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The legacy of 9/11 has weakened liberal democracy, not strengthened it

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Law And Order on September 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

James Bartholomeusz

Predictably, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City has provoked an orgy of reflection on the ‘war on terror’ decade. After ten years of war, we must ask ourselves, is the world a better place? Has the life of the average Western or Arabic person been improved enough to justify the actions taken? Neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike have adopted the Arab Spring as evidence that toppling dictators is beginning to catch on in the Middle East – failing to mention, obviously, that the two most high-profile autocrats were until last winter funded and supported by the West. Whilst the democratic revolutions of this year have been welcome, it is a tempting but treacherous line which is drawn between these uprisings and the supposed victories of the ‘war on terror’. In fact, liberal democracy is looking sicklier than perhaps at any time since the 1930s.

Across the Western world, the birthplace of liberalism, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our rights and liberties. To take two British examples, detention without trial and stop-and-search legislation have undermined the fundamental concept of innocence until guilt is proven. Blair’s draconian 90-day proposal for the former was, thankfully, halted by a rebellion in his own party, whilst the additional powers afforded to police by the latter have been used disproportionately on the young and non-white, often with no regard for the potential Islamist credentials of the suspect. What is perhaps most striking about these developments has been that they have achieved cross-party consensus. After Bush and Blair, part of Obama and Cameron’s appeal was the prospect of democratic reinvigoration: progress has been almost non-existent, with Guantanamo Bay still open and Britain’s authoritarian state apparatus remaining intact.

Furthermore, in an age of multiculturalism, Islamophobia is more widespread and more acceptable than ever: Islam has been singled out as having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts, as if that made it unique amongst religions or ideologies. The renaissance enjoyed by the far-Right, though mostly to do with the effects of globalisation, cannot be divorced from the apparent tolerance of anti-Islamic views. The EDL in-particular is opposed specifically to Muslims, and yet it shares with the mainstream Western establishment the sense that there is something uniquely barbaric and murder-inducing about Islam. In a report last year by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism operative attributed hate crimes against Muslims to “a negative view of Muslims . . . acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media”, and even went as far to suggest that “Anti-Muslim crimes have not been afforded the same priority attention [that] government and police have invested in racist hate crimes”.

And let us not ignore the ostensibly ‘stabilising’ effects of Western intervention abroad. In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2006 to 2010 is estimated at over 8,000, whilst 70% of southern Afghans think that the intervention has had a negative effect on the country. Iraqi civilian deaths have not been recorded, but estimates place the total at almost 1.5 million. As campaign organisations have consistently pointed out, torture has become commonplace treatment for those detained by NATO forces in war-zones. Extraordinary renditions – the illegal movement of humans against their will from one country of custody to another – have become the norm, as prisoners are passed from the Middle East to North America and back again. Meanwhile, profits of arms companies have soared to levels as-yet unseen, so that Afghanistan is now one of the most militarised areas of the planet: to give just one statistic, in the period 2008-10 the UK exported £32.5 million worth of arms to the country. And yet even by its own standards of murder, torture and profiteering, the West is failing. Having broken Iraq and tossed it aside, we are now in the middle of a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a compromise with the Taliban, once derided, is now looking increasingly likely.

Another unwanted effect in the Middle East of the ‘war on terror’ has been the loss of Western credibility at a time when local people sorely need support: the Arab Spring. The democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya were hailed by Western leaders as a fulfilment of the aim of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since February this year, a collective amnesia seems to have descended on the Western establishment, conviniently omitting from memory the West’s long and ongoing support for authoritarian regimes. The Arab people, however, are not likely to forget the scene of Blair embracing Gaddafi, or Hilary Clinton referring to Mubarak as “a close personal friend”. Neither are they likely to forgive the lack of serious reprimand towards Israel, despite it holding the illustrious position as the nation to have violated the highest number of UN Resolutions (along with the tacit assumption that centuries of Jewish oppression entitles successive Israeli governments to ignore Palestinian human rights). Perhaps the most egregious example of this duplicity was in Iraq, where NATO funded and armed Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s whilst he was an asset against the USSR, and then bombed him in the 1990s and 2000s when his own expansionism began to threaten oil resources. There was no miraculous change in the Bathaist regime’s morality to merit this U-turn: the human rights of Iraqis did not enter the discussion at all until humanitarian aims became usefully (and accidentally) aligned with economic ones. It was pure hypocrisy.

