Archive for category Political Science
I came across an article the other day called ‘Visible Whiteness: Coming to Terms with White Racial Identities’ by Andrew Hickey and Jon Austin from the Centre for Research in Transformative Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. (for anyone interested, (2009) International Journal of The Humanities 7(2): 15).
Yes, that does say “Centre for Research in Transformative Pedagogy”. Someone, somewhere, is funding this. Probably from our tax dollars.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: it is that bad. My eyes started rolling from the first sentence.
IN THIS AGE of global terror and theWest’s re-affirmed awareness that cultural values in other parts of the world do not always readily lend themselves to the logic it applies, it is issues of race and difference that hold a significant place in our global psyche.
And it only got worse from there.
Whiteness must be excavated if any serious understandings of race hope to move beyond simple paternalism or ‘false charity’. To do anything else is to maintain a view of race that situates the exploration within the realm of the Other whilst implicitly continuing the invisibility of whiteness by drawing attention to ‘othered’ outcomes of race alone. Whiteness, too, must be explored for a full appreciation of how race operates as our ‘most dangerous myth’.
As I have been discovering recently, the Americans have been doing some amazing research into racial identity issues over the last decade. There are empirical studies showing how people perceive race, how people define their own identity and what the societal implications are of these things.
In Australia, we seem to just have wankers citing Edward Said and talking about the “Other”. The whole article barely cites one source post-2000 that wasn’t written by Hickey or Austin.
If you’re still reading, you’re getting to the best part. After 3 pages of this academy circle-jerk about how society normalises “race” as something “non-white”, they get to the actual “activity” that they are running:
The project commenced with a ‘racial audit’ of the school undertaken solely by Austin and Hickey as the project’s principal researchers. … The audit was performed using a visual ethnographic approach, whereby the captured images were applied ‘as a referent for the development of theory’ (Harper 2005: 748). This inductive process sought to uncover the ways race was represented in the physical environment of the school from the perspective of the ethnographic outsider- both researchers had limited connection with the school prior to the project and cast their observations as ‘professional strangers’ (Agar 1996) to the site.
Translation: “we went to some school we had never been to before and took photos.”
To spare you another five pages, here is the rest of the activity:
- Show photos to kids as trigger for discussion on racism.
- Make kids take their own photos
- Get kids to make flyers about racism
- Have follow-up discussion
There. No Said references, no bullshit about “the ‘generative themes’ that emerged from the collected images and to develop an interpretation grounded in the students’ emerging knowledge of race as a socially mediated, historically signified and arbitrarily constructed mechanism of human stratification”.
That’s a session plan, like I used to design when I did youth leadership-type things. I did that voluntarily and I was not made a “professor” for it.
Seriously, this kind of thing makes those academic staff cuts look pretty great right now.
Yes, that does say “postcard style racial awareness artifact”. And no, you are not hallucinating: that is some highschool kid’s art project.
I am going to finish this rant the way that I started it: SOMEONE IS FUNDING THIS, PROBABLY OUT OF OUR TAX DOLLARS. Please make it stop!
I have nothing against super-sexual fashion. What I am against is being a victim of it. To have to be sexy? That I hate. To be outrageously sexy? That I love.
Miuccia Prada, profiled in the New Yorker by Judith Thurman.
Things I didn’t know about Prada: she has a PhD in political science, she was once a member of the communist party in Italy and handed out pro-communism flyers while wearing YSL dresses and she refused to run for Italian parliament because she did not think that it would be fair for a woman as wealthy as she is to claim to represent the working class.
I think I have a new favourite designer.
Worth a read.
Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, republished today in The Australian:
Almost 10 years ago, idealists young and old congregated in capital cities all over the world to protest against the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. “Stop the War”, read the banners. “Not in my name”, called out the demonstrators. Kony 2012 is, essentially, a “Start the War” march. Millions of idealists are gathered on the internet shouting “not in my name” at Kony and calling on the US to send military advisers. Just advisers? That’s what John F. Kennedy sent to Vietnam.
The emotional impact of the campaign is achieved by linking the film-maker’s young son with a young boy in Uganda who was a victim of Kony. The two children, the film points out, are the same, and deserve the same protection. It is hard – impossible – to argue with that.
