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International: Losing minds

December 5, 2009
by Steven Weber and Michael Zielenziger

The next president must ask two fundamental questions: “Why are we losing on the battleground of ideas? What can we do about it?”

In Autumn 2003, Donald Rumsfeld asked his top advisors a now-famous question: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring, and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

It was precisely the right question to ask, lodged within a memo that Rumsfeld wrote to stir new thinking about the long-term prospects for what he labeled the Global War on Terror. If there is some awkwardness in the way the Secretary of Defense posed this question, it is because the first two actions (capturing and killing) result directly from the use of force; while the second two (deterring and dissuading) ultimately rely on appeals to the “hearts and minds” of human beings.

The data accumulated since Rumsfeld asked this question strongly suggest an answer. On September 11, 2001, Americans were utterly shocked by the phenomenon of suicide bombers aimed against us—19 young men who willingly gave their lives to kill a much larger number of Americans for the cause of al-Qaeda. Five years later, suicide bombings no longer shock: they have become normalized in our expectations. During a typical week in the summer of 2006 in Iraq alone, there were at least a half-dozen suicide bombings, so many that we considered them as newsworthy only in passing. Eighteen months ago, Britons were stunned by the notion that “British citizens” could become suicide bombers on London subways and buses. That this summer’s foiled airplane plot also involved a large number of British subjects was, sadly, less dramatic. If the available pool of suicide bombers is a reasonable proxy by which we can measure the number of terrorists for whom deterrence and dissuasion have utterly failed, then clearly we are losing this war in a very big way.

Another set of measures is provided by the Pew Surveys on global attitudes toward the United States. More than half the populations of Egypt and Jordan, and a third of the population of Turkey, believe that violence against civilian targets can be justified in the defense of Islam. More than half of Egyptians and Jordanians, and nearly two-thirds of Indonesians, are certain that Arabs did not carry out the 9/11 attacks. Around two-thirds of British Muslims believe that “Westerners” are selfish and arrogant; more than half say they are “violent.” A majority of Muslims in Nigeria believe that many or most Muslims in their country support al-Qaeda; more than a third of Pakistanis say that this is true of their country.

Have we become numb to the implications of this sort of evidence?

These numbers alone do not definitively prove that we are losing Rumsfeld’s war. After all, a person can hold anti-American beliefs without necessarily engaging in violent, extremist behavior. But it would take an extraordinary leap of faith to bet our foreign and security policies on the proposition that one doesn’t feed the other, to our disadvantage and great danger.

The question the next administration will face is this: “Why are we losing and what can we do about it?”

Part of the answer is easy—our tactics are sloppy and awkward. The U.S. government promotes something called “public diplomacy” as our principal weapon in the war of ideas. But as currently conceptualized, public diplomacy is a peculiar mix of arrogance and condescension. It rests on one of two propositions, both of which look very weak on close examination.

The first is that people oppose or hate us because they “just don’t understand” what we are doing or what we stand for. The presumption, in other words, is that “we” know better than “they” what their interests really are, and that better communications can solve this problem. But it is more likely that “they” very well understand the policies we advance, and disagree for their own very good reasons.

The second proposition is that “they” perfectly understand how U.S. policies hurt their interests, their desires, and their pride—but that a compelling American “message” can change the emotional or intellectual valence with which they view that hurt. Call it what you will—messaging, advertising, or in the current preferred jargon, “framing”: the implications are entirely the same. To believe that more skillful framing can really work, you need to hold some very peculiar, possibly racist, and certainly condescending beliefs about the intellectual and emotional capabilities of the “targets” of our tactics.

Consider what we Americans claim to believe about individual opinion. Here at home, our culture now celebrates the unassailable value of an individual’s personal beliefs, opinions, and assessments in the search for what is meaningful and true. We are nearly obsessed with things like citizen journalism, blogs, affiliative sorting on the Web (“people who liked this book also liked…”), and “the wisdom of crowds.” Yet when we speak to the Arab world, we deny them the individualism inherent in our domestic life to assert that we can tell “them” with authority what is right and what they ought to believe. But, as “they” can see for themselves, dissent is at the heart of our own system—at least for people we respect. We can’t have it both ways.

The next administration will have to ask a much harder question at a more conceptual level: Can there be such a thing as a “war” of ideas? Does this metaphor make any sense? Do ideas really fight wars against each other; is there such a thing as “overwhelming force,” victory, and unconditional surrender in the realm of ideas? If we think in terms of a war of ideas, we are sending ourselves and the world into a war that can never end.

