the publisher, and we hope to have it available through Barnes and Noble and in other book stores soon.

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An Assault on Joseph Nye, Part Three: Keeping It Real

U.S. Air Force C-130 drops relief supplies over Kenya, June 2010 (U.S. Department of Defense)

In my previous two posts, I’ve argued how the hard power/soft power Hobson’s Dichotomy of Joseph Nye fails at the level of language and on the level of theory. Here I will contend that Nye’s very popular international relations theory also fails as a predictive, policy or practical theoretical standard. In short, it simply cannot anticipate, nor accurately reflect, actions taken by states in the real world. This is the quintessential yardstick of international relations theory, and it fails by any reasonable standard.

Nye works especially well in the academic world, where his bifurcated nomenclature provides two big classification buckets to throw theory into. So we see dozens of papers and conference presentations that categorize what does or does not constitute hard or soft power solutions to all the world’s problems. But those who actually work to solve those problems never use these terms. “Soft power”per se doesn’t help the U.N. in Congo, or get power to Kabul, or end the war in Syria, or set up a government in South Sudan, or reduce CO2 emissions, or end AIDS, or eliminate piracy.

But Brazilian peacekeepers can, and so can plugging into the Uzbekistan power grid, or threatening a no-fly zone, or issuing USAID good governance contracts, or implementing Europe-wide carbon-trading, or spending on a massive scale to bring down drug prices, and deploying naval vessels to escort commercial vessels. In other words, States use modalities – means, tools, usually people and things – to exercise power over other states and non-state actors.  And good theory will more accurately predict which of these modalities will be employed to solve these various problems. Nye’s theory, while primarily prescriptive, simply can’t do this job.

Nye places enormous and undue faith in “soft” implements that cajole and convince adversaries and reluctant allies alike. But he conflates the individual elements of national power – aid, diplomacy, national forces or strategic communications – while fetishizing the rather mundane modalities of international politics with a kind of sorcerer’s magic.

In a normal diplomatic parley, for example, all of these tools would be either arranged or arrayed for maximum advantage over the interlocutor. The most powerful negotiator is the one with the most tools in play, the one who can give the most away for the maximum national interest in exchange. An excellent example of this was the perpetual sticking point over the reduction or elimination of strategic nuclear forces between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States kept missile defense off the table and the Soviets, who were convinced this would lead to a consumptive new  arms race, refused to enter into an agreement. In other words, the U.S. had something the Soviet Union wanted, so the long-term advantage went to the United States which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, kept missile defense and negotiated START with Russia and the post-Soviet successor states anyway.

From a strictly theoretical standpoint, it’s not even entirely clear whether this would be an execution of hard or soft power. Missile defense as articulated in the 1980s was merely an idea. But it was an idea that cut to the heart of the problem in the Soviet Union, which was an economy that spent an estimated 25 percent of its GDP (perhaps higher) on defense; in effect the Soviet economy was building tanks to feed itself. Gorbachev knew he could never drive perestroika toward a consumer economy unless he could reduce defense spending and the military’s control over resources. Missile defense guaranteed an indefinite arms race and virtually unlimited control over the Soviet economy by the military. There was nothing soft about the American threat at all, or its effect on 200 million Soviet subjects, for as abstract as missile defense seemed at the time.

Most middle-power states – which defines virtually all of America’s allies along with the BRICs – view diplomacy not as a “soft” means to influence other countries but as a deadly serious business, a zero-sum gambit where the national interest reigns paramount. There is nothing to give away; no effort is sacrificed to advance or protect sovereign needs or rights. This is effectively war by other means because, with the national interest so thinly protected, there is very little else worth fighting for. It is a very hard business with high risks and very little margin for error.

Under these circumstances, only a very rich and powerful country like the United States can afford to be “soft” – that is, giving, charitable and big. Our allies enjoy American generosity and, quite contrary to their public portrayal, work hard to match it in their own ways.  But our adversaries, at least at the government level, are not influenced by our generosity or charity. They do not understand it because they simply cannot, under any circumstances, afford to give something away without an equally valuable quid pro quo.  At worst, they see our generosity as a weakness or a threat; more usually it is viewed with incomprehension or just drunk up like free booze at the company Christmas party: the only  people dumber than those giving it away are those not drinking. In any event, this “soft” aspect of our national power is not nearly as influential with governments – and may in fact be far more detrimental – than Nye maintains.

I’ll admit that this discussion does not address the real locus of power, which is public opinion, and I am strongly inclined to believe that the moral aspects of generosity, charity, bigness and support do go far to help sway the public.  (Indeed, one of the most frustrating points I had to argue when I worked overseas was that contrary to public misperception, Americans are the most generous people in the world in real and per capita terms.  That people think the opposite is the result of perhaps the most successful whisper campaign ever mounted.) That will always help us in the long run, particularly in repressive states like Russia, China and Iran that lie to its people about us to maintain control. But Nye’s theory functions in the existing state system, more or less, and that is where we must leave it. That is also where it fails.