The internet and television make friends out of strangers, bring foreign people in faraway places into our bedrooms and lounges, and make it unbearable to watch them be starved or murdered right there in our houses. The “Start the War” movement – Libya, Syria, Zimbabwe, Kony – is going to gain force as every year passes. Politicians will spend their time explaining to idealists why it’s too hard, expensive or dangerous to do anything.
That is why Kony 2012 is a “moment”; why it matters, for all its rather gooey emotionalism. Calling on people to become “advocates of awesome” sounds silly – all right, is a bit silly – but the impression of silliness recedes when one reflects that it has already prompted President Barack Obama to send advisers to Uganda.
Aside from being British ex-pats, Andrew Sullivan and I do not have much in common – he is gay, middle-aged Catholic, living in the US and extremely successful as a writer-cum-blogger; I am straight, mid-20s, Jewish, living in Australia and pretty much unsuccessful as a writer-cum-blogger. That said, it is remarkable how much we seem to see eye-to-eye on issues that aren’t Israel.
Of course, most of what Sullivan does these days is link to other people’s writing – which is how I find a lot of interesting things to read, but means that there isn’t quite as much of this kind of thing as I’d like:
This is a church now intent on erasing from visibility a small minority of human beings, while waging a campaign to keep them as second class citizens in their own countries and as subhuman “objectively disordered” beings in their own church. They cannot even speak our name. Because were they to see us as the human beings we are, if they had to confront the actual experienced reality of our lives, if they actually had a conversation with us, and engaged the problem rather than dismissing it as “madness”, their pretense would be exposed.
The leaders of the current Catholic hierarchy are the Pharisees of our time. They are the people Jesus came to liberate us from. And he does. And he will.
I have not seen a more damning indictment of the way the Catholic Church is pretending that there are no gay people in its ranks (ironically, this is the same stance taken by the Iranian President).
What is amazing is how different the debate seems to be in Australia – where Catholics compose the biggest single religious group – versus both the UK and the US. Take Rush Limbaugh for instance – while yesterday I reported that he is losing sponsors and may be going out of business for sexism, many others have noted that he doesn’t have a great record on gay rights either. In stark contrast, Alan Jones, the closest thing Australia has to Limbaugh, is known to be gay himself (if not particularly publicly).
Similarly, Australia’s top sensationalist rightwing columnist, Andrew Bolt, just came out with a vehement condemnation of homophobic advertising by “Australia Party” founder Bob Katter in the Queensland elections:
It’s fair enough to raise the issue of gay marriage in the context of a state election, despite it being essentially a federal matter. There’s no law against irrelevance, after all, and Newman’s inconsistency goes to his character.
But this ad crosses way, way over the line.
First, why freight the same sex marriage debate with pictures of gay men being physically intimate? The intention is plain and foul: to appeal to the yuck factor with homophobes. Would we illustrate a defence of traditional marriage with a couple of porn stars engaging in foreplay?
Second, why show a gay couple as a beautiful young man and an older and plainer one? Again, the intention seems plain: to link gay marriage or gay relationships generally to pedophilia – or at least to gay predators. Would we illustrate an argument on the sanctity of marriage by showing a 40-year-old groom with a teen bride?
Third, what’s with the creepy pixellation on the picture of the gays? The area being covered is a man’s chest, for goodness sake. Again, the intention is plain and foul: to make even the sight of a gay man’s chest seem sinister. To hint at the illicit and disgusting.
Fourth, what’s with the footage of Newman folding a skirt, after asking in this context: “How well do you really know Campbell Newman”? This time the intention is slightly less clear, even if the malice isn’t. Is this meant to snear at gays as sissies? Or at Campbell as a closet gay – or even crossdresser?
I have always had a feeling that most of what Bolt writes is more his cultivating a character than actually speaking from the heart (although unlike Anne Summers, I have no doubt that he is genuinely very Conservative), but occasionally he uses his pedestal to do something that he believes in. Yes, this can be tearing down climate change advocates, but it can also be this kind of thing.