Metaphor is not policy. But metaphors suggest policies and this is one that does not work. A better metaphor may be a “marketplace of ideas,” where the goal is to facilitate peaceful interchange among and mixing and melding of ideologies—both the ones that we already know, and the new ideological movements that will inevitably arise. In a marketplace of ideas, power comes from the ability to identify social movements as they form, understand deeply what these movements are about and what human impulses they channel, and interact with them within their own language and systems of meaning. The point of a marketplace of ideas is to provide reasonable platforms for debate, discussion, action, and recombination—and occasionally reconciliation—among differing ideologies. A marketplace assumes that outcomes—in this market, some form of truth—will emerge and it assumes that various ideas, ideologies, and facts will serve as the “currency” in the search for that truth. We’re not even close to having the capabilities that would make a marketplace work to our advantage.

It is urgent that we move in that direction. The next administration faces an extraordinary demographic time bomb overlaid on an ideological challenge throughout the developing world. Take Pakistan, for example. About half of Pakistan’s 165 million people are now under the age of 21. When this group of young people thinks of America, they do not reflect on the peaceful end of the Cold War. They do not think of the post-World War II multilateral institutions largely designed by America that helped bring peace to a previous generation. And they certainly don’t think of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington. The images of America burned into their heads come from Abu Ghraib. That is an unfortunate reality that the next administration (and several more after that) will have to face straight on.

Rising China

For the past eight years, the incontrovertible doctrine driving U.S. foreign policy has been that no nation should be allowed to limit American influence and that no rival can be permitted to accumulate enough military or economic clout to pose a future threat to America’s global ambitions.

On paper, a nice idea. In the real world, it’s too late for us to impose our sense of order on the rest of the globe.

Instead, our next president will have to recognize that America is already settling into bipolar competition with a re-emergent China, and that this contest will be a global fact of life for the next several decades. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Two policemen may well find it easier to patrol a bad neighborhood than a single one, and if our next president gets it right, this new bipolar world—as defined cooperatively by Beijing and Washington—could create spectacular mutual benefits. A China that helps defeat global terrorism, stabilizes energy and financial markets, and helps enforce new trade and environmental laws would create tremendous paybacks for millions around the globe.

But get it wrong and the consequences will be dire. We could find ourselves confronting military and strategic struggles across the populous landscape of Asia, Africa, and perhaps Latin America that mirror the ugliest moments of the Cold War waged against the Soviet Union. Add to that the possibility that we would also face a form of brutal economic competition that would make us nostalgic for the trade wars Washington waged with Japan in the mid-1980s.

How is a bipolar relationship different from a simple bilateral relationship? Bipolarity exists when two nations affect each other’s lives at every step of the way, and much more directly than anyone else’s. During the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s, what Russia did was the most important fact of life for American foreign policy makers, and vice versa. In the first decade of the 21st century, Sino-American relations are quickly taking on this bipolar cast.

Consider that today we can already say with confidence that the health of America’s relationship with China helps determine the price of gasoline at the pump; the pace at which nuclear and missile technologies proliferate to unreliable nations or rogue states; and whether international organizations such as the United Nations can function in a meaningful way to stop genocide in Darfur. The nature and pace of China’s development are becoming the most important determinants of the health of our air and whether the earth’s atmosphere will continue to warm beyond environmental sustainability. What happens between Washington and Beijing will set the rules for the world’s security architecture and trade regimes. This is bipolarity, pure and simple.

So delicate and interconnected has the world now become that China’s internal challenges—everything from its economic growth and domestic environmental standards to the sort of Internet and wireless encryption protocols it adopts—have become important drivers affecting the growth trajectory of America’s domestic economy. If the Chinese weren’t aggressive purchasers of U.S. debt, how high would American interest rates be today? And what would that do to the U.S. housing and construction industries, coming off years of unprecedented prosperity? If the Chinese government decides to purchase only open source software for its IT infrastructure, or favors Nokia handsets for its cellular networks, what happens to Microsoft and Motorola?

Bipolar relationships have a long history in world politics. We’ve seen this kind of thing before—not only in the Soviet-American conflict, but in the competition between Germany and Britain in the early 20th century. Whenever any new great power elbows its way onto the world stage, accommodating its rise is difficult because it forces incumbents to not only recalibrate their expectations and strategies for managing the future; it sometimes forces them to rethink their own intrinsic goals.

But China’s rise will be harder still to accommodate because of the sheer size, scale, and scope it possesses—1.3 billion people carry a lot of influence—and because of the extraordinarily rapid pace by which it has vaulted from an agricultural to an industrial giant. As uncomfortable as it may seem in Washington, it is now the case that how China’s political leadership succeeds in its very delicate balancing act of boosting growth while warding off radical political change, or how it manages the inchoate demands for democratization from a rising middle class without inviting instability, will increasingly affect not only China’s political economy but U.S. power and domestic policies, too. As a result, the U.S. will have no choice but to become actively involved in helping to manage and smooth China’s emergence.

