Tag: Britain

The Era of Austerity or the Era of Intervention?

Tuareg_rebel_in_northern_MaliA variety of commentators listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech and, having heard few words devoted to foreign policy, declared that the second term of this Administration will be marked by less activism on the global stage.  The draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan readily reinforce this view, as do a variety of academics peddling recommendations for a new grand strategy of restraint.  I am more circumspect, for inauguration speeches are by nature more domestic in focus.  More importantly, America’s national security interests have not changed fundamentally.

The Obama Doctrine of robust burden sharing—being multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—will continue to cope with a world that may be in rapid flux but has little propensity to generate the stability and security that would justify a restraint-based grand strategy.  Al-Qaeda was quiescent in one form, but in its new decentralized affiliate-based form it is anything but.  With the global campaign against terrorism continuing amid a constellation of constrained economic resources, robust burden sharing is an appropriate grand strategy; moreover, it is here to stay (at least for the duration of this Administration and likely well beyond).

Opponents of the President have had a heyday with the unintentional phrase “leading from behind.”  Ever since an unnamed Administration official spoke these tongue-in-cheek words to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, critics have twisted them and/or ascribed their own meaning more along the lines of “retreat to the back.”  Some grew so agitated, they practically fell over themselves in their clarion call for robust American leadership practically at all costs—case-in-point a certain presidential candidate’s “No Apology” book that aptly captured this sentiment, and a certain senator’s delight in singing “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.”

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Taking David Cameron to School……(Literally. This guy is stupid.)

I get most of my European news from the Financial Times, which I admit does make for a somewhat skewed perspective on British politics. You all do still wear top hats and monocles, right? But apparently Britain’s Prime Minister is promoting, earlier than expected in the wake of the London riots, a tax credit for married or co-habiting couples with the belief that a two-parent family makes for a more stable home and fewer young thugs (or righteous freedom fighters railing against the system, either way) looting cell phone stores in the future. Politicians are so stupid.

Let’s take it for granted that the cause of looting lies in the failures of parents rather than of the social environment in which the poor grow up in. I actually do believe that a loving, two parent family is the best way to raise kids, even as it is by no means the only factor. But David Cameron needs a basic lesson in positivistic research design and causality. (Don’t do it, Patrick T. Jackson! Do not pull your hair out every time I use that word inappropriately in a way inconsistent with how science actually operates! It is not worth it! You have lovely hair!)

The causal logic behind this scheme is that two parents simply sleeping under the same roof leads to better-raised kids. If we simply create incentives for the father to stay in the house, surely good parenting will result. Obviously this is silly. It is the quality of parenting that matters. Having two good parents is better than one good parent. But having one good parent is better than two bad parents who hate each other, or two parents who don’t like one another or one good parent and one bad parent.

Generally when single mothers are raising children it is because the guy is kind of a d!&k to begin with. That’s why he left. Or if not, the mom and dad are ill-suited to one another — they fight like cats and dogs. In other words the fact of the single family is endogenous to the crappy relationship, rather than the exogenous cause of the f*&cked-up kid. The Tories are getting the causal relationship wrong. We see this all the time.

So how is providing a financial incentive to keep them in a loveless relationship or keep a deadbeat around going to make for better adjusted kids? Well, it isn’t, David. The key to better kids is better parents, which means some kind of social engineering at a young age to help them learn, ideally before puberty, to resolve conflicts peacefully, not act like they are the center of the universe, etc. Not to change sleeping arrangements.

Also, are the type of people who shack up purely to get a tax write-off the kind of people we want having babies? This is a strange marriage of Reaganite/Thatcherite incentive economics and social conservatism. Those should be separated. Good parents need good values, not more money. Good luck!

How do we do that? I have no idea, but my guess would be education. Yes, that very education budget that is being slashed in the UK right now by the Tories. (That is true, right? Again, I just read the Financial Times, so I only know the market for yachts is stronger than ever. I’m serious– that was an actual article).

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The soundtrack of barbarism…

…sounds something like this.

Why are these urban riots happening on this side of the pond?