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An Assault on Joseph Nye, Part Two: “Power and Violence are Opposites”

“Down with Milosevic!”, Belgrade, 1999 (via BBC)

In a previous discussion, I attacked Joseph Nye’s “soft power/hard power” theory at the level of language, effectively calling his terms unclear and mealy-mouthed substitutes for clearer, more precise terms we can use like force and coercion, sanctions or diplomacy. Nye has made international relations theory less clear and transparent for the application of his two terms and I tried to reverse that trend with my own replacements.

At the same time, Nye’s ideas don’t work as theory, either. Nye has offered a Hobson’s Dichotomy, a false choice that doesn’t exist in the real world. A Hobson’s Dichotomy poses us with two falsely opposed choices that may not offer a solution to the problem set. That is what soft and hard power effectively presents us. It is a trick of language that also gives us an untrue sense of mastering reality. The reality of international politics is far too complex for that. To put this simply: as a Hobson’s Dichotomy, Nye’s idea is a narrows that squeezes out rather than includes alternative or opposing means to achieve political change.

In political reality, decision-makers don’t choose from one quiver labeled “soft power” and another labeled “hard power” when taking action. If their judgment is keen, they look for the best tools available to them to achieve the most desirable outcome. If they are lucky, and their country is truly powerful (like ours), they will have a wide variety of means available to apply to what will be a unique, complicated, and dynamically evolving situation and environment.

Nye’s theoretical failure goes beyond the toolkit available to decision-makers. “Soft power” fails to take into account civil society, international movements, and faith groups. For Nye, there is nothing like the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, or Buddhism.  For Nye, there is nothing like the Freeze, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the Color Revolutions, or the Arab Spring.  Each of these has had profound international political effects – in other words, by his own definition they are powerful — but they simply can’t be accounted for by Nye’s political theory.

What makes these movements all the more interesting – and possible – is the flow of information, inspiration and support across borders. There would have been no revolution against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia without Solidarity, and there would have been no uprising in Tunisia without Serbia, and no Cairo without Tunisia. To Nye, this does not account for soft power, or any kind of power for that matter, because it is not enabled by a state — even though these movements peacefully changed the means of government and the norms for governing in more than a dozen countries.

Boston, April 15 (via The Telegraph)

Nye’s theory also fails to account for terrorism. He dispenses with terrorism as “depending on soft power” (my emphasis) without defining terrorism per se as either hard (force) or soft (as I have defined it before, power qua power). Reading between the lines, then, Nye’s theory cannot really accommodate terrorism: it simply does not belong in Nye’s universe.

If we take most observers’ understanding that terrorism is a tool of the weak – a meansof  the un-powerful – even if they are state-sponsored — then terrorism falls away from this discussion entirely. Nye may get partial credit for recognizing terrorism requires other tools to succeed, but it is not a tool of power or the powerful in and of itself. Nye’s theory of two “buckets” does not have enough room for either political movements or terrorism — which pretty much defines the political dynamism of the previous decade.

An effective theory of power will take into account terrorism and the power wielded by ordinary people through collective action, whether in faith groups, civil society, or international movements. Power, in the end, is mass, and mass can really be found in the minds of millions or billions of individual human beings. Only military theorists really understand the importance of this collective mind in political affairs, and even then the American military tradition has been slow or loath to understand the relationship of the public to the political.

Clausewitz for example wrote about the “moral forces” in war affecting public opinion as “among the most important”. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) wrote about “the crowd in action,” dating the phenomenon back to ancient Greek warfare. David Galula, writing about insurgency, noted that the guerrilla could “still win” with “no positive policy” but “good propaganda” — that is, directly influencing the population. David Petraeus, drawing off all these shrewd observations, argued that military communications could be the “decisive logical line of operation” by communicating directly with the public in counterinsurgency operations.

We still struggle to understand the motivations and goals of terrorism. The attack on the Boston Marathon is the most recent expression of this ambivalence, but almost daily bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan should remind us of the continuing struggle as well. Theoretically we wrestle to understand whether terrorism is an effective political weapon.

Nonetheless as a theoretical matter it should be clear terrorism is violence, not force, and  as a practical measure it should be clear that terrorism is a tool of the weak, that it leverages political entities that are not as powerful when measured against the mass movements outlined above. Hannah Arendt has written precisely that “power and violence are opposites”. This is probably the most mordant indictment of Nye’s theory, since it quite simply excludes terrorism from any consideration by Nye. It fully supports my contention that Nye’s theory constitutes not an expansive analysis of power but an exclusive narrows.

The real pain extracted from bombings or mass attacks can mitigate that inherent weakness. Violence can, on a macabre balance sheet, equate to political power but only if state authorities or the public mind are willing to allow it. Still, as violence, terrorism is only relegated to simply another tool – like economic sanctions, or diplomacy – which states or non-state actors use to affect international affairs.  This by no means justifies terrorism, but it does account for the practice. So far, that is more than what Joseph Nye can do.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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