Monday, March 31, 2008


Back to Aristotle, whose profound insight below is colored, unfortunately but not surprisingly, by racialism and some degree of historical determinism:

The people of cold countries, generally, and particularly those of Europe, are full ofs spirit but deficient in skill in intelligence; and this is why they continue to remain comparitively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others. The peoples of Asia are endowed with skill and intelligence, but are deficient in spirit; and this is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves. The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of peoples. It possesses both spirit and intelligence, for which reason it continues to be free, to have the highest political development, and to be capable of governing every other people . . . (Politics, VII, 7: 1327b18ff)

It may be tough not to focus on the apparent ethnocentrism/racialism/racism in this selection. I think that there is a truth bubbling (at least) right near the surface. This truth involves the fact that strong cultures are undergirded by both intelligence and a strength of spirit. I think that Greece did embody that confluence for a period of time in the ancient world. Aristotle missed the fact that these qualities can grow or, alternatively, degrade, in a particular culture over the course of a period of time (I would even hold that the 'intelligence of a society can grow over time. I'm not referring to evolutionary biology here, but to the fact that the organization and values of a particular society can promote, or diminish, the degree to which intelligence; as opposed to say, ideology, fear, or anger; defines the actions of the society in question.).

The United States has, over the past century, been largely successful at combining intelligence (read here: an appreciation of the role of learning and science in developing a country's institutions) and a strength of spirit (read: innovativeness, an ability to confront societies that do not nurture individual growth Roger Cohen's recent op-ed piece highlights some of the ways in which China, specifically, and Asia, in general, is developing these qualities in a way that should give US citizens pause to consider how true we are being to our own best traits. Namely, are we valuing science enough? Are we concerned enough with innovation and the development of raw talent? Will the weaknesses of our secondary school system undermine our ability to be a world leader in the medium- or long-run?

This is an important (short) article about the recent fighting Iraq, providing some long overdue context to the story.

Here's an excerpt:

Anyone who follows the news closely in Iraq knew this day would come. The British left a power vacuum behind in the south that the Baghdad government could not fill at the time, and Sadr and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Brigades filled it instead. They have fought each other and some smaller Shi’ite groups for control of the streets ever since 2005, as Steven Vincent tried to warn people just before they murdered him in Basra. The Iraqi government had no choice but to challenge the militias for control of Basra and the surrounding areas, but they waited until the Iraqi Army had enough strength to succeed.

Did our media give anyone this context? No. They reported it as some kind of spontaneous eruption of rebellion without noting at all that a nation can hardly be considered sovereign while its own security forces cannot enter a large swath of its own territory. And in the usual defeatist tone, they reported that our mission in Iraq had failed without waiting to see what the outcome of the battle would be.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Here is the best article about Obama's foreign policy vision that I've read yet.

This quotation sums up the analysis:

Obama's foreign policy brain trust . . . envision[s] a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering "democracy promotion" agenda in favor of "dignity promotion," to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda. Is this hawkish? Is this dovish? It's both and neither -- an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy. And it might just be the future of American global leadership.

I have two comments about the quotation:

1) I like the idea of "dignity promotion": I appreciate and support the desire to address "conditions" that "prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root." I agree that we have thought too litle about this in recent years and I would appreciate it if we come to see Obama 'put his money where his mouth is' and explicitly make the kinds of arguments that Kerrey, et. al, are somewhat more cautious in making, but which many Democrats apparently believe. I agree that the Democrats will not be come credible about foreign policy by being "lite Republicans."

2) I am not comfortable with the apparent dismissal of the idea of "democracy promotion." The US is not simply a charitable organization. It has fundamental interests at stake that are tied to the promotion of democracy. Is it possible that the focus on 'dignity' rather than 'democracy' implies a focus on basic needs and a relative neglect of the political and civil forms that stabilize free and prosperous societies?

