Thursday, 3 February 2011

Time to Cut Ties With Mubarak

Will the Egyptian revolution of 2011 be a repeat of the Iranian revolution of 1979, when a U.S.-backed dictator was replaced by a virulently anti-Western Islamic theocracy? Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum thinks so. Last Friday, Santorum warned:

"We abandoned [the shah] and what we got in exchange was ... a radical Islamist regime. That happening in Egypt would have a profound effect on the Middle East.”

Now the Iranian government itself is claiming that Egyptians are following Khomeini's lead, albeit with a 32-year delay.

We don't yet know where this popular uprising will lead, and outcomes far less benign than pluralist democracy are certainly possible. But the Iranian scenario seems an unlikely fit in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood is relatively moderate by the standards of many Islamist organizations (see here and here). Besides, it's just one player among many in Egypt's uprising, with a limited following. Indeed, there is no obvious individual in Egypt who can impose an ideological vision on the revolution like Khomeini did. Secular opposition groups and the Brotherhood have rallied around Mohamed ElBaradei as an informal spokesman, but the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (who has often expressed his admiration for President Obama in the past) is hardly Khomeini's heir.

The more realistic concern is not an Egyptian theocracy, but a new military dictatorship. The military defied Mubarak by refusing to fire on protestors (so far). But even if the generals oust him, that doesn’t necessarily mean they'll embrace democracy. It will be tempting for the military to simply replace Mubarak with a new strongman from their ranks. And the risk of a military consolidation of power grows more likely as Mubarak lingers, fomenting chaos in the streets.

So what should the U.S. government do? After a week of dithering, the Obama administration was right to call for Mubarak's rapid departure. (This position finally puts him on the same page with the protestors, who rejected Mubarak's pledge to finish his term in office.) But the U.S. has only cut off Mubarak rhetorically. It is meaningless to demand reforms while assuring Egypt's military that we will continue to provide $1.3 billion in annual aid.

In an interview Monday, Secretary Clinton stated: "There is no discussion of cutting off aid.Assistant Secretary of State  P.J. Crowley commented earlier this week that "If aid is used in a way that is contrary to our laws, our policies and our values, you know, we'll make adjustments as we need to." As the Egyptian government directed armed (and apparently bribed) mobs to attack protestors journalists, and human rights workers, Crowley confirmed today that Washington still has no plans to cut off funds. What precisely does Mubarak need to do before the Obama administration decides his actions are contrary to American values?

Egyptians have a right to choose who will lead them, and America has no place picking a leader for them. But we do have a responsibility not to support a government which denies them that right. The United States should pledge to withdraw security aid to Cairo if Mubarak does not resign soon. And if he does go, we should make clear that continued U.S. assistance is contingent on the government taking credible steps toward free elections and refraining from violence against peaceful demonstrators.

If Egyptians want our help during a transition to democracy, we should also offer election monitors, advisors on judicial reform, and other forms of technical assistance. (And we should not provide selective assistance to particular parties that we want to win elections.) And crucially, we should promise to continue aid to any government Egyptians elect, provided it is committed to respecting democratic practices and human rights, even if such a government includes politicians from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The real lesson of Iran for the U.S. is the danger of propping up tyrants. Wholeheartedly embracing Egypt’s democratic aspirations is not just the right thing to do. It’s also in America's interest, if we want to maintain a sustainable alliance with Egypt after Mubarak is gone. Because Egyptians will remember how we acted when it mattered most. It's time to cut off their oppressor.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

How Do You Create a World of Altruists?

Jeremy Rifkin gave a great talk (with stimulating animated accompaniment) a few months ago on the need to strengthen empathy among human beings on a global scale. Rikfin's  motivation to study the development of empathy -- or what the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers called "sympathy" and which we could also call altruism -- seems to be based on two ideas. First, empathy is a fundamental aspect of human nature and we can only flourish emotionally if we are able to express it rather than repress it. Second, identifying with others' well-being can promote cooperation. Only if humans can extend our empathy to the point where we identify with people around the world, Rifkin asserts, will we be able to work together to "save our species and save our planet."

