A set of possible changes

This attitude leads Tacitus to distort history systematically by representing it as essentially a clash of characters, exaggeratedly good with exaggeratedly bad. History cannot be scientifically written unless the historian can re-enact in his own mind the experience of the people whose actions he is narrating. Tacitus never tried to do this: his characters are seen not from inside, with understanding and sympathy, but from outside, as as mere spectacles of virtue or vice. One can hardly read his descriptions of an Agricola or a Domitian without being reminded of Socrates’ laugh at Glaucon’s imaginary portraits of the perfectly good and the perfectly bad man: ‘My own word, Glaucon, how energetically you are polishing them up like statues for a prize competition!’

Tacitus has been praised for his character-drawing; but the principles on which he draws character are fundamentally vicious and make his character-drawing an outrage on historical truth. He found warrant for it, no doubt, in the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of his age, to which I have already referred: the defeatist philosophies which, starting from the assumption that the good man cannot conquer or control a wicked world, taught him how to preserve himself unspotted from its wickedness. This false antithesis between the individual man’s character and his social environment justifies, in a sense, Tacitus’ method of exhibiting the actions of an historical figure as flowing simply from his own personal character, and making no allowance either for the way in which a man’s actions may be determined partly by his environment and only in part by his character, or for the way in which character itself may be moulded by the forces to which a man is subjected by his environment. Actually, as Socrates urged against Glaucon, the individual character considered in isolation from its environment is an abstraction, not a really existing thing. What a man does depends only to a limited extent on what kind of man he is. No one can resist the forces of his environment. Either he conquers the world or the world will conquer him.

R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, Revised Edition, with Lectures 1926-1928. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship or power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.

Suppose in 1940 you had taken a Gallup poll, in England, on the question ‘Will Germany win the war?’ You would have found, curiously enough, that the group answering ‘Yes’ contained a far higher percentage of intelligent people – people with IQ of over 120, shall we say – than the group answering ‘No’. The same would have held good in the middle of 1942. In this case the figures would not have been so striking, but if you had made the question ‘Will the Germans capture Alexandria?’ or ‘Will the Japanese be able to hold on to the territories they have captured? ’, then once again there would have been a very marked tendency for intelligence to concentrate in the ‘Yes’ group. In every case the less-gifted person would have been likelier to give a right answer.

George Orwell, “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution,” May 1946.

In the interview, Mr. Scowcroft said the Bush administration’s two terms were “difficult years.”

“The general mood of the last administration has been more a combination of idealism and self-assertion,” he said. “And if the election was a vote on foreign policy — and I’m not sure it was — then you can say, yes, that idea has been rejected in favor of realism.”

Sen. Lugar, in an interview, said the president-elect appears to have a “pragmatic” view of foreign policy. The Republican lawmaker took himself out of the running for secretary of state shortly after the election, but he said that he hoped to use his perch on Capitol Hill to help the new administration retool U.S. foreign policy.

Scowcroft Protégés on Obama’s Radar,” Yochi J. Dreazen and Soibhan Gorman, The Wall Street Journal, 24 November, 2008.

Obama enters office signaling that he will continue the policies of President Bush’s late second term in Iraq and Afghanistan, and key architects of those policies, starting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will likely keep their jobs. That would leave Russia as the unexpected laboratory for Obama to shape his own foreign policy.

Leading Democratic Russia experts said they anticipate dramatic changes to a Bush policy that eschewed arms treaties, and shifted rapidly from viewing Russia as a key ally in the War on Terror to a hostile enemy of the freedom of its former satellites.

“There is right now a kind of gathering of the clan of the Russia wonks, some of whom will be in the administration,” said Strobe Talbott, who was President Clinton’s top Russia adviser. “The Obama administration is going to have to do something that the Bush administration avoided doing for years — and that is treating Russia as a first-class strategic challenge.”

Russia poses challenge to Obama,” Ben Smith, Politico, 26 November, 2008.

In Mr Chávez’s wake, socialist presidents in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have also developed ties with Iran. Mr Ahmadinejad promised investments of $1.1 billion in developing Bolivia’s gas, and $350m to build a port in Nicaragua. But there is little sign of either investment materialising. Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, recently visited Tehran and delivered a letter from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva inviting Mr Ahmadinejad to visit. Since Iran is the subject of United Nations sanctions, and Brazil has been actively, if fruitlessly, pursuing a permanent seat at the UN, this raised eyebrows in Brazil. Mr Amorim’s visit was “inexplicable” and “gratuitous”, according to Luiz Felipe Lampreia, a former foreign minister.

