Opinion

The Great Debate

from David Rohde:

The devil who can’t deliver

Picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes on the Aleppo police academy, after capture by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

MOSCOW – After marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry here Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted that Moscow may finally pressure Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to leave office.

“We are not interested in the fate of certain individuals,” Lavrov said at a late night news conference. “We are interested in the fate of the Syrian people.”

Lavrov and Kerry announced that they would host an international conference where Syrian government officials and rebels will be given a chance to name an interim government. The odds of the two sides agreeing are low but Kerry deserves credit for securing a small diplomatic step forward here.

The problem is that Lavrov and his boss – President Vladimir Putin – may be unable to deliver on Assad. For nearly two years, Lavrov and Putin have served as the Syrian leaders’ chief diplomatic ally but Iran has provided far more military support. Russian analysts say Washington is kidding itself if it believes Putin can orchestrate a quick and easy Assad exit.

‘Post-Communist’ Russia and China remain remarkably the same

For a Russian to live in Beijing is to experience time travel. Things long gone in Russia, or stuffed into kitschy theme bars to draw tourists, still appear in China with no sense of irony. There are endless displays of hammer-and-sickles, Red stars, and exhortations to Obey the Communist Party. There’s the rhetorical deification of the worker and the peasant. “Public-security volunteers,” elderly men and women with red arm-bands and a lot of time on their hands, lounge on little folding stools, sizing up passers-by. There are five-year plans, and front-page headlines screaming “Socialist path reaffirmed”.  I thought I left all of this in the 1980s’ Leningrad. But no, it’s all still here in Beijing, instantly recognizable even behind Chinese characters that give it  a new spin. All of which makes it tempting to think how  Russia and China have changed over the last 20 years.

But in fact the opposite is true: their political systems  remain remarkably similar. Both ditched Communism a while back. The only difference is Russia ditched the trappings while China held onto them. The system that emerged in both places operates with fewer overt ideological constraints but with a singular mission: the self-perpetuation of the ruling elite.

Oddly enough, the Chinese version might be slightly more pluralistic than the Russian one because Beijing focuses on the preservation of power in the hands of one party, while Moscow is obsessed with the preservation of power in the hands of one man. The Chinese have a history of tightly choreographed handovers of power from one crop of party leaders to the next. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been able to give the appearance of letting go of power only when he knows it’s coming straight back to him.

Russian business needs long-term thinking

Russia’s political developments make headlines, but it’s the country’s business development and demographics that are central to its longer-term prosperity. Russia experienced a massive, rapid ownership transformation in the 1990s and is undergoing another one today. Although more gradual than before, the current transformation exposes a profound problem: an emerging leadership gap in business.

The current generation of business owners is not thinking about how best to transfer control of their sizable companies, apart from selling them. And a younger generation is largely unwilling or unable to take over.

This lack of vision has serious consequences. The Family Business Institute notes that “family business failures can essentially be traced to one factor: an unfortunate lack of family business succession planning.” In Russia, succession is especially important because the country is experiencing its first major generational transfer, which should set the foundation for evolution. A shortage of buyers and leaders is a further blight on the future.

Obama’s aims to reduce nuclear threat

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will reportedly reiterate his interest in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons, though unlikely to announce specifics. The administration is interested in seeking an agreement with Russia, building on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 2010 and cutting U.S. strategic nuclear forces by another third in the expectation that Moscow will do the same with its nuclear arsenal.

This would leave each country with roughly 1,000 deployed long-range warheads, plus several thousand more in reserve and in tactical arsenals.

It would be an appropriately modest step toward serious pursuit of Obama’s (and President Ronald Reagan’s) goal of a nuclear-free world. With 1,000 warheads, the U.S. nuclear arsenal would remain more than capable of targeting any reasonable set of military sites abroad. Washington and Moscow would also avoid tempting any medium-size nuclear powers, most notably China, with its 250 or so warheads, to pursue nuclear superpower ranks.

Assessing the resiliency of Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job’s importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton’s unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history — at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

Who will be Rockefellers of BRIC nations?