By no means would all of us describe ourselves as ‘liberals’ – most Brits would probably opt for ‘conservative’ or ‘social democrat’ as a label – but we cannot escape the fact that the ground on which our political intuitions are built is that of liberal democracy. Few Westerners would refuse to pay at least lip service to the fundamental ideas of individual liberty, freedom from abuse and equality before the law. And yet, as a decade of war fought to protect our way of life draws to close, Western society looks less liberal and democratic than it did ten years ago. The legacy if 9/11 has given new credence to the old truth that, in war, opponents are often far more similar than either side would like to think.

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VATman, ACTA, and the Internet Activists

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Ideology, Law And Order, The Media on September 15, 2010 at 10:16 pm

…is the rather melodramatic title to our fifth podcast to date, episode 4 (the pilot remains numberless).

In this, Stephen Wan dons the VATman uniform in his quest to make VAT a fairer tax; and Chris Meier discourses on the subject of ACTA, and then goes on to give a heartwarming tale about “internet activists” from 4chan*.

As always, enjoy. And if you wish to join us in our podcasting revellry, simply give myself or Stephen Wan a shout, at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (d0t) com, or stephenwan91 (at) gmail (dot) com.

* Source: http://tech.blorge.com/Structure:%20/2010/09/03/4chan-makes-an-old-man-happy-but-dont-expect-the-fluffiness-to-continue-for-long/

Loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat leaves Obama out in the cold

In America, Events, Foreign Affairs on February 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm
The seemingly liberal state of Massachusetts has provided a damning verdict on Obama’s first year in the White House.

By Tom Kennedy

The loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s seat is more than just an embarrassment

“How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for you?” asked Sarah Palin when addressing the Tea Party Movement last week. Not too well it seems Sarah. Indeed, the reported ‘death’ of the Republican Party appears to have been celebrated a little prematurely. For a brief moment on election night, following a liberal, mixed race candidate emerging victorious, it appeared that America was finally starting to reject conservatism. According to Time magazine only last May, Republicans were “endangered species”.  However, the victory of Republican trucker Scott Brown in Massachusetts, widely regarded as a Democrat heartland, suggest that the GOP is far from finished. The growing frustration felt by many Americans towards Obama’s vision for the country meant that some manner of embarrassment at the polls was almost inevitable. However, the fact that Massachusetts was the place that provided this frank assessment of Obama’s first year at the White House is simply astonishing. The sea blue state has been represented by the Kennedy family for over fifty years. If ever there was a ‘safe’ Democrat seat, this was it. Yet Brown, a former Cosmopolitan centre-fold, has crudely capitalised on Obama’s mounting struggles, chiefly the much debated health care reforms.

The loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s seat is more than just an unfortunate embarrassment; it puts Obama’s entire domestic agenda at risk. It means that his vital supermajority in the Senate, the sixtieth filibuster proof vote, has been lost. As a result, health care reform, a fundamental objective of the Obama administration, has been left extremely vulnerable. Of course, the President will be able to identify moderate Republicans and try to convince them to vote in favour of his plans, but no one Republican wants to be the single vote that offers Obama a lifeline. Tellingly, the online betting website, intrade.com, now puts the odds of the Senate passing health care reform by June at just 33%. Bookies tend not to get these things wrong. The question posed by many during the 2008 election was whether Obama was ready to be President of the United States. Yet a year on, the more poignant query seems to be whether the US is ready for Obama. He was elected on the promise of change, yet many American citizens seem somewhat hesitant towards developing with him, and show a lack of trust in Obama as President. His promise to unite a nation and reform Washington is far from completion. Republicans appear as opposed to Obama as Democrats did to George W Bush. Today, it is no longer farfetched to consider that the Democrats could lose control of the House of Representatives come November. The White House has been quick to blame Brown’s Democratic rival Martha Coakley for the disaster in Massachusetts. Admittedly, she was a less than inspiring candidate, and seemed to take victory for granted. Any politician who responds to accusations of passive campaigning by enquiring, “What am I supposed to do, shake hands in the freezing cold outside Fenway Park?”, fails to inspire confidence.  However, in truth, Brown was a protest vote. 78% of those who voted for him admitted that they did so in order to halt health care reform.