Either way, Bill O’Reilly would not be caught dead condemning someone for being Conservative enough to run homophobic ads like that one. Note: I use the term “Conservative” with a bolded and capitalised “c” because there is nothing remotely conservative about homophobia. This is obviously something that is recognised by Australia’s conservatives, but Britain, America and the Catholic clergy seem to be off the mark somewhat.
For the record, my views on gay marriage were mostly laid-out in this post. I’ll end by citing another of Sullivan’s finer moments on this issue, where he explains exactly why the way the Santorum-style Conservatives are, in fact, more radicals than most who claim to be “progressives” (although I have a lot of issues with that label as well). He really says it better than I could:
What’s fascinating to me about Santorum’s outburst yesterday was not its content, but its candor. In fact, one of Santorum’s advantages in this race, especially against Romney, is that we can see exactly where he stands. There can be no absolute separation of church and state, let alone a desire to keep it so; and in their necessary interactions, the church must always prevail, or it is a violation of the First Amendment, and an attack on religious freedom. The church’s teachings are also, according to theoconservatism, integral to the founding of the United States. Since constitutional rights are endowed from the Creator, and the Creator is the Judeo-Christian one, the notion of a neutral public square, embraced by liberals and those once called conservatives, is an attack on America. America is a special nation because of this unique founding on the Judeo-Christian God. It must therefore always be guided by God’s will, and that will is self-evident to anyone, Catholic or Protestant, atheist or Mormon, Jew or Muslim, from natural law.
Hence the notion that America could countenance abortion or same-sex marriage is anathema to Santorum and to theoconservatism. It can only be explained as the work of Satan, so alien is it to the principles of Judeo-Christian America. Hence the resort to constitutional amendments to ban both: total resolutions of these issues for ever must reflect what theocons believe was in the Founders’ hearts and minds.
This has long been the theocon argument; it was the crux of what I identified as the core Republican problem in “The Conservative Soul”. It is not social conservatism, as lazy pundits call it. It is a radical theocratically-based attack on modern liberal democracy; and on modernity as a whole. It would conserve nothing. It would require massive social upheaval, for example, to criminalize all abortion or keep all gay couples from having any publicly acknowledged rights or status. Then think of trying to get women back out of the workplace or contraception banned – natural, logical steps from this way of thinking. This massive change is radical, not conservative. It regards the evolution of American society these past few decades as literally the work of the Father of Lies, not the aggregate reflection of a changing society. It is at its essence a neo-Francoite version of America, an America that was not the pinnacle of Enlightenment thought, but an America designed to destroy what the theocons regard as the catastrophe of the Enlightenment.
A post in the Jewish Daily Forward by Sarah Seltzer led me to this study done by VIDA – an organisation aimed at increasing female representation in literary arts – of bylines in major literary-focussed magazines and book review sections that were written by men and women. The results, shown in a series of piecharts, make for quite bleak viewing:
Before I discuss the results, I have to be annoying and discuss the study methods. As regular readers will know, I generally follow the Tuftian theory on data presentation, meaning that I absolutely hate pie charts and anything else that you can make with Microsoft Office. This is a very ineffective way of showing data, what I want is a nice spreadsheet and maybe a scatterplot – that would mean that I could find trends, averages, standard errors and all of the other things that nerds like me like to look at.
I’ll also note that bylines are just a small part of the picture, the study did not include important factors like the breakdowns by gender of: the number of submissions received; the editorial board members; the pool of potential writers; and — especially important — the readership.
Note: gender scholar Danielle Pafunda has written a relatively compelling argument for other factors being less important than they would seem, noting that much of the result still comes down to editorial policy and that the selection process is far from passive (i.e. editors actively source their writers). I am not entirely convinced by this (especially where she claims that the superior quality of women’s submissions counterbalances the lower volume), but there is something to it.
Looking at the wrong magazines?
This point was raised in one of the comments on the VIDA site:
Many of the largest-circulation magazines in English are primarily written by and read by women. What you’re saying is that if you ignore magazines aimed at women and focus on much smaller magazines that don’t tend to be written by and read by women, there are more men. OK.
