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Government History Foreign policy

The -isms of American Foreign Policy

Looking in Different Directions? photo: Arthur Chapman/flickr

To understand the United States’ role in the world, familiarity with the various frames that decision makers in Washington rely on when formulating foreign policy is helpful. Most statecraft blends these, kind of like a color wheel. The basic contours, however, personified by four giants of American history, are as follows:

The Extroverts

Hamiltonianism maintains that the US should pursue a realist foreign policy, balancing interests, especially material ones, and fundamentally seeks to promote an expansionist agenda. Hamiltonians support a robust national security establishment, a strong dollar policy and a muscular industrial base; in effect the US from WWI to the Great Recession. Domestically, these are the establishment Republicans exemplified by figures such as father George H. W. Bush.

Wilsonianism also subscribes to the furtherance of the Pax Americana. But whereas Hamiltonians favor material interests, Wilsonians emphasize the normative, touchy-feely moral aspects of foreign policymaking. Wilsonians are frequently labeled idealists, like to set up international institutions, are bleeding-heart humanitarian interventionists, prefer to co-opt other states rather than impose their will on them, and ultimately seek to consolidate a global society defined by liberal American values.

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Government

Indecision and Justice in Kenya

Always a Sword in Hand. photo: rafaelmarquez/flickr

As the International Criminal Court (ICC) starts an investigation into its most high-profile suspect yet – Libya’s “Brother Leader” Muammar Gaddafi – politicians in a far more democratic country, 2,700 miles to the southeast, are also looking to evade the long arm of the law.

Kenya became the 98th member of the International Criminal Court in March 2005, when it ratified the Rome Statute. Over the past three months, the ICC has issued Kenya with summonses for the ‘Ocampo Six’: six individuals, both in and out of government, deemed by Chief Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo to be those most responsible for the post-electoral violence that unfolded in 2007-08, leaving an estimated 1,500 people dead.

Is it really necessary for the ICC to be involved? Could Kenya not prosecute those involved on a purely domestic level? Yes, it could: but only with an adequate institutional framework in place. The Rome Statute provides for the legal principle of complementarity; that is, legitimate local efforts at justice enjoy primacy over international efforts. Politicians in Nairobi, however, have botched various attempts to establish a local tribunal, or to reform their judicial system. Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara has spearheaded the campaign to establish a local tribunal that would meet international standards – in essence, removing the need for ICC involvement. A copy of his bill can be found here. Three attempts to pass the legislative text – February 2009, August 2009 and February 2011 – were, however, defeated as a result of parliamentary infighting.

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Security Foreign policy

Iran: Little Room for Maneuver

Tehran - back in the limelight? Photo: Mohammadali f./flickr

Although the rest of the Middle East is now rightly in the spotlight, Iran, with a simmering opposition movement and a highly controversial nuclear program (the focal point in regional diplomacy prior to the ‘Jasmine revolutions’) will no doubt return to the forefront of regional affairs very soon. However, the diplomatic equation in the conflict between Iran and the West may be changing, and contrary to the sometimes hysterical warnings of some commentators in the West and the bellicose rhetoric of Iran’s president, Tehran is in a corner. Below some points to keep in mind when analyzing the situation:

  • What country, more precisely what regime, currently faces an existential threat and finds itself surrounded by the world’s most powerful fighting force on three of four borders (principally Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, but also Iraq): nuclear-armed Israel or Iran?
  • How much of this all is a securitization game? Prime Minister Netanyahu and especially Israel’s political right keep the focus on the country’s purported ‘insecurity’ and off the West Bank; President Ahmadinejad, in turn, exploits the external threat to consolidate support back home and divert attention from his lousy track record in actually governing Iran.
  • If Iran decides to weaponize, will it not first withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? The 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the NPT, which the US and Iran have both signed and ratified, respectively, demand it. Although this instance could very well prove the exception to the rule, Iran is not North Korea. Iran maintains relations and accords with many other states in the international system, all of which count on it to uphold some modicum of predictability. It is likely to do so despite its belligerent rhetoric.
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Government Finance

Trying to Play Chicken with Everybody’s Money

A slow and painful battle over America's financial future, photo: Benjamin Reed/flickr

The bumbling US Tea Party has issued its latest ultimatum: cut public expenditures or risk defaulting on the national debt. And how? By stopping lawmakers from raising the country’s legal debt ceiling, currently set at $14.3 trillion. The US Treasury reckons it will hit and inevitably exceed the limit sometime between late March and May.

The Obama White House has deemed the issue non-negotiable. Is it an idle threat?

Strictly speaking, the Tea Party doesn’t have the votes in Congress. Mainstream Republicans would all have to vote no. Mainstream Republicans, however, primarily serve the interests of the corporate and financial elite; overt attempts to undermine US economic power typically receive a cold reception with this crowd.

As discussed in my ISN Blog post last week, the instance of disagreement nevertheless puts the spotlight on the growing rift in the American Right. It also exposes the ignorance of the frustrated Tea Partiers. Nuking your economy is no solution to your economic woes.

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Government

The American Right: A Marriage on the Rocks

It's all about the taxes, photo: Chuck Simmins/flickr

Your humble blogger would have appreciated an invitation to this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF). Unfortunately, no such letter landed in my mailbox. No matter, I probably couldn’t have accepted anyhow.

The entry-level $71,000 price tag, it turns out, – travel, room, board and entertainment excluded – is a smidgen out of my league. Good thing that the WEF publication Global Risks 2011 calls attention to economic disparity (aka income and wealth inequality), both within and between countries, as the most pressing risk out there today. Are the plutocrats beginning to feel the heat?

In America, home to the highest economic inequality in the developed world today, the winds of change may have started to blow.

The American Right has for the past 30 years effectively existed as an alliance of convenience between middle-class social conservatives from the American heartland on the one hand, and members of the corporate and financial elite intent on hoarding cash on the other. The informal arrangement has proved remarkably durable, at least up until the Great Recession.*

The social conservatives got politicians who extolled the virtues of American family values, promoted constitutional bans on gay marriage and abortion, and never missed an occasion to exalt America’s exceptionalism. The corporate and financial elite got ‘Benjamins’, lots of them. To make the economics attractive, the corporate and financial elite promised what George H W Bush in 1980 mocked as ‘voodoo economics:’ tax cuts, tax cuts and just when you though there couldn’t be any more, tax cuts. This all coincided nicely with America’s unipolar moment in the post-Cold War period.

The perception was that tax cuts would pay for themselves and would only work to make everyone wealthier. In the short term they did, but over time they led to the bifurcation of American society. Legislators with the help of lobbyist  disproportionately targeted the tax cuts to benefit the top income brackets, and massively so. The socially conservative wing, blinded by its reactionary ideals, got duped. Its followers have effectively voted time and again against their own economic interests.