If it’s cold in Massachusetts, then Obama must be feeling distinctly numb in Washington, for Brown’s victory showed the growing dislike of Obama’s aspiration for America. The President cannot simply shrug this defeat off. In the words of Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, “If you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wakeup call, there’s no hope of waking up.” Sadly, Obama may have to distinguish between what he feels is best for America, and what the people themselves actually want. Ominously for the White House, Brown’s political ideology is the complete opposite to Obama’s. The Republican is aggressively opposed to big government and has forcefully attacked the President’s ambitions for health care reform. Massachusetts’s Republican Governor Mitt Romney claimed that “this shows that the American people are rejecting the arrogance of ‘Obama-ism” – the idea that government knows best”. It was hoped by many Democrats that the emergence of Obama and the conclusion of a wretched two year term under the Bush administration would all but see off any Republican revival, at least for a while. Even within Republican quarters, serious questions were raised over the future direction of the party. Now, Sarah Palin and other right wing politicians adored by the growing ‘Tea Party Movement’, see the 2012 election is a genuine chance to capture the White House. It is essential that Obama now focuses on avoiding a rout in the midterm elections next year. Although he is only a year into his Presidency, the mid terms are little over ten months away. If things seem hard now, then they could be even worse next year. If the Republicans were to trump the Democrats, Obama could be left almost powerless in his relationship with Congress, making re-election an uncomfortable challenge. At worst, Obama could become a Jimmy Carter figure. An ideological liberal, with noble and brave intentions, yet unable to effectively legislate as President, due to a lack of support in Washington. If the President wants to develop and change the country, he must avoid this at all costs, or risk being a one-term president.

In contrast to last year’s hysteria, the Obama effect is harming, rather than furthering, the political ambitions of the Democrat party. In Massachusetts, swing voters and independents, who were pivotal in electing Obama, deserted the Democrats. Brown made up a 30 point deficit in only a month to defeat Coakley, winning 52 per cent to 47. Whilst this is concerning for the Obama administration, they should take comfort in the fact that things can easily swing back in their favour. When the economic state of the country improves, Obama is likely to be under less pressure. When more Americans find themselves employed, the President will be face less hostility from the public. The President must see through this difficult period, and regain the support of the American people. This may mean moderating certain views and compromise may well be necessary if he is to govern effectively, just as Bill Clinton was forced to do before him. If Obama is to recover from the anti-incumbent fever that has gripped many of those who voted for him in 2008, it is necessary for him to understand fully what has gone wrong, and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. All polls indicate one thing; voters want Obama to concentrate on job creation rather than health reform. As a result, Obama may have to temporarily suspend his foremost strategy, at least for a little while. If the President’s state of the union address was anything to go by, then that might already be the case.

There is still a long time until Obama faces re-election, and a lot will change. It is fascinating to ponder how history will view Obama. Will he be a curious footnote in the history of the United States, the first African American president, a one term leader who promised so much but ultimately delivered little? Will he prove to be one of the great American presidents, the man who enhanced their foreign policy, introduced an environmental agenda to Washington and brought health care to those who so desperately need it? Only time will tell.

Get our own house in order first – by David Weber

In Europe, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm

“The EU is undemocratic”, “The EU is anti-democratic”, “We have our lives dictated to by unelected EU bureaucrats”, “Nobody was given a say over the Lisbon Treaty”, “The Conservatives have now reneged upon their promise to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty”…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

I’m sorry, what was that? I was just dreaming of a constructive debate about the EU, of actually looking at what we can do to improve it and engaging for once, rather than moaning incessantly about it whilst ignoring the many ways we can still influence direction.

The magic word for Eurosceptics is “undemocratic”. They simply cannot help themselves, it’s a gift of a word: everyone hates it, no-body entirely understands what they refer to by it, and it goes way beyond the normal nationalistic base of the Conservatives and appeals to all who broadly oppose the EU for very different reasons. And no-one has had the guts to take them on over it.

The fact is the democracy begins at home. Before moaning about the EU as an institution, we need to get our own house in order, and look at how we could improve democracy purely by our own, independent, action. And the answers appear to be blindingly obvious.

Before I go on, let me try and, in a very simplistic fashion, analyse the various structural elements of the EU, that people believe ought to be democratic, and consider how democratic they actually are.

First off, we can exclude the European Court of Justice fairly easily. I don’t think there are many, even among extreme Eurosceptics, who genuinely believe that justices ought to be elected.

Now, the legislature of the European Union is divided into two parts. The weaker of the two (although, allegedly, made slightly stronger by the Lisbon treaty) is the European Parliament. The European Parliament is, currently, the only directly elected institution of the European government, at least in this country. It is elected by proportional representation (which seems a reasonably democratic ideal), through a closed-list system (which doesn’t) in all regions barring Northern Ireland, in 12 separate regions of the United Kingdom (The 9 regions of England and the 3 other countries in the Union, so a degree of localism exists).