As Aristotle writes in Politics (IV.4:1291a19ff):

If the mind is to be reckoned as a more essentially a part of a living being than the body, parts of a similar order must equally be reckoned as more essentially as parts of the city than those which serve its basic needs. By this we mean the military part, the part concerned in the legal organization of justice, and (we may also add) the part engaged in deliberation, which is a function that needs the gift of political understanding.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Obama addresses the issue of race in his speech. He did not so clearly address the issue of Americanism. He should have done this because Wright's comments called into doubt Obama's feelings about America, much more so than they called into doubt his feelings about whites. Very few people doubt that Obama is a sympathetic and tolerant person, in general. What does he believe is America's role in the world, though? What defines Americanism? McCain has a view about this. Does Obama?

I've watched the first third of Obama's speech and read about twenty articles about it. It's not easy to remember another speech that has generated so much disagreement while still inspiring general respect for the speaker. There seems to be great agreement that Obama, in giving the speech, took some risks uncharacteristic of American politicians.

It's not over for Obama, of course. A prediction: Discussion will come to a head over Obama's apparent equation of Ferraro's unfair(?) comments about the role of race in Obama's rise with Wright's apparent disdain for America. Here's the passage in question:

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action, that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation — that rightly offend white and black alike.

Thursday, March 13, 2008



  • I am no big fan of Clinton's. I think that she often makes disingenuous and/or misleading arguments.
  • I think that Obama has run a largely reputable campaign (In fact, one of the most reputable I can remember seeing.)
Still, I have been disturbed by the recent attacks on Geraldine Ferraro which have been instigated by the Obama campaign. A Wall Street Journal article today helps to sort through, rather well I think, the times when the Clinton campaign has used racially-loaded arguments and the times when they (and their surrogates) have been unfairly accused of this.

Friday, March 07, 2008


Here are two excellent articles that point out the predicament in which Obama finds himself.

The first, by David Brooks, explains that campaigns cannot sell out their core message and proceeds to identify Obama's core weakness. Here's an excerpt:

In short, a candidate should never betray the core theory of his campaign, or head down a road that leads to that betrayal. Barack Obama doesn’t have an impressive record of experience or a unique policy profile. New politics is all he’s got. He loses that, and he loses everything. Every day that he looks conventional is a bad day for him.

Besides, the real softness of the campaign is not that Obama is a wimp. It’s that he has never explained how this new politics would actually produce bread-and-butter benefits to people in places like Youngstown and Altoona.

Next, Charles Krauthammer helps explain some of the psychological dynamics underlying Obama's rise. He then challenges the idea that Obama has the gumption to unite a riven polity. Here's an excerpt from this one:

The Obama campaign has sent journalists eight pages of examples of his reaching across the aisle in the Senate. I am not the only one to note, however, that these are small-bore items of almost no controversy -- more help for war veterans, reducing loose nukes in the former Soviet Union, fighting avian flu and the like. Bipartisan support for apple pie is hardly a profile in courage.

On the difficult compromises that required the political courage to challenge one's own political constituency, Obama flinched: the "Gang of 14" compromise on judicial appointments, the immigration compromise to which Obama tried to append union-backed killer amendments and, just last month, the compromise on warrantless eavesdropping that garnered 68 votes in the Senate. But not Obama's.

Who, in fact, supported all of these bipartisan deals, was a central player in two of them and brokered the even more notorious McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform? John McCain, of course.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Increasing peace, prosperity, and democracy and the tension inherent in capitalist competition will ultimately lead to a relative increase in the preference for certainty in economic life. Such an environment will lead to a psychology in which economic cooperation is preferred first, competition second. This does not mean that corruption will cease, that people will necessarily be happier, or that the economy will necessarily be more efficient. Indeed, it may be less so. Or, the ‘new’ system may be more efficient only insofar as the expectation of reduced conflict overcompensates for diminished competitive forces by decreasing the expected risk of investment.

Karl Marx walked a thin line between being a social philosopher/scientist and a political activist. His activism is often given greatest play both by his adherents and detractors alike. If his theory of collective ownership is seen less as a prescription and more as a prediction of a shift in psychological attitudes towards the economy, his ideas become less ‘other-worldly’ as well as less prone to promoting violent confrontation. I am not advocating a gradual shift to socialism. The dynamism of capitalism is essential for promoting economic wealth and political freedom in today’s world.