Predictably, two strong lines of argument are forming. Both of which can be supported from that interview.

The ‘mere criminality’ school finds that these youths are robbing and looting out of sheer, brutal opportunism. Whereas the ‘material deprivation’ school sees these riots as the upsurge of social distress, misdirected political rage and alienation in the wake of government cuts to social services, the widening gap between rich and poor, etc.

Who is right?

A strong case could be made that the causes have come in waves. This whole thing kicked off from what was supposed to be a peaceful protest against a police shooting. That is, it began in political form. (‘Political’ here meaning an attempt to challenge or defend the use, distribution or possession of power in a fundamental way, rather than the fleeting local redistribution of power through robbery).

But then, after the first night’s riot, the word got out that people could rob and burn because they could get away with it. And they were right. Whatever the root causes of mob behaviour, this is clearly not a wild outburst of political rage, like some riots have been historically. It has much more to do with raw calculations about power and opportunity. Most groups are not randomly burning down bookstores or MP’s offices, but are prioritising phone stores, clothing outlets and banking machines. The two girls paid lip service to ‘getting rich people’, with the bemusing idea that anyone who owns a shop counts as wealthy, but the spirit of their activities is clearly a sense of exhilaration and pleasure.

Putting it another way, consider this savage little episode. Even if we acknowledge that government cuts have made people angry, its a stretch to argue that as this youth pitilessly robbed a wounded young man, his driving force was distress caused by financial reductions in 2010 to local libraries and youth recreation centers.

I’d be willing to bet that had he been confronted with similar circumstances in sunnier economic times in 2007, or 2005, he would have acted similarly. He and his ilk do not seem to be voicing substantive political outrage about class conflict or injustice, but are exalting in their newfound street power.

But is this behaviour still linked to underlying inequalities, to the disturbing social fact that many of these folk seem not to believe they have a stake in an orderly society? Quite possibly. But I’m just a bit skeptical that its really ‘because’ of recent cuts to services more than very remotely. Conservative moral panics are not the only superficial response to this problem.

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The Last Mughal

Emperor Bahadur Shah II
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The din of the Great Rebellion of 1857 will continue to echo into our era, marred as it is by ongoing wars and insurgencies in Muslim lands. I believe that a careful study of those events are pertinent for American and European students of global politics today as they attempt to contextualize the challenges to American military might and Western cultural hegemony continuously pulsating onto the global stage from the remote corners of South Asia. A chronicle of 1857 is also useful to understand the fragility of a multicultural society in the face of contending religious fundamentalisms and unrelenting militarism.

In this light, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (2006) provides an accessible and compelling history of the events which led to the final collapse of a tolerant and refined Indo-Islamic civilization. The book has been controversial among professional historians — particularly South Asian historians, but given the enormity of the subject matter it is digestible for an undergraduate audience and a decent entry point into an unending discussion.

The Great Rebellion, when it is not diminished and dismissed as a “mutiny,” has often been simplified as a confrontation between British imperialists and proto-nationalist Indians, but this is a drastic over simplification — if not an outright caricature of history. Dalrymple’s book helps to lay out the complex array of forces, communities, and individuals that confronted one another during the uprising — from Britons who had converted to Islam and married into notable Muslim families to Hindu soldiers who rallied to fight and die for an ageing and indecisive Muslim emperor alongside 25,000 Wahhabi-inspired jihadis/ mujahedin; and including Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and adopted British manners and sartorial accoutrement. The book intelligently and consistently resists attempts to read history through a simplifying lens or the meta-narrative of a clash of civilizations.

Nevertheless, goaded on by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the war did create horrific atrocities by the Britons and their Sepoy adversaries that polarized communities. In particular, Dalrymple provides an unflinching and detailed account of the crimes perpetrated by British officers and their allies after they sacked the imperial capital — belying any claims by Anglophiles that the Britons were a civilizing force and interrogating the notion of a “just retribution” for the (at times exaggerated) crimes of the rebels.