Now, these elections use an abominable system called closed-list, which incorporates pretty much every flaw known to PR. There is no individual accountability, as one can only vote for the party, not for the person. The regions are big enough in England so to dilute any concept of direct representation thoroughly, but small enough so to lead to absurdities in the system, such as the BNP gaining two seats, on a smaller swing than the Green party received for nought.

There is no possibility of transferable voting, and indicating preference between candidates and parties, as there is with STV (although this is part of the reason why STV is not true PR, as such a feature invariably leads to disproportional results). So closed-list minimises choice whilst placing parties firmly in control over the election of their preferred candidates.

Now, there is no reason why this must be the case for elections to the European Union. EU rules only specify that the system should be a form of ‘PR’, which it specifies can include the Single Transferable Vote (but, confusingly, don’t appear to set down in any detail how big the constituencies should be which would seem to indicate that the Alternate Vote can be PR, an absurdity). I think I am right in saying that the list classification could also allow the Additional Member System, further adding to the flexibility of elections to the EU. So the government could easily make the EU more accountable and democratic through abolishing closed-list and putting in its place a reasonable, accountable system of ‘PR’ or STV. Almost any reform would improve it, even through simply introducing open lists, although my preferred way would either be the introduction of STV or a change to an Additional Member System, which would introduce more direct representation and bring representatives closer to the people.

So, that’s the EU parliament out of the way, the only directly elected institution of the EU. Fine, you might say, that’s the easy part over and done with, but this hardly transforms the EU. Fair enough, I’ll admit, so I’ll move on to the other institutions and show you how wrong you are.

Secondly, we have the Council of the EU (formerly known as the Council of Ministers, and not to be confused with the European Council, or the Council of Europe [the latter not even being an institution of the EU]). This is the more powerful of the two legislative bodies, and is the principle decision-making body in the EU. It is not directly elected.

However, it is comprised of ministers of state in national governments. Which actually means that a lot of the decision taken that parties decide to conveniently “blame on Brussels” are, in fact, signed off by a collective meeting of the relevant national ministers of state. Which indicates that actually, many decisions allegedly taken by “unelected bureaucrats” are in fact taken by our secretaries of state, weighed up in the national interest, so a lot of the fuss is actually smoke and mirrors. Which means, if you really want to know how effective democratic decision-making in the EU is, it would be better to analyse the voting records of our ministers in the Council of the EU. Strangely, hardly anyone seems to do that.

The Council has a rotating presidency, which is a truly national concept of democracy, in that each country gets an equal right of participation, rather than the position being elected by majority. So much for the EU “undermining the nation state”, in key ways, it acts to preserve it in intergovernmental decision-making.

The Presidency, incidentally, also chairs the European Council, which is similar in constitutional nature to the head of state of a country, although it is a political decision-making body, unlike our own Head of State in the United Kingdom. The European Council is a meeting of the heads of state or government of all member states, which meets in summit around 4 times a year. This, however, will change with the Lisbon treaty, just to add confusion, an additional post of president will be created, separate to the rotating presidency, who chairs the European Council. The new president will not hold any national office, which strikes me as a little absurd, as he will be chairing a meeting of nothing but holders of national office.

This brings me on to the new position of the president of the European Council, which is not elected, and is often cited by Eurosceptics as the greatest evidence of increasing federalism. I say it is not elected, but it would be better to say that it does not have to be directly elected. Instead, it merely has to be elected by qualified majority vote by the European Council.

However, in practice, it would be absurdly easy to introduce democratic contribution to the election of the post — a law could simply be introduced to bind the head of government to the decision of the people in a prior election of all official candidates held in the UK. This would undoubtedly cause turmoil in the ranks of other countries contributing to the European Council, and could easily have a knock-on effect.

The same also applies to the European Commission, the embodiment of the notorious unelected bureaucrats referred to by the Eurosceptics. The Commission is roughly comparable to the government or executive of a nation state, and is not elected (similar, in fact, to our own government). Each country is responsible, however, for appointing a commissioner — so why not make the post subject to national election? What better way to reinvigorate the interests of democracy in the EU than by making commissioners accountable for their actions in office? Again, this could easily have a knock-on effect, with other countries seeking to follow suit. It would not lead to greater presidentialism, as each country contributes its own commissioner, meaning that the values of national democracy would be strengthened — and again, as with every other suggestion above, this is entirely possible unilaterally. It would require no consensual decision-making within the EU; it is a reform that could be introduced quickly and easily by the national government.