The intercontinental ambitions of Iran, Russia and Venezuela have all been puffed up by oil, and so are vulnerable to the steep fall in its price. The lasting change for Latin America is its burgeoning ties with China. At the APEC summit, Mr Bush’s last trip abroad, it was Mr Hu who was the centre of attention. Mr García treated him to a parade around Lima’s colonial centre before they announced that they had wrapped up a free-trade agreement between their two countries. That matches a similar accord China concluded with Chile in 2005.

China’s total two-way trade with Latin America has shot up from just $12.2 billion in 2000 to $102 billion last year. Though Chinese investment—mainly in mining and oil—has grown more slowly, it is now picking up. Last month China became a member of the Inter-American Development Bank. But China has also disappointed some Latin Americans. Some Brazilians complain that Brazil sells raw materials to China while buying manufactures from it. Brazil is frustrated that neither China nor Russia has helped its Security Council bid.

All Latin American countries are naturally keen to diversify their economic relations, and some seek wider political ties. But Europe ($250 billion last year) and the United States ($560 billion) remain Latin America’s biggest trade partners. And the foreign leader that most Latin American politicians will be keenest to see over the coming year is Barack Obama.

Friends of Opportunity,” The Economist, 27 November, 2008.

[A]ll three of his choices — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state; Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary — have embraced a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the national security arena.

The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states. However, it is unclear whether the financing would be shifted from the Pentagon; Mr. Obama has also committed to increasing the number of American combat troops. Whether they can make the change — one that Mr. Obama started talking about in the summer of 2007, when his candidacy was a long shot at best — “will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency,” one of his senior advisers said recently.

The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the three have all embraced “a rebalancing of America’s national security portfolio” after a huge investment in new combat capabilities during the Bush years.

Denis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, cast the issue slightly differently in an interview on Sunday.

“This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem,” he said. “During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also younger officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned. There wasn’t a meeting that didn’t include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats. It is critical to a long-term successful and sustainable national security strategy in the 21st century.”

A Handpicked Team for a Sweeping Shift in Foreign Policy,” David E. Sanger, New York Times, 30 November, 2008.

My previous reservations about Obama’s realist tendencies (I called his disposition “liberal internationalism with realist characteristics”), I think are baring out. This may not, however, ultimately be the case. Obviously, it is impossible to predict the future, even with the most clear understanding of a subject’s history or policy. If Obama’s hands are free in areas outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning that he leaves Iraq to be handled in the Pentagon and shifts the burden towards Afghanistan, there are many things that could happen. I think it will be interesting to examine a few possibilities.

The US could become increasingly involved in South Asia, with its relationship with Pakistan growing strained and its relations with India growing more firm (which seems to be the general trajectory as Pakistan sputters), or vis-versa. It could also mean that Obama’s diplomacy moves further east, with more attention paid to China’s growing role in the world, especially in Latin America and Africa.

His administration will probably improve ties with Europe greatly for obvious reasons, though there may be conflicts of interests over process, especially with respect to Russia, Central Asia and even Africa. But the extent of this conflict will probably be limited, unless he endeavors to undertake some massive military effort in an area that the Europeans are not committed to resolving for their own reasons. This is unlikely, but possible.

I see Latin America as a place where Venezuela continues its crusade against the Yanqui, but relations with Brazil grow as a result, and in time relations with Cuba are normalized. There is great potential from a public diplomacy and soft power angle for Obama in Latin America, especially when his historic position is compared with other historic presidents (Chavez and Morales are both in the same or a similar category as Obama, as far as being historic “firsts” in their countries’ presidencies). Depending on how Obama keeps his tone and his his policy form, he should be able to pull the hemisphere in a more friendly direction. He will have to keep a close watch on outside elements, less so from Iran or Russia than from China.