In my master's dissertation, I am currently exploring this issue of how empathic or altruistic values develop in a society. (Basically I think altruistic values are spread through the power of example: what begins as a small group of altruistic individuals working for the common good grows into a social movement as others are inspired to emulate them. Here's a visual analogy.) Rifkin approaches this question in part by looking into the historical nitty-gritty of when and how people's circles of empathy have widened. (An interesting corrollary would be to look at why people's empathy has often contracted, with groups becoming more antagonistic than they were before.)

One particular observation caught my imagination: communications revolutions (and also, he suggests, the expansion of global markets) have historically tended to lead to expanded circles of empathy. Our ancestors used to identify only with their family or tribe, but as writing and printing developed people later began to imagine themselves as members of much larger groups such as religions and nations.

Why should communications technology matter for the growth of empathy? Here a few hypotheses. (And I would love to get your feedback in the comments section. Which one - or combination - seems most plausible? What other hypotheses would you propose?)

1. Let's start with the most obvious. Having more contact with and information about people in distant regions humanizes them in our eyes. We are more likely to see people as being like us if we know more about them and so we care more about their suffering. (Rikfin cites the digital media which quickly made people around the world aware of the suffering of Haitians after the recent earthquake, and moved many to send aid or even travel to Haiti to volunteer.)

2. Greater communication (and trade) leads to greater interdependence which makes the practical and moral imperative for empathy and cooperation all the more obvious and compelling.

3. Faster, easier, more accessible modes of communication make it easier for altruists to get their message out to other altruists. Rifkin's talk on empathy - posted on youtube and viewed by over 300,000 people as of this writing - is an example in itself of how communications technology can help spread empathy. (Of course, nastier values can be spread this way too. But since altruists by definition want to benefit others, there is reason to hope they would be more motivated than their rivals to get their message out. It's just a hope though.)

4. Greater communication fosters shared knowledge which, as Michael Chwe has argued, is crucial to cooperation. (Yes, I have referenced Chwe's theory in three posts in a row now. No, I will not apologize -- the man has useful ideas.) If my tribe wants to become more empathic, and we know your tribe does too, and we know you know we know, etc., then becoming more empathic and cooperative is less risky than without such common knowledge. (If we don't know what your tribe is thinking, we might fear that being friendly will leave us vulnerable to getting double-crossed.)

If we can figure out why empathy has grown in the past, we just might be able to figure out how to expand it further in the future.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Libs, Labour Lost

Britain is hungover this morning: after a late night waiting for election results, the country woke up this morning with a hung parliament. The Conservatives gained more than 90 seats on balance while falling short of a majority in Parliament, and Labour managed to lose almost as many seats. At this point, no one knows for sure who will form the new government. (Although a minority Tory government is looking increasingly likely.) But one thing is clear: Cleggmania fizzled. Despite the surge in the Liberal Democrats' popularity after the televised debates between Brown, Cameron, and Clegg, the Liberals somehow managed to lose 5 seat.

What happened is that Lib Dem supporters failed to get over that coordination problem I was talking about: a lot of people who wanted to vote for the Liberals didn't because they thought they couldn't win. A Times of London poll taken on the eve of the election found that "nearly a quarter of those not intending to vote Lib Dem say that they would have done so if they had believed that the party 'had a real chance of winning.'" But of course, the Lib Dems couldn't win, these voters thought, so better to play it safe and vote for one of the major parties.

The funny thing is though, they could have won. "If these voters had backed the Lib Dems, they would have won 39 per cent, against 31 per cent for the Tories and 22 per cent for Labour." Even with Britain's quirky electoral system, that would have given the Lib Dems a plurality of seats in Parliament. In other words, if each Lib Dem supporter had realized how many other Lib Dem supporters there were, the Conservatives and Labour would now be competing to become the junior partner in the Clegg administration.

It's easy to dismiss poll watching as a shallow distraction from the issues. But in this case, if those poll results had been publicized more widely, it would have empowered a huge swathe of the country to elect the party they felt truly represented them.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Great Cleggspectations: A Cleggstravaganza of Cleggcitement!

Howard Dean speculated at the end of March that Nick Clegg (the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the perennial third party of British politics) could be the UK's next prime minister. And that was before Clegg surged in the polls after last week's debate with David Cameron and Gordon Brown, with most putting the Lib Dems ahead of Labour and one poll even putting them ahead of both major parties. OK, the idea of the Liberal Democrats actually winning a parliamentary majority still seems a bit far fetched. But this is a good time for British voters (and us curious onlookers) to ask, why exactly?