Other suggestions have been made — there is no end of ways of making MEPs more accountable to their constituents, through creating incentives to hold more regular constituency surgeries, to splitting regions up into districts which each MEP has individual responsibility for. Eurosceptics generally moan about the state of European democracy, but they singularly fail to realise that democracy, much like charity, begins at home. The EU was founded through intergovernmentalism, and it can be improved by the actions of national governments first and foremost. Unilateral action could introduce the type of dynamic agenda for European democracy that many people have longed for since the establishment of the EU — and the only thing stopping this from happening is the selfishness of national governments.

Was the 20th Century the age of democracy?

In Foreign Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 12:22 am


This essay will start by outlining the reasons for thinking the 20th century was the age of democracy, namely the rapid increase in the number of democracies, due to the failure of alternatives to democracy and increased economic development.  However, this essay will argue that the 20th century was not in fact the age of democracy (on a proper account of what it means to be democratic) due to foreign intervention to crush democracy and, more significantly, a lack of real self-rule in apparently democratic countries.

The statistics suggest that the 20th century was the age of democracy, meaning the century in which democratic governance became predominant.  Professor John Keane points out that “ in the year 1900, when monarchies and empires predominated, there were no states that could be judged as representative democracies by the standard of universal suffrage for competitive multi-party elections. By 1950…. there were 22 democracies accounting for 31 per cent of the world’s population….by the end of the twentieth century…. out of 192 countries, 119 resembled representative democracies (58.2 per cent of the globe’s population), with 85 of these countries (38 per cent of the world’s inhabitants) enjoying forms of political democracy respectful of basic human rights, freedom of the press and the rule of law.”  However, the statistics alone do not establish that the 20th century was the age of democracy – that long-term, not easily reversible, historical processes had led to this development – for all the statistics tell us, these countries could have all reverted to being dictatorships by the beginning of the 21st century.  Two factors may suggest that the 20th century was the age of democracy.  Firstly, the 20th century saw the failure of alternatives to democracy.  Absolute monarchy was dealt a serious blow by the failure of the Tsars to govern Russia adequately, for example being humiliated in war against Japan, and being unable to supply sufficient food to urban dwellers during the (again disastrous) First World War.  Fascism and Communism were also (largely) discredited, not least by the mass starvation and repression evident in Communist China and the Soviet Union. Secondly, global economic development rapidly increased.  One estimate puts the increase in global GDP between 1900 and 2000 at 1800%.  Fukuyama argues that there is a correlation between the level of development as measured by per capita GDP and democracy”.  Countries with a per capita GDP of over $6000 are vastly more likely to be democratic: indeed “we’ve seen a number of countries that have industrialized, like South Korea and Taiwan, and right on schedule, when they hit around that $6,000 income level they develop democratic movements… It has something to do with the growth of the middle class – people that own private property have something to lose and therefore want to participate in the political system.”  Thus global economic development, a key feature of 20th century world history, has significantly contributed towards making the 20th century the age of democracy.

However, three arguments will now be levelled against this thesis.  Firstly, that the 20th century has seen significant opposition to the spread of democracy.  America, the self-proclaimed “land of the free”, was involved in the overthrowing of numerous democratically elected leaders.  The election of Salvador Allende was seen as a disaster by Nixon, who promptly authorised $10m to stop Allende coming to power or to unseat him.  Kissinger said of the eventual coup, after which the dictator General Pinochet came to power, that the US “didn’t do it,” but “we helped them…created the conditions as great as possible”.  The CIA also organised a coup to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in 1954; some human rights activists put the death toll for the resulting unrest at 250,000.

Secondly, there are still vast numbers of people living in powerful countries that are not democracies.  Take the example of China.  The advantages of its undemocratic nature have even been praised by Western commentators, especially as regards the financial crisis; a fiscal stimulus package was quickly passed, without political wrangling of the sort seen in America (at least in public).  Also, the fall of the Soviet Union did not spawn a new breed of democracies: Freedom House’s report on democracy and civil liberties judged that “of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven countries are rated ‘not free’, four are ‘partly free’, and one [Ukraine] is ‘free’ ”.  For example, the main opposition party is banned in Kazakhstan, resulting in President Nursultan Nazarbayev winning the 2006 election with 91% of the vote.  Russia itself is also substantially undemocratic; as Gary Kasparov said in an address to the New York Democracy Forum, there is a “lack of a free press, the persecution of political opposition, and the steady demolition of democratic institutions… Aristotle himself couldn’t find a better definition of “oligarchy” than what we have in the Kremlin today.”