The stakes for American foreign policy makers will be very high. Only China’s influence has kept the North Koreans even marginally engaged in negotiations over nuclear weapons. China’s position on Iran is the linchpin to gaining international leverage over that regime. The price of oil is now determined as much by Chinese demand as it is by Saudi supply. The continent of Africa is increasingly at the mercy of Chinese petroleum executives. And there will be no successful conclusion to the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations unless and until Washington and Beijing find common ground.

The next president will have to decide whether China’s growing influence in Asia and in other parts of the world is a longer-term threat to America’s security, or whether Washington and Beijing can find real channels for constructive cooperation. That president will have to define the areas in which the U.S. and China can work cooperatively together, give the Chinese incentives to work with us on those common challenges, isolate those areas of real disagreement, and push actively to change Chinese policy.

The state-to-state game

International politics is ultimately about people and what they want. Because the world is a very big stage on which individuals get to play, people tend to aggregate into groups. In the playground of international politics, we call these groups “countries” or “states.” States, in principle, have geographic boundaries. They are supposed to have governments that write the rules for politics at home and maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence by raising armies. They are also supposed to represent the interests of their people to the world through their relationships with other states.

The boundaries of these states, as well as their capacity to manage the tasks that states are supposed to take care of, have often seemed messy, imperfect, and unstable—and remain so today. But organizing international politics around the state-to-state game has had important benefits. State-to-state bargains created the rules for international politics. Laws of war, peace treaties, international organizations such as the UN and the WTO—all these are deals among states, agreements that bring some degree of order to a world without global government. The underlying logic has been this: States generally manage domestic politics on their own, and make deals with one another to manage international politics as best they can.

This bargain has never been perfect or static. Some things that states want to call “internal issues,” such as religious freedoms and antitrust regulation, have leaked into the international realm, and vice versa. It’s been a constant negotiation (and sometimes a battle) to set the boundaries between these realms. But never in modern history has a single country sought to unilaterally recast these bargains as aggressively and decisively as has the Bush administration.

Consider these contradictions: The U.S. reinforced its own boundaries and autonomy as a state by rejecting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Treaty to combat global warming. It threatened the UN with irrelevance in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. It made a deal with India that essentially bypasses the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because India is our “ally,” while at the same time it invokes the same treaty to legitimize action against Iran because Iran isn’t an “ally.” Like them or not, all of these are state-to-state deals. But we then turned it upside down. We have asked the WTO to develop a global surveillance system for infectious disease that could reach down into the countryside of nations reluctant to report openly about avian flu. And during the second Bush term, the U.S. aggressively engaged in a multi-pronged campaign using military, economic, diplomatic, and other levers to promote democracy as the only legitimate form of governance in other states.

Making democracy promotion a core foreign policy doctrine breaks the “state to state” bargain in fundamental ways. This is not a one-time intervention of the sort we might undertake in the wake of massive state failure, humanitarian disaster, or other exceptional event. It is not a quixotic Jimmy Carter-esque effort to imbue U.S. foreign policy with a human rights component. It is a systematic claim by the United States that we get a massive say in the domestic political arrangements other states create for themselves.

The important problem here is not the seeming hypocrisy, or even whether these actions are in and of themselves good or evil. The problem is the political friction that results from the disequilibrium; the grinding of gears between different vectors that at once reinforce and undermine the overarching state-to-state bargain at the core of world politics.

The Bush administration has now put into play the most basic question of what it means to be a sovereign state—what rights, responsibilities, authority, and accountability come along with that, and what it takes for a political unit to “deserve” those things. It may be right to raise these questions. A globalizing, technologically connected, climatically interdependent world probably needs a serious rethinking of some fundamental bargains. But the Bush administration hasn’t put forward any viable alternative bargains or even partial concepts to replace what it has torn apart. It hasn’t opened up real channels for collaboration with others in working toward or even thinking about replacement bargains. In the absence of either, we’re left with what 18th- or 19th-century diplomatic theorists would call “normal foreign policy.” There are no general principles, no norms of reciprocity, and no fundamental limits to the exercise of power. If you are a friend of the U.S., many things are possible. If you are not, almost nothing is.

