28 May 2008

What the future might hold

Last Monday I attended no less than two separate talks on, as it turned out, related topics. In the morning Michael Barone, one of the best known American political commentators, author of many, many articles and columns and of several books, most recently, of “Our First Revolution: the remarkable British uprising that inspired America's founding fathers”.

Barone spoke about the presidential race in the United States, not a subject we cover too much on this blog for several reasons. In the first place, it is much written about in the main stream media, though I would not trust British journalists on the subject. They were, after all, convinced that Kerry would win in 2004, a position whose absurdity was clear to anyone who followed events in the American media and the blogosphere.

Secondly, it is a subject that is widely discussed in the American blogosphere. Nothing we say can rival the extensive knowledge and grasp of detail displayed by the likes of Barone himself, Michelle Malkin, Christopher Hitchens or Mark Steyn, to name just a few.

Thirdly, this is not really our subject, apart from the need to point out periodically, that there is this country in which the executive and legislative, properly separated, are both elected by the people of that country. Look upon it and despair about our own situation. No wonder people are gnashing their teeth in envy and calling for the rest of the world a.k.a. the great and the good as well as the tranzis and the NGOs to impose their decisions on the American people.

Still, the President of the United States is an important person for all of us and occasionally we need to look, at least in general terms, at the process that will decide who that person is going to be. A briefing by Michael Barone is a good opportunity for doing just that.

The first thing to be noted (and I do wish British commentators in both the old and new media would do so) is Michael Barone’s strong and reiterated assertion that the result of the presidential election is, at this stage, unpredictable. Obama is not about to be anointed as POTUS, though it is more than likely that he will be the Democratic nominee, not without some trouble there, as it happens.

I may add that Obama’s recent faux pas of threatening people with all sorts of nameless things if they keep quoting what his wife said in a public speech as part of her campaigning on his behalf “inappropriately” has not won him many supporters. The ones who have descended into Obamania are there and will stay there. He needs many more votes, though.

Michael Barone is not an Obama fan but that is not why he remains uncertain about the outcome. He is far too good a commentator to take the wish for the deed. The truth is that the outcome is uncertain because American electoral politics is once again experiencing a big shift and because there are many doubts about all the candidates, Barack Obama, in particular.

His description of American politics was that it has moved from trench warfare with clearly signposted lines and entrenched positions to open field warfare with politicians and voters moving around, separately or in groups.

It is true the President Bush’s approval rating is low but the Democratic Congress, elected with much fanfare in 2006, rates even lower. Recent by-elections have gone the Democrats’ way but, as in this country, people vote differently and less “responsibly” in by-elections than in general ones.

Another sign that the Democrats are doing well is a much higher proportion of people identifying with them than with the Republicans. This, however, is a tricky issue. Republican self-identification was at its highest in 2004 since the 1930s when these questions were first asked. What Mr Barone did not add, as all of us know, is that the Republicans did win the odd election or two during that period. So self-identification is not necessarily a guide to a more general voting pattern in the country.

Democrats this time round have shown themselves much better at fund raising, utilizing the internet for that purpose very successfully. But all indicators that there is a swing to them from the Republicans go fuzzy when it comes to the presidential campaign, whose intra-party bitterness has had a negative effect, so far as one can tell, on the electorate.

Above all, the presidential campaigns hinge on responses to specific candidates.

Within the Democratic Party there is tribal warfare being waged between the black and other groups (the latter including Hispanic and Asian ones as well as Jewish), between older and younger voters and between upscale and downscale ones. How that will play itself out when the candidate is finally chosen remains unpredictable. Notoriously, Obama is very unpopular among non-black working class voters, who still make up a very large part of the Democratic Party’s supporters. On the other hand, will any of them go so far as to vote for John McCain? It’s not impossible as McCain is centre-left but it is far from a given.

Much of Mr Barone’s talk concerned detailed analyses of figures and groupings, subjects that are not for this blog. He did mention that, so far, there has been little concentration on specific issues and a good deal of discussion as to whether this election will mean the end of the forty year long conservative political hegemony. Again, that is not a given, since in those forty years there were various electoral results.