My question: why are magazines that focus on women uninteresting, unprestigious, and ignored?
What would happen if you analyzed these magazines, instead of the smaller ones you picked?
This is a valid point, what is also not explained by VIDA is what led to the choice of these particular magazines and the list feels quite arbitrary.
Some of the magazines are dedicated book review journals, some are academic literary journals and some are just highbrow magazines with book review sections, including feature-based magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic) and political commentary (The New Republic); all of these are left-leaning, all but one are published in the UK or the USA and some that to me would be quite obvious choices have been left out (e.g. Vanity Fair, The New Statesman, The Spectator).
Also, none are web-based magazines, ignoring important publications like Slate and The Daily Beast, and it has included the literary supplement from The London Times, but not from other similarly regarded/circulated newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian etc; all of which have literary supplements. This is not to say that these publications would necessarily be any different (although some probably would — Vanity Fair comes to mind in particular), but it would be good to rule that out, or at least to explain the reason some were chosen but not others.
Maybe the topics are the problem?
Some interesting thoughts on this issue come from another Forward blogger, Elissa Strauss (my bold):
I never bothered to pitch any of the magazines on the VIDA count last year. This wasn’t because I didn’t think they would pay attention to me because of my gender, but rather because they don’t seem to be much interested in covering the things I like to write about. I am talking about topics like gender, sexuality, culture and the intersection of the three.
In the world of the “thought leaders,” these “lady issues” are all still largely niche topics. We get an occasional bone thrown at us, like Kate Bolick’s piece on single ladies in The Atlantic, but these stories always seem to require a strong first-person angle in order to make them newsworthy. Overall, however, women’s issues and gender equity, are just not important or interesting enough to the editors.
There are those that argue that in order for more women to appear on these mastheads, we must leave our comfort zones and take on the “big” stuff like politics and money. I agree, but I also think that it has to go both ways. Sure, more women should, and do, try to inch their way into these beats. But we should also stay determined about the fact that the things we like to read and write about are important, too, and that they don’t deserve to always be relegated to an occasional feature or culture piece.
Essentially, she is suggesting that these magazines need to make an effort to have more “female-focussed” content (i,e, publish more stuff that she writes about). As a subscriber to several of these magazines (though admittedly not a woman), I find this a little absurd. As the comment above pointed out, there are already many magazines aimed at women which speak about these kinds of issues – presumably, these are the ones Strauss pitches to – so why change the subject matter of the ones that have other foci? There is a reason that I subscribe to The New Yorker and not Cosmopolitan (or GQ, for that matter).
These are magazines that publish articles on what Strauss refers to as “the ‘big’ stuff”. They are not the most highly-circulated magazines, but they are the most highly regarded magazines amongst left-leaning, English-speaking “intellectuals”, which seems to be the market that everyone mentioned in this post is going for. It’s not that issues related to gender or sexuality are overlooked in these magazines; they get the occasional feature, but they are not the general focus and nor should they be.
I also don’t understand why women can’t write on the issues that these magazines do cover: politics, science, culture, the arts and assorted human interest stories; in fact, many women do – maybe not most women, but then neither do most men; again, these are niche publications.
That said, I would really have no idea about this, not being a woman and all. So I would like to pose the question to anyone who made it this far: are the issues that I care about (i.e. the ones I read/write about) really not things that women are interested in? Thinking about it, this does seem true to me anecdotally; I find that I have more male friends with whom I can engage with on these kinds of issues than female friends. What I do not understand is why.
On a similar note, the other common explanation that I found was the theory that women are somehow conditioned in ways that make them less apt for this type of writing. The best example came from the New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait, responding to Elissa Strauss’ article on last year’s near-identical list (my bold):
My explanation, which I can’t prove, is socialization predisposes boys to be more interested both in producing and consuming opinion journalism. Confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat are disproportionately (though not, of course, exclusively) male traits. I’ve come across several writers in my career who are good at writing in the argumentative style but lack confidence in their ability. They are all female.
Now, a magazine can try to encourage women to have more confidence in their opinions and their right to engage in debate and challenge others. I like to think I’ve done my part here. But overwhelmingly, by the time they reach this stage in their career, the battle has already been lost.