John D. Rockefeller’s immense wealth made “rich as a Rockefeller” part of the lexicon. But his legacy rests not on what he earned. As the founder of Standard Oil and the richest person in history, Rockefeller donated so much money during his life that he needed a team of philanthropy specialists to distribute it. The result was the Rockefeller Foundation, chartered in 1913 “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”

Much as the Gilded Age in the United States created titans like Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, the economic success of emerging powers has produced a new class of multimillionaires and multibillionaires. Brazil, Russia, India and China are home to 276 billionaires, according to the most recent Forbes list, almost a quarter of the world’s total. Many have begun to focus on what Carnegie called “the business of benevolence.” This nascent trend is poised to grow. But it requires support if philanthropy is to meet its potential to tackle the developing world’s socioeconomic challenges.

Philanthropy is a powerful tool because its contributions can go well beyond money. Many emerging donors are prominent citizens because of their business success. This gives them familiarity with their countries’ economic and policy issues as well as an ability to influence the national agenda. They can invest not just financial resources but also expertise and connections that can bolster the projects they support.

Why ‘peace’ was catchphrase in presidential debate

Foreign policy attempted to take center stage at the presidential debate Monday evening but failed resoundingly. For the candidates agreed to agree on a number of key issues — the timeline for ending America’s longest war, support for Israel, and the importance of diplomacy and sanctions in Iran. Nation-building at home trumped nation-building abroad, and small business won as many mentions from the nominees as the death of Osama bin Laden. It was no accident that the contenders talked about teachers more than Libya.

What both President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney made clear to a nation exhausted by one decade of two bloody wars: The era of big military interventions is over. Romney, who earlier in the campaign sounded poised to embrace a more activist foreign policy, embraced a loudly centrist worldview that eschewed saber-rattling in favor of promoting entrepreneurship and civil society.

“Peaceful” was the night’s catchphrase for Romney, who told the president, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” This key word is likely to resonate with the women voters his campaign now sees as both critical to victory and open to his more centrist message.

Obama, Romney missing the point on Libya

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in Monday’s foreign policy debate are again likely to examine the administration’s handling of an Islamic militia’s murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its significance for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, they may again miss the crucial question raised by the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans: Why is Libya at the mercy of hundreds of lawless militias and without a functioning state one year after U.S. and NATO support enabled rebels to overthrow dictator Muammar Ghadaffi?

What both presidential nominees fail to see is that the United States and its allies went beyond their (and the U.N.’s) declared objective of protecting civilian areas under threat of attack to promoting rapid and violent regime change. This left the country in the hands of a fledgling rebel political leadership, which has tenuous control over the country’s militia groups.

So what is Romney’s foreign policy?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave his “Mantle of Leadership” speech Monday – his third major attempt in a year to outline his views on foreign policy.

In a speech filled with rhetoric rather than substance, and with repeated and false accusations about President Barack Obama’s national security record, Romney once again talked about how he would “strengthen our partnerships” – and once again failed to explain how he would manage relations with our friends in Europe, with whom we work closely on every major global challenge.

One central thesis in Romney’s speech, and in his criticism of the administration overall, has been that under Obama the U.S. has abandoned its allies. In addition to providing no evidence to support this claim, Romney barely mentioned the closest U.S. allies: our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. In fact, this neglect has been a consistent theme throughout Romney’s campaign.

The great paradox of Hobsbawm’s choice

The words “communist” and “socialist” are now used so recklessly in the United States that their meaning has been devalued. But Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian who died Oct. 1, was the real deal.

Born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Hobsbawm used Karl Marx as the inspiration for both his personal politics and his successful transformation of our understanding of history. He was an unabashed and unwavering supporter of communism in theory and practice, who only let his party membership lapse at the final moment, when the Berlin Wall fell.

His singular contribution to the telling of the human story was to reject the traditional method of viewing history through the actions of great men and women, in favor of describing the larger economic and social tides on which leading figures are often mere flotsam. Though history was usually taught through the lives of kings and queens, Hobsbawm demonstrated that economic and social history offered a fuller explanation of why events happened. He also gave prominence to previously ignored political agitators, whose courageous actions obliged leaders to agree to benign reforms.

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