However, it is fair to say that there is a new generation of electors who do not remember the horrors of the seventies and cannot be scared by them. We face a similar situation in this country and it is an inevitable one.

Voters of that kind in the States cannot see that big state is necessarily a bad thing. Voters of any kind in Britain find it hard to believe that big state is not a good thing so we part company from our brethren over the Pond.

However, the same generation of voters, added Mr Barone, wants to have choices and knows about them through the internet. This could mean a possible Republican opening to that generation. Oddly, he did not mention the widespread popularity and influence of right-wing blogs, who definitely do have a link with the post 1970s generation.

The economy, which is stubbornly refusing to sink as low as it has been predicted for some time, could give either candidate an advantage. If things are not as bad as people say, voters might want to stick with the existing party or they might decide to give the other guys a chance, knowing that things remain fairly safe.

Then there is the question of foreign policy, one that does concern us on this side of the Pond.

Foreign policy may or may not play an important part in the election though the question of security undoubtedly will. Again, one cannot quite predict the outcome as the situation in Iraq has improved considerably and not all the efforts of the MSM and of Democrat politicians can disguise that fact. McCain, as the man who had always advocated something like the present surge, may well reap the benefits.

This is one of Obama’s weak points as he stumbles from one idiotic statement to another and tries to bluster his way out of it. His extraordinary outrage at Bush’s general comments on appeasers in the Knesset, which stated to all the world that he thinks of himself as one, is one more thing that might harm him later on in the fight against McCain.

Barack Obama’s pronouncements on foreign policy have been muddled and full of contradictions as well as showing a distinct lack of knowledge or understanding. It is hard to decide on the biggest gaffe. Was it the reference to 57 states, excluding Alaska and Hawaii? Or was it his completely unhistorical assertion that in talking to the enemy, in this case Baby Assad of Syria and Ahmadinejad of Iran, not to mention various terrorists, he would be following in the footsteps of FDR, Harry Truman and JFK.

Sadly, neither Roosevelt nor Truman are known for too much parlaying with the enemy and the one time Kennedy tried it, in 1961 at the Vienna Summit with Khrushchev, the results were disastrous and he foreswore any future exercise of that kind.

A fascinating article in the IHT gives a good account of that event and its outcome, suggesting that Obama should pay a little more attention to what Kennedy really learnt from it all.

One interesting point about foreign policy ties up with the other talk I attended later that day. In his recent speech on foreign policy John McCain suggested that a new organization should be created perhaps in place of, perhaps in parallel to the United Nations – a league of democracies.

The Henry Jackson Society hosted Professor Thomas Cushman, Founding Editor and Editor-at-Large of the Journal of Human Rights and Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College when he spoke on that very subject.

The first part of that proposition is easy to outline and prove. Just a few examples to do with UN peacekeeping scandals and the Human Rights Commission, not to mention the Durban Anti-Racism Conference, and you have managed to prove to many people’s satisfaction that there is a great deal rotten in Turtle Bay, though the chap next to me did not really like Professor Cushman’s description of the UN as a league of autocrats. According to him matters could be improved if we could make the Security Council function better. When asked how he envisaged that he became somewhat coy.

The problem is, of course, with the second part of the proposition, the creation of a league of democracies, as proposed by Professor Cushman and various colleagues of his. The international community, as it exists, explained the good professor, is problematic in that it pays more attention to “international law” than humanitarian principles, which means that individual countries can do what they like with the UN, as representative of that community, powerless to act.

Which leaves us with the need to define "international law".

There is also the problem that the UN consists of those very countries that break all the supposed founding principles of the organization. The idea of setting up a parallel organization that would consist only of countries who agreed on certain principles and would accept that desirable interests, such as freedom, democracy and human rights, should also be vital interests, sounds tempting. I have heard it enunciated in general and not so general terms on several occasions. But the devil, if one may say so, is in the detail.