Sure, part of the answer is that the quirks of Britain's electoral system mean that the Lib Dems' share of seats in Parliament is usually less than its share of the vote. But the real problem is the classic dilemma faced by any third party in a system dominated by two parties: people don't want to throw their vote away on a party that can't win. As Clegg himself acknowledge at his party's conference last September, "I know there are people who agree with a lot of what we've got to say, but who still don't vote Liberal Democrat. You don't think we're contenders."

Of course, sometimes voting for a third party really is a waste, like when Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 on the Green Party ticket. America's Green Party commands such low levels of support that even if everybody who wanted a Nader presidency had voted for him, he would still presumably have lost.

But the Lib Dems have considerably more support than the U.S. Greens. If Clegg's thinking is right, the portion of British voters who want a Lib Dem government is probably even higher than the 30% or so who currently plan to vote for them. Other evidence bears this out. A recent YouGov poll found that Clegg has a net approval rating of 72%, higher than anything Tony Blair ever achieved, and lightyears ahead of Cameron at 19% and Brown at negative 18%. And 53% of Britons now say they would like to see a hung parliament, in which no party had a majority and Clegg would likely get to choose between a coalition with the Tories or with Labour. If all the people who really preffered the Lib Dems voted accordingly, they might actually win. At the very least, they would certainly hold the balance of power in Parliament.

So what we have here is a failure to communicate, or what nerdy social science types like myself call a coordination problem: a lot of British voters would vote Lib Dem if they knew a lot of other people would too. But of course others might not vote Lib Dem, because they don't know how everyone else is going to vote, in which case voting Lib Dem would be a waste. It's a chicken and Clegg problem.

In Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge, UCLA political scientist Michael Chwe discusses how to get a group to act in its collective self-interest in these maddening situations. The key is for everyone to know that everyone else is willing to act (and for everyone to know that everyone knows it). Public rituals are a great way to create this common knowledge because you can see that a lot of other people are watching what you're watching and thus know what you know. And in the modern age, one of the most widespread public rituals of all is watching TV. (Even though you are watching in the privacy of your own home, you know a lot of other people are watching too.)

The Lib Dems seem to have figured this out when they ran an interesting ad in 1997 starring John Cleese (dug up by the New York Times blog The Lede). In it, the ex-Python tells viewers that polls show half of them would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they could win. A Lib Dem voter might wonder: Why is he telling me whom I support? But of course he's really telling you millions of other voters want to vote Lib Dem if they can win -- and quite a lot of them are watching this ad and now know they can. So, Cleese implies, you ought to vote Lib Dem after all.

Obviously this stratagem didn't work out in '97. So if most Britons want a Lib Dem government -- or might again some day -- how does the party get from here to victory? Chwe's theory suggests that the recent media frenzy over the Lib Dem surge will lead to common knowledge that the party is actually pretty popular. Voters will realize that voting Lib Dem isn't a waste at all because there's a real chance of them joining a coalition government. If Clegg pulls off that feat, especially if his party comes in at least second place in the vote share, the outcome will reinforce the common knowledge that the Lib Dems really are electoral contenders. And in the next general election, the Liberal Democrats' supporters may be sufficiently emboldened to send their leader all the way to the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Which side of history are we on?

Last week's kerfuffle in Kyrgyzstan reminded me of Amartya Sen's comment in Development as Freedom about the notion that some cultures aren't suited to democracy: such assertions are more likely to be made by the powerful than by the ordinary people subjected to their rule. A few weeks ago, Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that "the model of democracy that was accepted in the last century and that was based mainly on elections and human rights" wasn't really suited to modern-day Kyrgyzstan. (This was a ballsy statement coming from the guy who was swept into power by the 2005 "Tulip Revolution," which protested the rigging of elections by the previous government.) The opposition protesters who toppled Bakiyev's government on April 7 begged to differ. “You can call this a revolution. You can call this a people’s revolt,” said the interim leader of the new government, Roza Otunbayeva. “Either way, it is our way of saying that we want justice and democracy.”