I also have trouble dealing with this argument for the simple reason that most of Chait’s response was describing the soft affirmative action at the New Republic and how many women seem to be around the office, if not writing the bylines. I feel like there must be something else going on.
This post is getting much too long, so here are some more responses that are worth reading for anyone still interested: Roxane Gay wants affirmative action; Robin Romm notes the cycle of literary awards and accolades; Ruth Franklin shows that the problem may not be the magazines, but the publishing houses.
And for the record, my favourite female writers:
- Alana Newhouse: editor-in-cheif, Tablet
- Jennifer Rubin: columnist, Washington Post
- Maureen Dowd: columnist, New York Times
- Dina Rickman: assistant politics editor, Huffington Post UK
- Diaa Hadid: Mid-East based Associated Press reporter
- Sally Neighbour: prolific Australian freelance reporter
- Latika Bourke: ABC (Aust) political reporter
Again, I am quite puzzled by the issue and would appreciate any thoughts on it. You can reply in the comments section, by email or on Twitter (see the “About” section on the right of the page).
The data has it: Australia is falling behind. We are losing out in our children’s reading, maths and science scores, being beaten by most of East Asia, Canada and New Zealand — and we don’t like losing to New Zealand! So what are we doing about it? Apparently, commissioning a highly respected corporate director to write a 250-page report on how we can make our system better; well David Gonski came through and the results were released yesterday. Here, in his own words (published in the Fairfax papers), was the thrust of it:
On average, socio-economically advantaged students are achieving better outcomes than disadvantaged; metropolitan students are achieving better than rural and remote students; and disabled students are falling behind their peers. This is not acceptable in Australia, where we take pride in giving everyone a ”fair go”.
… The funding system that sustains our three school sectors – government, Catholic and independent – is complex, confusing, opaque and inconsistent across states and territories, and obscures educational goals and accountability.
… That’s why the review panel has proposed Australia adopt a Schooling Resource Standard that would have two elements: the amount of per-student investment required to provide a high-quality education, plus loadings targeting disadvantage.
The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that the school funding system has become as bad as it is due to no planning and developing over time for less than ideal motives. However, Gonski’s recommendations are not politically viable at this time.
His review was asked to find a way to fix school funding, state and federal, which has grown piecemeal over decades into a Heath Robinson-like contraption – a fundamentally unfair one, a product of temporary fixes and vote-buying.
… Gonski was hamstrung from the start by the requirement that any change produce no losers. Inevitably, it had to recommend that the government spend a lot more on schools to bring the disadvantaged up to the level the privileged attained long ago. Given the tight federal budget and the promise of an early return to surplus, the government cannot contemplate Gonski’s recommended $5 billion-a-year funding boost … So like a child asking for the impossible, Gonski has been told: “We’ll see.”
Sister paper The Age agreed with the Herald, but spent a lot more time congratulating itself for being agreed with by Gonski and stressing the “inequality” in the system and less time on the realpolitik of the reform.
As usual, the most sophisticated analysis came from The Australian, which praised the more “clear and transparent” system that Gonski proposed, but also noted a few other factors:
As with the present system, parents of students in the wealthiest fee-paying schools would continue to carry a heavy burden — funding state schools through their taxes and paying the fees for their own children, who would receive only about 20 to 25 per cent of the “schooling resource standard” in government subsidies under the proposed model. Contrary to the claims of public sector teachers’ unions, non-government schools are excellent value for taxpayers.
Despite the intense interest in the Gonski report and governments’ responses, education authorities should focus on the need for reform in the selection, training, mentoring and career structures of teachers. Such improvements would create a far more significant education revolution than reorganising the funding system.
For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t understand the argument for Government subsidising private education, it’s really quite simple. Say it costs the Government $15k a year to publicly educate a child, it costs $30k at a private school and the parents can only afford to spend $25k. If the Government subsidises the child’s education by $5k, the child will go to the private school — which gives the child a better education and gives the Government $5k more to allocate to public education.