The 2009 administration will need to put forward a new theory of sovereignty. It may sound like an abstraction, but it’s not—it’s a core set of guiding principles for negotiating the domestic/international boundary, and it will have immediate implications for foreign policy behavior. Consider the future of “democracy promotion.” In our view, democracy promotion was never deeply embedded in American foreign policy thought. Rather, it was a substitute rationale for the Iraq war after the non-discovery of weapons of mass destruction. From there it conveniently spread to become a motivating mantra that played well with domestic audiences—until it became visibly expensive, in places such as Iraq, Palestine, and Venezuela.

Our next administration—whether Democratic or Republican—will have to recapture a sense of humility, pull back from this mantra, and unravel some of the mistaken policies that democracy promotion has created. This will be costly, because our rhetoric and our actions over the past several years have changed expectations and altered the landscape of political groups in vital parts of the world. What will reformers in Egypt do when the U.S. assures Hosni Mubarak of our unconditional support? What will aspiring opponents of Hugo Chavez think? Russian democrats who dare to stand up to Vladimir Putin? The list goes on. The trick will be to minimize the collateral damage to our friends, our interests, and the long-term prospects for democratic change. It won’t be easy.

Rebalancing globalization

“Flat world” rhetoric aside, Americans can no longer take the process of globalization for granted. Our next president will have to ensure that the process of global integration becomes more equitable, more inclusive, and more effective at distributing wealth—or risk the collapse of the entire process.

Not that along ago, the world seemed to revel in the power of globalization to generate wealth, create new visions of prosperity, and even “end history” with the triumph of liberal capitalism over any potential ideological competitors. Globalization, inevitable and robust, would integrate and enrich the world. Over time, it was the tide that would lift all boats. Globalization would make the exchange of commerce and culture more robust, help bring prosperity and middle-class values to millions, and ensure that the United States would continue to be the biggest winner as commercial and cultural barriers fell. As Internet commerce and voice-over-Internet telecommunications knit markets together, and satellite dishes drew the world’s cultures ever closer, the American lifestyle would emerge as the preferred objective for most of the world’s population. After all, whether in Jakarta or Karachi or Riyadh or Sao Paolo, viewers everywhere seemed to love “Baywatch” and MTV, wear jeans, and drink Coke.

Today, that Hollywood storyline sounds painfully naïve. Our next president will have to confront a much more complex reality. One piece of that reality is that, for many in the developed world, the negative aspects of globalization—avian flu, computer piracy, theft of intellectual property, and global terrorism—seem to be outpacing the positive payoffs. More profoundly, the benefits of globalization never actually touched the lives of the majority of people on the planet. With the exception of China, life in much of the developing world is as bad or worse than it was 20 years ago. The dirty little secret of globalization is this: There could be at least 3 billion people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have nothing to lose, and probably something to gain, from a decline in American influence and a backward trajectory of globalization.

The U.S. needs to face this crisis and fix it, because no one has benefited more from the accelerated pace of globalization in the past 15 years than we have. Foreign trade now accounts for more than a quarter of our national economy. It is cheaper today for Americans to purchase textiles, computers, home appliances, and thousands of other products because they are built by low-cost labor in the rest of the world. We spend more than we save, and the rest of the world accumulates the resulting dollar surplus, holding off inflation. The outcry over “outsourcing” and “offshoring,” which in fact affect a vanishingly small proportion of American jobs, just shows how much we take for granted the benefits of a liberalizing world economy.

Some version of those benefits has been promised to the rest of the world. And time is running out.

Our next president needs to reinvigorate the logic for globalization—not simply by pressing for greater debt relief for the developing world or for conclusion of global trade negotiations. He or she will need to cut domestic farm subsidies that penalize subsistence farmers in Africa and Latin America who need to export their crops to wealthy foreign markets without government aid. He or she will need to triple foreign aid to developing nations for basic infrastructure, and lean hard on the pharmaceutical pricing regime that deprives most of the world’s population of essential medicines. He or she will need to help developing nations invest in environmental projects to protect water resources and slow the production of greenhouse gases. And most important, the U.S. will need to seriously confront the rising degree of inequality that is creating islands of prosperity amid oceans of starvation and poverty.

We cannot pretend for much longer that we are not the world’s richest nation, and that with that wealth come certain responsibilities—not only to fight terror but also to offer the dispossessed a stake in a global society.

Steven Weber is a professor of political science and director of the Institute of International Studies. He is the author of The Success of Open Source (Harvard, 2004). His most recent article, “Open Source: A Double Bind,” appeared in the March/April issue of California.
Michael Zielenziger is a visiting scholar in International Studies. His book Shutting Out the Sun, about hikikomori—Japan’s lost generation—was published in September by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. His article, “Extreme Science,” appeared in the September/October California issue on climate change.

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

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