There is no excuse for the violence carried out by many of those protesters, any more than for the violence employed against them by the police. But this uprising reflects undeniable frustration with the growing corruption and repression of the Bakiyev government. And it calls into question the Obama administration's reluctance to defend democratic values -- with strong policies, not just rhetoric.

There are numerous rationales offered for not supporting democracy abroad. Some scholars, such as John Gray, agree with Bakiyev that liberal democracy is simply undesirable for non-Western societies. Others think, however desirable the spread of democracy might be, that pragmatism demands sacrificing democracy promotion in favor of other goals. For instance, Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs that "Obama is fully justified in putting the democratization agenda on the back burner and basing U.S. diplomacy toward other states on their external behavior, not their regime type. Even repressive regimes can be reliably cooperative when it comes to their conduct of foreign policy."

Events like those in Kyrgyzstan belie these notions. First, because they underscore that the desire for political participation extends well beyond the Western world. Second, because uncritical U.S. support for repressive regimes has a way of coming back to haunt us. Dictators fall, but resentment lasts. You would think we would have learned this lesson after our unfortunate experience with the Shah of Iran.

In Kyrgyzstan, both the Bush and Obama administrations gave Bakiyev a free pass on human rights and democracy for fear of jeopardizing our access to Kyrgyzstan's Manas airbase (which we use to deliver troops and supplies to Afghanistan). It looks like we'll hang on to the base by the skin of our teeth despite Kyrgyzstan's change of government, but as the New York Times reports, U.S. policy toward Bakiyev has put us on the wrong foot with the new leadership: "The American attitude toward Mr. Bakiyev ruffled opposition politicians in Kyrgyzstan, who said it was shameful for the United States to stand for democratic values in the developing world while maintaining an alliance with him." Our willingness to put principle aside in the past may have actually made it more difficult to win Kyrgyzstan's cooperation in the future.

Egypt may offer Obama a chance for redemption. There are clear signs that Egyptians want to see democratic reform in their country. The day before the revolt in Bishkek, a couple hundred citizens in Cairo demonstrated for greater political freedom and civil liberties (and were harshly suppressed by the police). Mohammed ElBaradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency), who has been advocating for genuine democracy in Egypt and who may run in next year's presidential election, is broadly popular. (When I visited Egypt recently, no one had anything good to say about Mubarak, and a couple people openly expressed support for ElBaradei. One man, after denouncing Bush and praising Obama said: "Bush and Mubarak are the same. And Obama and Baradei are the same.")

But while Obama and State Department officials say the right things about democracy in Egypt, they have slashed funding for democracy assistance programs that support local, independent NGOs in Egypt. What funds America does provide are now channeled exclusively to NGOs approved by the Egyptian government.

Of course, given Egypt's strategic importance in the Middle East, the administration has to maintain a cooperative relationship with its government. But at the same time, the U.S. must push its ally to allow its people a say in how they are ruled, and support local activists who are trying to hold their government accountable. Otherwise we will be seen by Egyptians as complicit in their repression.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a great article today analyzing how Obama's realpolitik foreign policy de-emphasizes human rights and democracy.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Karl Popper and the Iraq War

"It is difficult enough to be critical of our own mistakes, but it must be nearly impossible for us to persist in a critical attitude towards those of our actions which involve the lives of many men. To put it differently, it is very hard to learn from very big mistakes."

When I read this quote, from Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism, I immediately thought of Tony Blair's recent appearance before the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war, where he said he had no regrets for leading Britain into the war in Iraq. Of course Bush's lack of regret - on any issue, let alone ordering the invasion of Iraq - is infamous. Even John Kerry, having caved to political pressure to support the war in 2003, couldn't bring himself in 2004 to say he had made a mistake in voting to authorize military action.

Interestingly, the quote comes from a discussion of social engineering in which Popper mentions, as an example, "the question of how to export democracy to the Middle East." Popper was not opposed to social engineering per se. He believed in "piecemeal social engineering," which he contrasted with Utopianism: the violent remaking of entire societies in one big push. Utopianism, Popper argued, is based on an unscientific attitude. Utopians eschew self-criticism, believing their ideology gives them all the answers. And when their plans go disastrously wrong, they don't learn from their mistakes - they lash out at their critics.