Also, the parents are paying taxes that go to the education system and, without subsidies, receiving no money back — so essentially, they are subsidising the education of other children while being forced to spend even more on their own child’s schooling, which hardly seems fair to them. To see this explained using a barbeque analogy, click here.
The limits of Gonski
I am not actually convinced that Gonski’s suggestions would improve the education system that radically. I will disclaim that I have not read the report, so please correct me if I’m wrong on any point.
The Australian and the Herald both cited the Rudd/Gillard ‘Building Education Revolution’ as a reason why the Gonski review may have trouble getting through Parliament, and with good reason. The BER was a very good example of how throwing money at something doesn’t make the problem go away.
In NSW at least, there are already a lot of different schemes that give extra funding to disadvantaged and Indigenous students and gives teachers incentives to work in them, yet this does not resolve the problem. Yes, these are poorly thought-out and haphazardly implemented, but the point remains. I have personally seen a school with only impoverished Indigenous students that had unbelievable facilities, including $10,000 basketball nets, yet had some of the lowest outcomes and highest drop-out rates in the state.
More important than how much money is given is how the existing money is spent, other factors also affect education. Here are a few other things we may need to think about:
Take this graph (via The Dish):
Ignore the diagonal line through the middle, that is what us mathematicians call a weak correlation and an example of how statistics are poorly used in policy debates. There is clearly something else going on given the number of outliers. In fact, we do very well on this scaled — Finland, Australia, the UK and the USA all spend around the same amount, yet there is a clear difference in outcomes and Australia seems to achieve very high outcomes relative to dollars spent.
This is something that money cannot really change and is, to a large extent, the elephant in the room. As much money as the Government may throw at disadvantaged children, if they are not interested in learning or if they are not given an environment in which they can learn, they will not learn. To give the example, again, of the school referenced above, the parents of those children had no interest in their being educated, meaning they only went to school if they genuinely wanted to be there (not many did). Add to that growing up in a house with no books, that does not have the newspaper delivered every morning and without any kind of informative dinner table discussion (or indeed, without a dinner table) and a few thousand dollars for the school makes little difference.
That is in extreme example, but I still have a point. To back that up with some actual (admittedly American) data, here’s Charles Murray:
The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children. Among college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in the math and verbal tests had at least one parent with a college degree. Fifty-six percent of them had a parent with a graduate degree. The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart in large part because their parents are smart.
That brings us to the role of homogamy — interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics … homogamy has increased at both ends of the educational scale — college graduates grew more likely to marry college graduates and high school dropouts grew more likely to marry other high school dropouts. In 1960, just 3 percent of American couples both had a college degree. By 2010, that proportion stood at 25 percent.
… The bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.
That said, there is a counter-argument that a more integrated education system pulls-up the scores of disadvantaged children while not significantly affecting the advantaged. See Andrew Sullivan (again) for a summary and follow the links to see an interesting discussion around this issue. I may look into this more at some point in the future to see how good the data actually is.
Meanwhile, if the key recommendation for fixing Australia’s education system relies on funding redistribution, I am not extremely hopeful. Having had the unfortunate experience of going through HSC in NSW, even in a well-funded school, I can say first hand that there is a lot more to address.
In an answer to all of the people who keep talking about the impending collapse of the US, at least as we know it, the Brookings Institute’s Robert Kagan has written a long essay on why the US is still number one and will be for quite some time.
With this broad perception of decline as the backdrop, every failure of the United States to get its way in the world tends to reinforce the impression. Arabs and Israelis refuse to make peace, despite American entreaties. Iran and North Korea defy American demands that they cease their nuclear weapons programs. China refuses to let its currency rise. Ferment in the Arab world spins out of America’s control. Every day, it seems, brings more evidence that the time has passed when the United States could lead the world and get others to do its bidding.
Powerful as this sense of decline may be, however, it deserves a more rigorous examination. Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system—all of which make up what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” And there is the matter of time. Judgments based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic. A great power’s decline is the product of fundamental changes in the international distribution of various forms of power that usually occur over longer stretches of time.