A lesson to take away from this rich and nuanced history is the role of religious fundamentalists at home and abroad in paving the pathway for slaughter — even though Dalrymple may overplay the religious element of the conflict at the expense of other important causal factors. The devaluation of foreign customs, vilification of rival religious practices, and outright attempts to insult the faith of others set in motion the rumors that would spark the rebellion and cut the last restraints on civilized behavior during and after the uprising on all sides. One often hears international relations scholars diminish the importance of words and labels in favor of material and aggregate behavioral factors. However, it is clear in Dalrymple’s account that discursive violence shaped and facilitated the return of medieval barbarity to the point that the Britons aspired to slaughter all of the inhabitants of Delhi (many of whom had remained steadfastly loyal to them even when the city was occupied by Sepoys) and to “delete” the entire city. If nothing else, the book alerts the reader to understand the very real consequences that accompany a rhetoric which denigrates the culture, faith, and traditional forms of political legitimacy in other communities.  This is a simple lesson, but one that is often lost on policy makers, scholars and students committed to a modernist discourse.

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Stereotypes and suspicion: Nicer words won’t change anything

A new report was released yesterday, ‘Suspect Communities’, comparing how UK media and government have framed Irish and Muslim communities since the 1970s. The authors find that the ideas underpinning counter-terrorism measures and the way politicians, policymakers and the media discuss who might be responsible for bombings have not changed over four decades. The key finding is that ambiguity surrounding who is an ‘extremist’ or a ‘terrorist’ has led to hostile responses in everyday life – at work, in shops, on the street  – from members of the public who think they are under threat from Irish-sounding or Muslim-looking people whom they associate with that threat. Hence, the report implies that government and media language is impacting on the everyday lives of communities judged suspect and everyone else who must live with them. In a debate in Parliament yesterday, the solution put forward by many was greater sensitivity of language by elites and more dialogue between the stigmatized, the elites, and the majority society.


While useful, the debate needs to go further. The crux with such reports is their method. This research team first analysed thousands of media texts and government documents, and found these to consistently frame these communities as suspect (and as communities, not individuals). They then did focus groups with members of those suspect communities to hear about living under suspicion. What the team did not do is try to explain why journalists or policymakers would consistently produce stigmatizing material. The consistency of the stigmatization suggests its nothing to do with any individuals, but a function of the institutional practices and professional imperatives of the fields of journalism and security policy. Most journalists don’t want to be racist. They think that by allowing a ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ Muslim to debate they are providing balance – journalists don’t usually understand that they are reducing threatening and non-threatening minorities to equivalents in the eye of the non-Muslim audience. And policymakers know full well that homogenizing a community to tell it to ‘stop harbouring terrorists’ is not going to please everyone, but they really don’t want another bomb going off and will try any means to stop it. These are the pressures they face, and criticizing their language choices isn’t going to remove those pressures. So, if we are to move towards societies in which entire groups are not routinely lumped together as dangerous and disloyal, we need to begin to unravel these institutional and professional logics. A truly critical project would address these power relations and daily trade-offs instead of simply decrying the consequences.


This is an important topic. The Suspect Communities report supports a longstanding research finding (UK hereUS here) that those who feel stigmatized tend either to retreat from public spaces (‘keep your head down’, ‘keep your mouth shut’) or become angry and try to resist slurs by turning them on their heads (reclaiming ‘queer’ in the 1970s, jihadi chic in the 2000s). Either way, the result is fear and alienation, which reduces trust on all ‘sides’ and makes reconciling interests and grievances through democratic institutions much more difficult.

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New Deal for BBC World Service Weakens Britain’s Soft Power?

Una Marson, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and others at the World Service during WW2
The reputation of the BBC World Service around the world reflects that of Britain generally. It’s an institution tied to colonial history. It aspires to global reach. Through its journalism it tries to uphold values of impartiality and objectivity, and therein lies the attractive, soft power dimension. As an institution, however, it cannot escape appearing partial – it is funded by the British state, and that state wouldn’t continue to fund it unless it was serving Britain’s interests. Therein lies the appearance of hypocrisy that taints Britain’s soft power. But this week the British government announced a new funding mechanism, and yesterday Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service, spoke about the changes to an audience in London.