Still, I do believe that a peaceful reconcilliation between China and the US would be the harbinger of a significant change in geopolitics. This does not mean that the US should surrender economic or political freedom in the hopes of pacifying China. It does mean that we ought to be conscious of what we have to learn from China and how, if China chooses to learn from us, the world might change as a result.

We need not view China’s rise only in terms of a “balance of powers” between nation-states. If we see China move towards democracy and capitalism, we will have witnessed the near triumph of those two particular political/economic systems. Again, a more peaceful, prosperous world would tend to diminish the appeal of violence and conquest. At the point at which a critical mass of people believes that the world has ‘turned a corner’ in that respect, nationalist competition will become less appealing.

This change in perspective would amount to the US internalizing one of the finest features of China’s current national politics: a sense of common responsibility and purpose. While China’s current expression of this value is less than laudable, it is clear that such a perspective can be psychologically reassuring to people, as well as, at times, materially beneficial. Will we come to live in world that is characterized by economic and political freedom as well as by a sense of common purpose?

Some trends that should be observed as we consider how China and the US will affect each other in the years ahead:

1) China’s deepening influence on the US economic system
2) Chinese-US cooperation on global development issues
3) Chinese-US cooperation to promote international global stability
4) Will environmental and environmental health challenges in China force it to relax its controls on civil society and on economic freedom, thereby harnessing increased citizen participation in a series of stark problems that can not be solved only by central planners?
5) Most abstractly: Will the US polity mature to the extent that it can focus more wholeheartedly on long-term economic challenges? This, in my view, would be one of the fruits of the US learning from the ‘common purpose’ that the Chinese leaders (albeit authoritarian and, at times, draconian) seek to instill their society.

I don’t blame the reader if point #5 seems vaporous. I am still working to articulate the philosophical concepts related to this point, as well as their respective applications.

My thinking about China and my reading of Alan Greenspan's new book ("The Age of Turbulence") has led me to some conjectures about democracy, capitalism, wealth, and assertive power.

I want to propose the following:

+Countries that are capitalist and wealthy tend very strongly to be democratic and internationally assertive. The converse tends to be true as well.

My reasoning:

+Capitalist countries tend to promote an ethic of individualism, which lends itself to democratic political organization and to a sensitivity to international threats. The second point is, perhaps, the more subtle one: I would argue that the 'rough and tumble' world of capitalism keeps its participants more keen to competitive challenges. This principle applies equally to business challenges and to geopolitical challenges. Essentially, this could be one explanation for the more internationally assertive stance of the UK, the US, and Australia, as opposed to France, Germany, and Japan.

+Wealth affords people the opportunity to reflect upon, and oppose, policies that are perceived to be unfair. Also, of course, wealth affords countries the opportunity to play a globally assertive role.

Some exceptions:

+Singapore and Hong Kong are both wealthy and economically free but lack political freedoms. This imbalance may be sustainable, in part, because of their small size. In short, it may be easier to control the political expression of a small, as opposed to a large, merchant society.

+India is an interesting exception. It is neither wealthy nor particularly economically free. Still, it shows some signs of appreciating the importance of confronting geopolitical challenges from less free neighbors. This may be due to (1) India's large size, which makes it both more able to play a regional/geopolitical role and more conscious of its geopolitical weight and to (2) the very fact of the existence of potentially aggressive, less free neighbors, especially Pakistan and China. We am forced to ask: Why is Japan then different from India? It is both relatively large and in the proximity of a neighbor who presents some degree of geopolitical challenge (read: China). If we argue that Japan's history (and constitution) make it especially inclined to pacifism, we are forced to question the assumption that less economic freedom is the proximate cause of Japan's (and, similarly, of Germany's) relative international quietude.


There is still some more sorting to do on these issues. India is clearly an interesting case for further investigation.