Kagan’s argument is that despite current hyperbole, the US has been through comparatively worse times and bounced back, and there is no current threat to US hegemony economically or militarily. It is worth reading the whole piece, where he points out how there have been economic crises in the past – such as the 1930s and the 1970s – in which every pundit became a doomsayer but all predictions of American decline turned out to be completely wrong. America still earns 1/4 of the world’s GDP and it is still four times richer than China per capita.
In economic terms, and even despite the current years of recession and slow growth, America’s position in the world has not changed. Its share of the world’s GDP has held remarkably steady, not only over the past decade but over the past four decades. In 1969, the United States produced roughly a quarter of the world’s economic output. Today it still produces roughly a quarter, and it remains not only the largest but also the richest economy in the world. People are rightly mesmerized by the rise of China, India, and other Asian nations whose share of the global economy has been climbing steadily, but this has so far come almost entirely at the expense of Europe and Japan, which have had a declining share of the global economy.
Optimists about China’s development predict that it will overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world sometime in the next two decades. This could mean that the United States will face an increasing challenge to its economic position in the future. But the sheer size of an economy is not by itself a good measure of overall power within the international system. If it were, then early nineteenth-century China, with what was then the world’s largest economy, would have been the predominant power instead of the prostrate victim of smaller European nations. Even if China does reach this pinnacle again—and Chinese leaders face significant obstacles to sustaining the country’s growth indefinitely—it will still remain far behind both the United States and Europe in terms of per capita GDP.
Another point he makes is that everyone seems to be looking at US history through rose coloured lenses – in actual fact, America has always had many successes in foreign policy, but even more failures. As one example, for all of their problems, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not nearly as costly as Vietnam.
If the United States is not suffering decline in these basic measures of power, isn’t it true that its influence has diminished, that it is having a harder time getting its way in the world? The almost universal assumption is that the United States has indeed lost influence. Whatever the explanation may be—American decline, the “rise of the rest,” the apparent failure of the American capitalist model, the dysfunctional nature of American politics, the increasing complexity of the international system—it is broadly accepted that the United States can no longer shape the world to suit its interests and ideals as it once did. Every day seems to bring more proof, as things happen in the world that seem both contrary to American interests and beyond American control.
And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”
If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.
On military superiority, Walter Russell Mead gave a great rundown a while ago in a post responding to Muammar Gaddafi’s death. He made one thing very clear: not only is America not threatened militarily by anyone, no country could even come close to the US in any combat situation. Remember that there is a huge difference between asymmetrical warfare fought by insurgents trying to drive the US out of a country that Americans don’t even want to be in and a skirmish with China over a Pacific oil field.
Additionally, the balance of military power has been steadily shifting in favor of the United States. This runs counter to all the loose talk about inevitable, inexorable US decline: a close look at the facts on the ground suggests that the US has considerably more power to impose its agenda on most “third world” countries than it did twenty years ago. This is partly because such countries can no longer realistically claim the protection of a rival superpower, but it is also because the American military is a much more formidable machine than it used to be. Our weapons are much smarter and much more devastatingly effective, and our professional military has blossomed into the most effective force in the history of the human race. We can still be made to take casualties in asymmetrical combat situations, and no amount of military power can overcome the absence of strategy, but between the battlefield advantages our high tech weapons and new methods of training and combat planning have given us, the revolution in force projection, and the range of cultural, diplomatic, humanitarian and developmental capacities our military has acquired in the last twenty years, America’s unprecedented military power has changed the way the world works.
This power is not a magic omnipotence pill; there are many things we cannot do. But the days when a third world tyrant could rely on conventional weapons to deter American intervention are gone. The US military swatted Saddam’s army, rated as one of the world’s better forces, like so many flies in the first Gulf War, and by the time of the second our conventional superiority was even greater. The Libyan intervention was done with the back of our hand, so to speak; President Obama and his top commanders did not interrupt their efforts in the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia to provide the backup for NATO’s attacks.
This power does not work as well in asymmetrical settings, but in general we are back to the kind of military superiority that European forces enjoyed over non-European rulers in Victorian times. Reinforcing that power is the fact that no other great power has the force projection capacities, or even the military resources overall, to come to the aid of a Libya or a Saddam. Drone strike diplomacy is not all that different from gunboat diplomacy, and until and unless the military balance changes, the US is going to have more options for dealing with “bad guys” than we have had for many years.