The case of regime change in Iraq, and its protagonists' continued refusal to learn from their catastrophic mistake, is a painful testament to Popper's observation. At the inquiry, Blair went so far as to say that his policy on Iraq should now be applied to Iran. But if the politicians who precipitated the Iraq war are unrepentant, it is heartening that the lessons of that fiasco have not been lost on their citizens. (I believe the British public was ahead of the curve in rejecting the war, but Americans eventually came around too. More than half believed the war was a mistake by June 2004.) Bush and Blair may refuse to criticize themselves, but they hardly escaped criticism from others. And the criticism has had political consequences, such as the Republican loss of Congress and the White House between 2006 and 2008. That silver lining underscores another of Popper's themes: that the primary virtue of liberal societies is their openness to critical debate, and thus to self-correction.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

What next for Obama?

The Democrats are pretty much screwed, right? On January 19, the bluest of blue states, Massachusetts, elected Republican Scott Brown to the Senate, taking away the Dems’ sweet filibuster-proof super-majority. Democrats couldn’t get much of anything done with the super-majority, so how are they going to get anything done without it?

Well hang on a mo. Most presidents have managed to get by just fine without the kind of total Congressional hegemony the Democrats enjoyed during President Obama’s first year in office. In fact, Reagan and Clinton achieved oodles of legislative wins with one or both chambers of Congress in opposition hands for most of their respective terms in office.

So should Obama tack to the right, like Clinton did after 1994? Or should he emulate Reagan’s steely ideological approach and play to his base?

None of the above.

Obama’s State of the Union address – and his recent appearance at the House Republicans’ conference in Baltimore – suggest he’s going a different direction altogether. And I like his instincts.

First, let’s remember the context. This is not 1994. So far at least, the Democrats have not lost control of either chamber of Congress. They lost one seat. The repercussions of losing that seat are admittedly significant, but Brown’s victory is not evidence of a massive national backlash against Obama. The president’s approval ratings have dipped from their initially high levels, but they are still slightly higher than his disapproval ratings. So a dramatic shift to the right seems a tad premature. Thankfully Obama is playing it cool as usual. [Sadly this link does not work in the U.K. and possibly other exotic locales.] Obama’s steady-handed State of the Union address – in which he pointedly noted that his party still has large majorities in both houses – tells me that he hasn’t lost his perspective.

Secondly, in both the SOTU and Baltimore, the president emphasized an old theme of his: eschewing ideology. Being non-ideological or pragmatic is not the same thing as being centrist, a point that Democrats have often forgotten since Bill Clinton first took office. (Knee-jerk centrism is an ideological position too.) It means, as Obama often says, a willingness to embrace good ideas from either side of the political spectrum so long as they work. As he said in New Hampshire on Tuesday: “You got a better idea, bring it on.” A non-ideological approach is likely to appeal to independent voters, and that in turn would put pressure on Republican legislators in swing districts to occasionally work with the Democrats.

Lastly, to get much done, Obama needs to bring greater civility to Washington. No easy task. But if Democrats can avoid the temptation to demonize the other side, and a few Republicans can be persuaded to put solving national problems ahead of scoring political points, it could mean the difference between a year of major accomplishments and another year like 2009.

When he dropped in on the House Republicans’ conference the other day, President Obama showed what an ethic of civility looks like in action. The last clip is a brilliant case study. (It's the one called "I'll go through it with you line by line." Don't worry, he doesn't actually go through anything line by line.) Obama contrasts examples of destructive and constructive ways the Republicans could engage in debate while exemplifying civility himself in the way he recognizes Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his “legitimate” ideas. And the president shows that civility does not equal weakness: he sets the factual record straight concerning the deficit, and explains why he mostly disagrees with Ryan's proposal.

At the very least, if Congressional Democrats follow the president’s lead and head for the moral high ground, they’ll probably strengthen public support for their legislative goals. And who knows, maybe some Republican legislators would even be moved to reciprocate the civility. It would be sort of like when The Grinch heard all the little Whos in Whoville singing Christmas songs and decided to give back their Christmas presents.

Sorry, is that uncivil to compare Republicans to The Grinch? I’m not saying that Republicans are heartless. Just that they hate Christmas.