Thirdly – and this is perhaps the most fundamental and important argument – those countries widely acknowledged to be “democratic” are only democratic to a very limited extent.  It seems (to me) that democracy’s great appeal lies in its promise of self-rule: that we can be citizens, not subjects, choosing for ourselves the laws under which we are to live.  The citizen in a democratic state is fully autonomous: “every person, while uniting himself with all…obey[s] only himself and remain[s] as free as before” (Rousseau).  As mentioned in a previous essay, Wolff argued – and I have not yet seen a successful refutation – that both representation and majority-rule ensured that what we call “democracy” does not, cannot, allow citizens to be autonomous.  True democracy – understood as the the political and social arrangement that fulfils that inspiring promise of self-rule – is impossible.  Thus the 20th century cannot be described as the age of democracy.

This definition of democracy does seem rather restrictive.  There is clearly some difference between dictatorship and what is normally described as “democracy”, even granting the constraints of majority-rule and representation.  Can a more inclusive definition, that does grant that a “democratic state” is possible, rescue the thesis that the 20th century is the age of democracy?  It seems not, because existing democracies fall short of even this more limited ideal of democracy.  In America, the poor, the black, the powerless are systematically disenfranchised.  13% of black American men are prohibited from voting because of a felony conviction, which can be as minor as timber larceny.  (Apparently Abraham Lincoln’s great democratic statement, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent”, only applies to those in the government’s favour.)  In Britain, under FPTP not all votes are worth the same, with political parties aiming at the 200,000 “swing voters” in the mythical “Middle England” whom strategists think are key to victory.  Only 22% of the electorate voted for Labour in 2005; is this not moving dangerously close towards oligopoly?  Furthermore, widening economic inequalities have resulted in an unequal distribution of political power.  For example, the majority of the population are effectively unable to choose the taxation rates it would prefer, due to the threat of capital flight and “brain drain”, as recent discussions over the wisdom of the 50% tax rates showed.

Overall the 20th century was not the age of democracy.  It was a century that saw significant obstacles to democracy, most importantly military intervention by America and widening economic inequality, undermining popular sovereignty.  A further factor not adequately explored in this essay is the impact of globalisation, which has shifted power away from nation-states (democratic or otherwise) to unaccountable supranational organisations to a great extent.  For example, the 1970s in particular saw the IMF and World Bank taking control of many developing countries’ economic and social policies, due to structural adjustment programmes.  Thus perhaps the 20th century is best described as the age of globalisation.

The Worst Is Yet To Come

In Foreign Affairs on September 13, 2009 at 10:27 pm

As I was reading Ewan’s well written article on why we should stay in Afghanistan, I felt compelled to write a response arguing the other side. In the last months we have seen the British death toll in Afghanistan pass the 200 hundred mark, we have seen wavering support from both the media and the people, yet people still make the argument that we are accomplishing something. Are we winning the war? The simple answer is no. The outgoing commander of the US forces in Afghanistan David Mckiernan told the BBC that “We are not winning” in the struggle against the resurgent Taliban, a member of the British leadership went further: the then commander of the British forces in Helmand Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said “We’re not going to win this war.”

The war has not brought peace to the region; according the latest UN figures, violence has reached it’s highest level since the regime was toppled in 2001, and the number of civilians killed so far this year is 25% higher than the same period last year. So we have spent 8 years fighting, and squandered billions of the tax payer’s money and all we have done is hit a dead end. We haven’t solved the problems, we have made it worse. The people of Afghanistan have proved time and time again that they can repel foreign invaders; they stood up to the Soviets in the 70’s and now to the west.

“I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised.”

The confusion I and I’m sure many other people have is what  are we fighting for? To end terrorism in the region? A war on drugs? To liberate women? Or the classic American excuse of spreading democracy? If it’s the first reason has it worked? Has destroying the secure base that the Taliban stopped the spread of terrorism? The 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 (4 years after the Taliban was toppled) seem to suggest not. The make up of the Taliban has changed it has gone from being a hierarchy to being made up of a number of self sufficient operations; the bombs that killed those commuters that morning weren’t made in Afghanistan, they were made in Britain. Why has Afghanistan been targeted, why have countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen or any other country accused of harbouring terrorists not been subject to an indefinite military occupation? Leaving troops in Afghanistan makes the problem worse: it does nothing but fuel Islamic terrorism; it can then be used as ammunition against the west. It’s used as an effective recruiting tool that jihadists have been quick to exploit. If it’s a war on drugs; why Afghanistan? Why not a full blown war with Columbia? Or any of the other countries which grow drugs?