Africa seems to be an area where the administration could do well, especially and surprisingly (I think) if it continues many of the major components of the Bush policy, which was rather popular relative to that administration’s (lack of) success in other areas. It is unsurprising that Africans would have the most enthusiastic response to Obama’s ascension, not so much because of his blood ties there, but because the United States was not terribly unpopular there to start with when compared to other regions. He would do well to avoid the major conflict areas, especially in Central Africa, as it is unlikely that the US can offer much in resolving those problems. If he is inclined to have a say in Darfur, he will have to resolve other issues more directly related to US national interests, and the same is to be said for Congo and the disturbances emanating from there. He will probably not see a dip in perceptions or attitudes towards the US on the continent, but this will likely be because there is not a substantial infrastructure by means of which the US can engage the continent in a major way and thereby increase its profile. He may try to build such an infrastructure, but this will be slow and will probably be primarily symbolic in nature.

As for the Russian “challenge,” he will probably find Chinese and Central Asian openings on that front in time, as China and the “‘Stans” realize the full implications of Russia’s revisionist tendencies (which they have already begun to do). The US will probably not be a dominant player in Central Asia, but will find common interests with the Chinese and Indians in keeping order and the flow of gas in the broadest sense: but that gas will most likely not be headed for the US market, but rather for Chinese and other Eurasian markets. If Russia continues to behave in the way it has recently, and grows increasingly revisionist, keeping up with China and countries like Kazakhstan in this regard will become more important. NATO expansion will go forward, but perhaps less aggressively, though domestic pressures may force the administration to be more aggressive. It will be interesting to see whether Obama can reverse some of the more hard headed policies of the Bush years (on missile defense, arms reduction, NATO, etc.), and if such offers are rebuffed or accepted and how such offers may influence Russian policy. The Russia’s misbehavior is a result of its overall decline in absolute terms, and there may be no way to put an end to its tantrums except by letting it bear out, from the east (from China) and the West. Its fundamental economic and social weakness will make it difficult to reclaim its great power status on any grounds other than its size (which is not necessarily fixed) and its nuclear arsenal.

Iran will be a hurdle. By adopting a less confrontational line, Obama would deprive the Islamic Republic of its chief “enemy” by reducing the extent to which US policy can be construed as being primarily hostile. The Iranians may not play ball because of this: The prospect could erode a pillar of the regime’s legitimacy and force the Iranians to contrive conflict when the basis for it need not exist. At the same time, the opposite result could come round, with the Iranians responding well to American overtures and cooperating, with the Americans recognizing the necessity for the Iranians to save face. There is no clear way through the Iranian problem, though, and the country will probably continue to be a problem for some time into the future.

The Palestinian issue is beyond the scope or interest of this blog. There may be a change in policy in the second term, in a meaningful way, given Obama’s previous disposition towards the issue (before running for Senate). His view changed once, and it may change again, if he wins a second term and is therefore not beholden to public opinion in the way that he will be in his first term.

As for North Africa, given that the Algerians have no interest in internationalizing their domestic battle (which is fundamentally an issue of domestic politics, even with the advent of AQIM), and that the Moroccans have been successful for the most part (though not wholly) in containing their militant Islamist movement, there will not be a high priority there for the new administration. If war breaks out of the Sahara, the US will probably find itself at the mediating table, because of the massive hydrocarbon interests that the US has in Algeria and the political ties it has with Morocco. Since many of the pro-Moroccan stalwarts will not be returning to State, it is likely that the Obama administration may be able to adopt a less carte blanche approach to the Moroccans, but this would require that the Europeans do the same, and that is not likely. If the Polisario initiates the conflict, and fighting begins along the Moroccan-Algerian border, there will no guarantees for the Algerians (at best the Chinese and Russians would abstain from serious votes, unless the Russians’ continue to press against the US and see this as an opportunity to stick it to the Americans; this would be done under the rubric of self-determination). If the Moroccan initiate it, things may be more complicated. Obama might be less willing to support Morocco’s claim in that case. This is a subject for a different post, though.

All of this will take place in a world that is increasingly multi-polar, and in which America will have to use other large countries to address major problems and many regional ones. This does not mean that Americans will not be able wield considerable influence globally, but it will necessitate a decrease in America’s swagger. It will also mean that in coming years, the US may have to consider its geopolitical priorities more carefully and more concisely, because as other power rise, it will be challenged to prove its commitment to peripheral regions and allies.


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