As for the geostrategic make-up of the Asia-Pacific region in the “Asian Century”, America has that down-pat as well. Mead again, this time on a new deal going through as you read this:
The Obama Administration may soon come to an agreement with Philippines to station U.S. troops or naval vessels on its territory. The talks are still in the early stages, but officials from both countries have said they are inclined to strike a deal within the next few months.
An agreement with Manila would come close on the heels of two other upcoming moves: American Marines soon to be stationed in Australia and several U.S. warships moving to Changi Naval Base in Singapore.
Asian nations are learning that the United States is prepared to offer a real balance against China’s new assertiveness in the region. In the Philippine case, this dovetails nicely with the country’s interests—especially with respect to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, geographically closer to the Philippines than China. Manila has occasionally stationed troops on the islands, and it operates a number of offshore oil fields in waters claimed by China. Having American ships docked in its ports, if not also American boots on Philippine soil, will no doubt be a confidence booster for Manila in these and other disputes.
The truth is that the new emerging powers in the world are not even close to threatening US hegemony. In fact, most of their rise is coming at Europe’s expense. It may upset some of you hardcore third worldists out there who seem to believe that America is an evil influence on the world, but you better face facts: Uncle Sam is still on top.
Brookings’ Shadi Hamid has made a good point here – there was an Arab democratic upsurge in 2005, although it was quickly stifled as Islamist groups were elected into power.
In 2011, the Middle East witnessed the second ‘Arab Spring.’ The first—now somewhat forgotten—took place in 2005. President George W. Bush had announced in November 2003 a “forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East.” In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, he declared: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
The Bush administration cited democracy promotion among the reasons for its invading Iraq and toppling dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. As dubious, cynical and inconsistent as they may have been, Bush’s policies helped produce an otherwise unlikely outcome. The year 2005 saw the largest outpouring of pro-democracy activism the region had ever seen up until then. On January 31, 2005, Iraqis braved terrorist threats to cast meaningful ballots for the first time. In Bahrain, fifty thousand Bahrainis—one-eighth of the population—rallied for constitutional reform. And there was, of course, the Cedar Revolution, which led to a removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory. The Iraq war frightened Arab regimes into thinking that President Bush was serious about his democratizing mission.
However, after a succession of Islamist election victories in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, the United States backed off from its aggressive pro-democracy posture. With a deteriorating security situation in Iraq, a rising Iran, and a smoldering Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Arab democracy came to seem an unaffordable luxury. This was not a time for unsettling friendly Arab autocrats. Their Islamist competitors, known for their inflammatory anti-Americanism, were, at best, an unknown quantity. American policymakers shared an instinctive distrust of Islamists and made little effort to understand how they had changed. At worst, Americans feared, the Islamists would use their newfound power to roll back U.S. influence in the region.
So here’s a question: why is Libya so different from Iraq? Why is it ok for the US to intervene when Muammar Gaddafi is slaughtering his own people, but not when Saddam Hussein is doing it (which he had done many times, by the way)? Some peopled will talk about Arab League support, but surely intervening to save civilians from a despotic ruler isn’t reliant on assention from a group of other dictators, who would not hesitate to do the same to their own people if they deemed it necessary.
So again, did the Iraq war actually help the Middle East move toward democracy?
I did have one issue with what Hamid was saying:
There was no need to follow a sequence—economic reform first, democracy later—or meet a long list of prerequisites. Arabs, it turns out, did not have to wait for democracy. More importantly, they didn’t want to. The hundreds of millions of dollars in civil society aid had been rendered beside the point. America’s caution, hedging of bets, and fetish for gradualism—previously the hallmarks of hard-headed realpolitik—proved both foolhardy and naïve. Of course, Americans always said they knew this: freedom and democracy was not the province of one people or culture, but a universal right.
Everyone is getting way ahead if themselves here. Look at the lesson outlined above from 2005 – democracy requires more than overthrowing the dictators. As I’ve said before, the Arab states have a long way to go before they can be called “democratic”.