Why does liberation of the women in Afghanistan come above those of Saudi Arabia? Or Pakistan? (Which is also of vital importance to al-Qaeda) Does the US not see itself as slightly hypocritical bringing up lack of women’s rights when the US hasn’t itself ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women? I agree with Ewan that every person in the world deserves basic human rights, but short of invading and forcing our own view of democracy and rights upon every faltering country in the world we cannot gain this through war. We should be negotiating, educating and encouraging countries such as Afghanistan to move away from oppressing women, but we cannot force them. In the words of the great John Stuart Mill: “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised.”

Britain Must Not Falter in this War of Critical Importance

In Foreign Affairs on September 6, 2009 at 12:13 am

The recent surge in casualties amongst British Forces operating in Afghanistan has seen the issues surrounding the current conflict there rise to the forefront of media coverage and the public conscience. Whilst both the government and the opposition have expressed broad support for the continued prosecution of war against the Taleban, there has risen a considerable body of support for a withdrawal of British troops from the area. In writing an opinion piece which argues that ‘we’ve wasted enough lives in this war’ in today’s Independent, Labour MP Paul Flynn has placed himself at the forefront of the call to end British involvement in Afghanistan. In his article he argues that the government’s claim that the efforts of British troops in Afghanistan is of direct benefit to our safety on British streets is a ‘preposterous fiction.’ In attempting to evoke such a direct link between the relative tranquillity of British streets and the dusty nightmare of the Afghan desert, Gordon Brown is guilty of oversimplifying the need for war, but he is not propagating fiction. The case for war in Afghanistan is compelling; the cessation of violence on NATO’s part would entail potentially devastating consequences, which opponents of the war seem unprepared to recognise.

The ‘Afghanistan war’ is a misleading title, in that the sphere of conflict extends beyond Afghan borders into Pakistan and the Swat Valley. Pakistan has finally stirred to the menace which has grown within her borders and is attempting defeat the Taleban forces which threaten the country from within. It is a measure of Taleban strength that they have remained able to offer hostility towards both NATO in Afghanistan and Pakistani forces across the border. Any NATO withdrawal would likely see the restoration of Taleban rule in Afghanistan, but there is no guarantee that hostilities between Pakistan and the Jihadists would cease. The Taleban are not inclined to seek peace once war has opened, they have demonstrated this both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, where they have passed many opportunities to maintain peace with the Pakistani army. Invigorated by their ‘triumph’ over NATO and in possession of the resources of the whole state of Afghanistan, the Taleban would therefore pose a renewed threat to Pakistan. In such a situation the loss of sovereign Pakistani territory to Taleban forces would become a disturbingly realistic prospect. Pakistan is a nuclear armed state and the consequences of Jihadists gaining military control of any portion of her armament make for devastating consideration; reason enough for the continued prosecution of war in Afghanistan and something which merits increased emphasis by politicians and in the media.

The case for war in Afghanistan is compelling; the cessation of violence on NATO’s part would entail potentially devastating consequences, which opponents of the war seem unprepared to recognise.

In comparison to such a chilling prospect, the multitude of other arguments for the maintenance of war in Afghanistan may seem underwhelming. Nonetheless they deserve attention; the aid which the Taleban afforded al-Qaeda prior to September 11th cannot be overstated in its significance. A secure base for terrorist training was provided and exploited to the full by potential Islamist terrorists. As long as war is maintained in the region, the Taleban cannot offer such security to terrorist groups, who suffer limitations in their capability as a result. This is the argument Brown presented to the British public and it is a valid reason for the continuation of war in itself.

In addition to providing a secure base for terrorism during their time in power, the Taleban also mounted a relentless campaign against women’s rights. President Karzai’s recent proposal to legislate for the starving of wives by Shia men in Afghanistan is abhorrent, but it should not be allowed to detract from the real progress that has been made in regards to women in Afghan society since the war began. Education and the prospect of some degree of freedom of body and mind are now available to women, in contrast to their previously hopeless situation. Western forces are attempting to deliver to Afghan women the universal rights which every human deserves, rights which the Taleban would so stringently deny. Any restoration of the Taleban regime would destroy the hopes of millions of women, who would be condemned to a servile existence, a prospect which should repel any liberal observer. It should be remembered, that whilst the circumstances of this war can often appear far from humane, the alternatives entail great detriment to the human condition.