The BBC World Service is currently funded by a direct grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Britain’s State Department. While a Royal Charter prevents the FCO interfering in the editorial content of World Service programming, the FCO can decide which foreign language services are strengthened or cut. In the last decade, Arabic and other strategically important language services have tended to do quite well, others less so.  Last year the government announced the World Service would be funded through the annual licence fee people in Britain must pay in order to receive BBC content legally. The World Service will be just another part of the BBC per se, its tie to the FCO less obvious. This week the World Service was granted extra funding not least because of its performance through the Arab Spring and supportive comments from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader.
The problem for the World Service now is that it is just another BBC service, funded by taxpayers. In the current economic malaise, taxpayers might feel extra hospitals are more important than Hindi radio. Horrocks suggested that the World Service is highly regarded by British citizens. But historically, the value of World Service programming is to those in conflict zones and diasporic publics who consumed its cultural output. People in Britain gets a more parochial, national BBC news and are probably unaware of the range and impact of World Service programming.
As the World Service becomes increasingly integrated into the general BBC – sharing technology, content, staff, and buildings – and as it has to justify itself to a home audience, so its distinctiveness would seem under threat. Horrocks seemed optimistic. For example, the fragmentation of media across devices, formats and languages and creation of innumerable niche micro-audiences is not a problem because the World Service has the tools and expertise to repackage the same news for all possible outlets.  While China, Russia and others may be investing huge resources on rival global broadcasting organisations, the World Service retains the credibility borne of its professional, impartial journalistic ethos (note that Al-Jazeera has been criticised for treating different Arab Spring uprisings in very different ways, prompting aprickly reaction). 
Horrocks finally turned to the question of soft power. He argued that the World Service does not aim to project soft power, but that paradoxically it does create soft power for Britain because the objectivity of World Service journalism becomes associated with Britain. A moment later, however, he said the World Service aims to project and change people’s perspectives, to “impart impartiality”. Imparting sounds very much like changing minds. Changing minds is an instrumental goal for the FCO, who want the world to “do business with Britain”. Does this make the World Service an unwitting instrument of the FCO? This ambivalence is exactly why the World Service is open to charges of hypocrisy.

Horrocks must be thanked for speaking openly and taking questions, and it is important that the World Service continues to engage in critical discussion about its role and purpose. I would be interested to know whether the chiefs of CCTV or Russia Today hold free flowing public debates.

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I’m For Europe

Since Jon started this, I too must share one of my favorite Yes, Minister clips. Strikes me as timely.

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British diplomacy…a classic tutorial

After Stephanie’s posts, I watched a few old episodes of Yes, Minister (and why I love Netflix). Hung parliament or not, Sir Humphrey’s British diplomacy is on the verge of success….

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Haven’t they filled the protocol positions yet?

Most of the time I look at the Obama Administration and think, with much relief, how nice it is to have grownups back in charge. When it comes to diplomatic protocol, however, the last few days have been pretty much amateur hour.

At least the Russians took State’s SNAFU with a bit more humor. Sue Plemming of Reuters:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red “reset button” to symbolise improved ties, but the gift drew smiles as the word “reset” was mistranslated into the Russian for “overcharge”.

“I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: ‘We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together,” said Clinton, presenting Lavrov with a palm-sized yellow box with a red button.

Clinton joked to Lavrov: “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?”

“You got it wrong,” said Lavrov, smiling as the two pushed the reset button together before dinner at a Geneva hotel.

He told Clinton the word “Peregruzka” meant “overcharge”, to which Clinton replied: “We won’t let you do that to us.”

“We mean it and we look forward to it,” she said of “resetting” the relationship, a phrase that Joe Biden first used at a security conference in Munich.

Lavrov said he would put the gift on his desk.

I expect that Obama will find a way to make up for the DVDs and model helicopters. If his team starts sending key-shaped cakes (or any kind of cake, really) to Iran, though, then it will really be time to worry.

(H/t to Mark Safranski, who was right while I was wrong)

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