First of all, it is interesting to note that, though the idea of a parallel organization to the UN is seen by many on the left as being neo-con and, therefore, an emanation of Satan, it has actually become a talking point among politicians of differing hues. And the left with some exceptions, as Professor Cushman rightly pointed out, ceased to interest itself in human rights or freedom some time in the middle of the twentieth century if not earlier.

Thus there are suggestions from Democrat-supporting think-tanks of such names as Alliance of Democracies, Community of Democracies (this one from Madeleine Allbright) and Concert of Democracies. John McCain has suggested League of Democracies and mused about the possibility of about 100 members.

Given that the name League of Democracies irresistibly reminds one of the ill-fated League of Nations, it may not be the right one to go with but none of the others sound particularly attractive either.

Professor Cushman thinks that’s too many as it would be hard to find 100 certified democracies. I’ll say. His idea that at first the new voluntary organization should be restricted to just a few – number unspecified – of solid democracies that will not turn into anything else.

That raises one or two problems. How do you define a solid democracy? How long does it have to have been one? What are its characteristics? Let’s see now. We’ll have the Anglospheric countries, Britain, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India. India? Hmm. There are a few problems there but, I suppose, one could overlook them.

What of the other European countries? The Scandinavian ones, certainly. France, I suppose. Germany has been a successful democracy long enough to count. But what about Spain, Portugal, Greece and the East European countries? Russia, presumably, would not qualify and neither would China. Japan probably yes. But what of Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and other South-Eastern countries? It exhausts me just to think of all the problems of definition.

Naturally, I was unimpressed by Professor Cushman assuming that the EU, of all organizations, could be a model for the new one in the way it has assimilated new members, first providing them with strong guidelines on how to become worthy of membership. The EU is not a loose organization of democratic states but a less than democratic state in the making and Professor Cushman, with all his astonishing qualifications, fails to realize that. How seriously should we take his other statements?

Furthermore, it is unclear whether this organization is to be anything more than just another talking shop, though this time not with an anti-American, anti-Western bias (maybe we had better keep France out, after all). When I asked whether he envisaged an integrated force that would intervene in countries that abused human rights most flagrantly, the good professor openly told me that he was being evasive because he sees that problem as being well into the future. I think not. If you set up an organization you need to decide at an early stage what the aim is and, in general terms, how that aim is to be achieved. Otherwise, you blunder into badly planned scenarios.

There are a few points to be made here, though. Firstly, it is good that the subject of how to by-pass the UN to the point when it might disappear, is becoming part of mainstream American political discussion. Of course, the best way of achieving that objective would be to stop giving the wretched organization money but, I suppose, it is reasonable for politicians to be able to say that there is an alternative to something that is completely rotten and corrupt but is seen as a shining star of human hopes, if only it could be polished up a bit.

On the other hand if Obama does become President (and with all those idiotic gaffes, McCain’s chances are looking better and better) he will not want to do anything. He, as Professor Cushman said, will be a hero at the UN.

Secondly, the idea of making it clear that countries that actually believe in certain principles, even if they do not always act on them, are basically different from those that merely sign up to agreements and proceed to violate them before the ink is dry is full of potential.

Thirdly, there is no harm in affirming that those principles, based on freedom and democracy should become part of the democratic countries’ interests. Nor is there any harm in creating some organization in which the United States will be merely first among equals and, surrounded by allies, will take cognizance of them. Actually, as we have written before, it is not true that President Bush or any of his predecessors refused to listen. He merely refused to listen to America’s enemies.

Fourthly, national sovereignty is a severely overrated concept. The only reason the UN is stuck with it is because the Soviet Union insisted on putting it into the founding charter (and the meeting that signed it was organized and managed by the well-known Soviet agent Alger Hiss), wishing to prevent any discussion of its own record on freedom and human rights. But if those concepts are to trump national sovereignty there has to be a decisiveness about the need to intervene if necessary, a way of defining when that necessity arises and a method of achieving that intervention. None of which, it seems to me, are even close to being discussed seriously by the potential founders of the League of Democracies.