Owing to her legacy as a dominant world power, Britain often finds herself assuming a disproportionate role in the foreign policy of the western powers. Our country is a prominent member of NATO and the extent of our military involvement reflects this. After America, British troops make the foremost contribution to NATO activity in Afghanistan; their withdrawal would seriously hamper both the military operations and morale of our fellow NATO members. British withdrawal would seriously jeopardise the stability of the coalition which has endeavoured to defeat the Taleban, at a time when unity is of the utmost importance in the face of a resurgent enemy. The war is undoubtedly one which must be fought and its opponents should not be allowed to persuade us to falter as casualties rise. Those who maintain support for this just war can take pride in the knowledge that they are preventing anti-war sentiment from destabilising a vital effort to prevent the emergence of a number of terrible threats, the worst of which could bring humanity to the verge of its darkest hour.

‘Guantanamo: What’s the real issue?’ A Layman’s Perspective

In Foreign Affairs on August 27, 2009 at 11:59 pm

When most people hear the words Guantanamo Bay there tends to be an accompanying groan and images of jump-suited men who appear to be forcibly re-enacting the “Saw” films; and after 7 years of nothing but horror stories who can blame us? Since the opening of the ‘detainment facility’ in 2002 it seems to have been a steady parade of mistakes, atrocities and basic human rights violations with the odd high point such as the recent release of Mohammed Jawad, one of the youngest former inmates of Guantanamo aged just 12 at the time of his incarceration. Forgive my ‘Politics For Dummies’ approach but…surely doing things that have the public hating you is NOT exactly great for your next round of elections? Yes, we all know that the media has a habit of making mountains out of molehills but some things are just too big to ignore. As nothing more than a layman, your run-of-the-mill citizen who barely knows (or cares) who the leaders for each party are beyond the fact that we are meant to pick one of them at some point, I have to admit that I don’t always understand precisely what an individual has done and its political implications, but I do know that in pretty much every religion and every human rights law there is something that indirectly says ‘don’t beat, starve and torture defenceless human beings and post photos of it on the internet’…or something similar, anyway.


In pretty much every religion and every human rights law there is something that indirectly says ‘don’t beat, starve and torture defenceless human beings’


Okay, so this Muslim man has blown up a convoy of soldiers with an IED and is now rotting away happily in Guantanamo. Justice is served, right? Well, if we were to flip it a moment…this American convoy of soldiers just used thousand-dollar custom made weapons to destroy the Muslim man’s livelihood and are slowly blowing up parts of his country. They get medals and a round of beer back at base. Wait…so both parties are defending their countries and their families etc. etc…so why does one get torture and another a cold ‘un? Apparently they really weren’t kidding when they called it the U.S Constitution, anybody not part of the U.S or its Allies is a viable scapegoat if we are to believe the stories. One has to admit, though, that if you were to capture the man who blew your family and friends up and erased part of your city’s cultural heritage you wouldn’t be in the mood to take them to the pub and would be perfectly valid in your seeking of retribution but…what counts as penance? Where is the line drawn between hard time and downright cruelty hidden behind the ever-present veil of ‘he blew something up’? As human beings we are all entitled to basic rights, but who keeps it all equal when it’s only a certain close-knit group who set the rules and have the opportunity to legalise such treatment?


Waterboarding is something I’m sure most people who follow the news have heard of, but just in case: imagine drowning somebody but stopping just before the point of no return, and then doing it again and again until you get the answer you want to hear. You don’t know if it’s true or if the person just really wants you to stop drowning them, but it’s on tape so it’s good enough for you and your long-suffering publicist. According a recent article on the BBC (July 13th ’09) “claims have emerged that a key al-Qaeda suspect was waterboarded before the Bush government lawyers issued written authorisation to do so.” This, coupled with the recent investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes and the accusation that international laws have been broken, suggests that Guantanamo may well be all that the hype implies. The funny thing here though is that all this suggests that at the word of some presidential lawyers a world-wide set of ideals and a strict set of international laws can be simply…put to one side whilst the individual that these laws were set up to protect is ruthlessly tortured in the pursuit of information that, I hate to break it to you, doesn’t un-demolish the Twin Towers or get anybody any closer to finding one person in a gigantic expanse of land.


Perhaps the issue no longer lies with the institutions such as Guantanamo but rather the individuals who are given the keys to the power that corrupts, absolutely? Either way, Obama may have given a date of execution for Guantanamo but it doesn’t change the things that the inmates suffered or the breaches in a law that the guards of that very prison are sworn to uphold, nor the fact that whilst one may soon be closed the spirit lives on in institutions such as Bagram, Afghanistan.

BBC Waterboarding Article